This story was originally published in 2016, before COVID-19.
When it comes to restaurants in Baja California, no name is more important than Javier Plascencia. The son of successful Tijuana restaurateurs, he's the face of Baja cuisine, a chef who's built his own reputation on a slew of always-crowded restaurants that flaunt the region's exceptional bounty and its rich mix of immigrant cuisines. His flagship is Mision 19, an upscale stunner on the second floor of a sleek Tijuana office building. And his nearby cevicheria, Erizo, uses tacos and tostadas as palettes to express the colors and flavors of the local catch. When shows like Top Chef and The Taste want to feature a Baja restaurant luminary, Plascencia is the man they call.
Lately, Plascencia's name has also accrued currency just north of Tijuana, across the border in San Diego. He's had one foot in Southern California for over a decade — since 2005, he and his family have run a "Mexiterranean bistro" in Southern California called Romesco. But in July of last year, Plascencia and his business partner, Luis Peña (who is also his brother-in-law), opened Bracero Cocina De Raiz in San Diego's trendy Little Italy. It's a 4,800-square-foot wonderment of mixed woods, concrete, glass walls, and the kind of textured tiles you long to run your hands over, with a high-end Mexican menu that weaves in some dishes from Plascencia's Tijuana restaurants — and also offers some citrus-splashed, wood-kissed originals all its own.
Mision 19 and Bracero sit twenty miles from one another, yet each dwells in an entirely distinct world. The restaurants are separated by the busiest border crossing in the Western hemisphere: 5.5 million people traverse the line each month between San Diego and Tijuana. All of Plascencia's restaurants celebrate his roots and the region's culinary breadth, and his restaurants on either side of the line meet the needs of their cities in precise, illuminating ways. How the chef approaches the task of feeding each city hints at answers to a tantalizing question: What difference does a border make?
For most people north of the border, Tijuana is still stereotyped as a zone of touristy debauchery. Established in 1889, Tijuana cemented its reputation as a playground for Americans during Prohibition, when Hollywood high-rollers crossed the border to enjoy liquor, gambling, and other pleasures no longer legal in California. But even three quarters of a century after the twenty-first Amendment passed in 1933, Tijuana has remained a city synonymous with cheap, sometimes illicit entertainment. "TJ" remains a punchline, a shorthand for hangovers and bad behavior.
Plascencia champions a more holistic vision of Tijuana, and his fine dining restaurant Mision 19 embodies his civic pride. It's a thoroughly formal restaurant: dim lights, white tablecloths, and panoramic views of the city through picture windows. One long, red banquette runs dramatically along the side of the room. Servers clad in black glide efficiently across the floor. Diners have the option of choosing a tasting menu (four or six courses) or ordering a la carte; the menu evolves seasonally, but always includes the restaurant's signature scallop parfait, and nearly every table orders it. A slender, silver-edged glass arrives, containing sliced poached scallop hiding in layers of crema, diced cucumber, drifts of avocado meringue, Meyer lemon caramel, and flickers of chiltepin, a fiery Sonoran chile. The server instructs you to slowly mix all the ingredients together before the first bite. The effect is sundae-like, but the sweetness is oceanic and there's a spiciness that sneaks up on you.
When Plascencia opened Mision 19 in 2011, he meant it as a declarative statement: He was investing in his hometown. Tijuana was just emerging from a dark period, with a half-decade of violent wars between drug cartels devastating the city. Residents lived in constant fear of kidnappings and bloodshed; as tourism dried up, hundreds of shops and restaurants that catered to incoming Americans closed their doors. The killings subsided by 2010, after Tijuana's city government and Mexico's federal government pulled together to capture cartel leaders and temper drug trafficking in the city. Still, the shadow of violence hung over the city, and tourists were slow to return.
With Mision 19, Placenscia took the gamble that Tijuana was a city worthy of modern fine dining that would appeal to locals as much as it might to the rest of the world. He signaled his emergence as a leader in Baja-style high-end cuisine — highlighting seafood like marlin, abalone, and sea urchin, showcasing the tomatoes that grow plump in the local climate, and oil from the olive trees that flourish in Ensenada's Valle de Guadalupe, sixty-five miles south of Tijuana. (Plascencia later opened his own restaurant in the valley, Finca Altozano, featuring rustic grilled foods.) And he occasionally wove in Asian flavors, reflecting the culinary influences the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who arrived in Baja at the dawn of the twentieth century, part of a massive influx of laborers. The media took notice of Mision 19. It led to profiles in places like The New Yorker. In the article Plascencia is quoted as saying, "I'm trying to make Baja and Tijuana a food destination, like San Francisco ... I want to make an example, like, We can really do this."
Mision 19 was also an opportunity for Plascencia to assert his individuality as a chef. In the 1960s, his parents opened Giuseppi's, one of Mexico's first pizza parlors, in Tijuana. The place proved such a success that it slowly blossomed into a restaurant empire. Grupo Plascencia now runs half a dozen pizzerias in the city, as well as fancier but still family-friendly havens like Casa Plasencia (the first "c" in the surname mysteriously removed), which leans Mediterranean and American, serving dishes like paella and grilled ribeye. The group also bought and renovated Caesar's, the bar and restaurant perched on touristy Avenida Revolución that's been in business since the 1920s, famous for originating its namesake salad. (I stopped by while I was in town: A young server assembled the Caesar salad tableside with panache, but the final product was bland; I much preferred the sopes, masa cakes, with bone marrow.)
Five years after opening, the crowds at Mision 19 are still mostly locals. On a recent Friday night, in a room of well-heeled, multi-generational diners, a friend and I savored a six-course tasting menu, a parade of techniques that blended Mexican and global flavors with easy confidence. The scallop parfait kicked off our meal in a swirl of creamy textures and bright, acidic flavors, setting the stage for courses of grilled octopus, roast suckling pig, and beef tablitas (thinly-sliced short ribs). Our two tasting menus, factoring the current exchange rate with the Mexican peso, cost around $26 apiece, an astonishingly low price for a dinner of that quality, easily on par with lyrical, multi-course meals prepared by exacting chefs that I've eaten all over the United States.
After a decade of sharp declines and then slow increases, tourism in Baja California is beginning to see a significant resurgence, and Tijuana has reached a place of relative calm.
Food tourism tends to center around Tijuana's booming arts scene and wondrous street food — tacos filled with carne asada or pork cooked al pastor, delicate ceviches and aquachiles made with Baja seafood. Groups like Let's Go Clandestino and Club Tengo Hambre bring down Southern Californians for stops at the most renowned roadside stands (such as Mariscos Ruben in the Zona Centro for smoked marlin tacos) and at craft beer tasting rooms.
Plascencia entered into this world with his seafood-centric Erizo, which ushers Baja California street food in from the sidewalk and onto a patio in Tijuana's fashionable Chapultepec neighborhood. The patio looks out onto a wide boulevard, with palm trees lined up along a median. Televisions around the restaurant blare whatever futbol match is playing somewhere in the world. I relished the meal at Mision 19 but Erizo strikes me as the one restaurant — not just in Tijuana but on both sides of the border — where Plascencia most gets to the heart of Baja cuisine. And diners seem to revel along with him. Patrons linger unhurried over lunch. The restaurant invites you to enjoy the wonders of the region's perfect weather and perfect ingredients, to pair a seafood tostada with a cloudless blue sky and the seventy-degree day.
And here again, the phenomenal value: Tacos and tostadas at Erizo run from around $1.50 to $3, astonishing for their excellence. A shrimp ceviche tostada was quintessential Baja, the shrimp chopped into morsels and dressed in nuanced shades of green: cucumber, salsa verde flecked with tomatillo, snippets of serrano chile, threads of chive. One slice of avocado and a single sliver of pickled onion formed the crown. I cracked the fried tortilla underneath and used shards of it to scoop up the ceviche. The seafood was pristine and the verdant salsa was precisely balanced. It was complete in its elegant simplicity.
Plascencia also serves a shrimp ceviche tostada at Bracero over in San Diego, but this one comes with more showmanship. The salsa verde shoots off the same spark of acidity, but the tostada is wider and the top is blanketed with avocado, blushing pickled onion slices and a finishing thatch of watercress. It's overkill, honestly. Maybe it's a justification for the price. At Erizo, the ceviche tostada costs $2.50. At Bracero, the price is $10.95.
But that's the reality on the American side of the border. Bracero sits on a prime corner in Little Italy, San Diego's hottest neighborhood. The restaurant is Plascencia's of-the-moment statement, folding in everything he's learned as a chef since opening Mision 19 five years ago. The plating is kaleidoscopic; the dishes are ingenious in their complexity and cohesiveness. It makes the cooking at Mision 19 seem buttoned-up by comparison.
And if Plascencia approaches his restaurants in Tijuana as an advocate of the city, at Bracero he wears the hat of ambassador from Baja. San Diego has a wealth of strong options for casual tacos and seafood cocktails, but most of the upscale restaurants don't herald the very region they're in. Bracero is the restaurant San Diego needed to reconnect it to its border lineage.
Though the restaurant is high-end, Bracero's name is an acknowledgement of the area's grass-roots bicultural history. The word is Spanish for laborer. It references the Bracero Program, kindled by worker shortages during World War II, that allowed Mexicans to enter the United States under short-term labor contracts, primarily for arduous farm jobs. It also evokes a time when the border was more culturally porous. In the restaurant, Plascencia hung a collection behind glass of vintage hats worn by braceros, like a museum display. On the second floor hangs a massive sculpture called "The Mexican Labor Agreement," fashioned from farm equipment by Tijuana artist Daniel Ruanova as a tribute to the braceros who literally fed America.
Bracero's menu is Plascencia's bid to knit together the two cultures he has straddled his whole life. The lunch menu includes tacos filled with traditional meats like pork carnitas or beef tongue; dinner brings more refined presentations like tuna and scallop aquachile made with the unorthodox (but delicious) additions of carrot, ginger, and smoked trout roe. Two standout dishes comingled the Asian and Mediterranean flavors that Plascencia loves. One surrounded wood-grilled octopus with Meyer lemon, olives, fried chickpeas, and peanuts roasted with yuzu. The other was a sculptural beauty: lobes of seared albacore tuna and also minced albacore tartar, stacked with tempura eggplant, jalapeño ponzu, and salsa verde. I noted the menu identified the finishing drizzle of dairy as "burnt onion crème fraiche," not Mexican crema.
The kitchen produces the most sumptuous Caesar salad I've had: There is no tableside flourish, but the dressing is seriously silky and alive with anchovy. Its presence reminds me that Plascencia, as someone who grew up on the border, is a person who inherited many cuisines. Of course there is the Mexican cooking, including lush Baja seafood and also the grilled meats brought to young Tijuana by settlers from Sonora, the state of Mexico separated from Baja by the Gulf of California. As part of a family who ran pizzerias and Mediterranean-themed restaurants, he also has those foods in his blood. As a chef, he doesn't have to stick to one idea of "authenticity." He needs only to be true to his own experiences and translate them into exquisite food, regardless of whether the food is served in formal or casual settings.
San Diego has fallen hard for Bracero. The restaurant was mellower at lunch but prime dinner reservations, even early in the week, typically require at least two weeks of planning ahead. On this side of the border, high-end dining is dominated by mostly Anglo diners, and Bracero is no exception. The other major difference in the dining room on this side of the border was the pace. At Mision 19, my friend and I raced through our meal in comparison to the rest of the crowd, who seemed content to enjoy their dinners at a relaxed pace. At Bracero, the staff adapted to the American proclivity for speed; the tables turned at twice the rate they did at Mision 19.
I've traveled constantly over the last year, and in my book Bracero easily qualifies as one of the best restaurants in the country to open in 2015. It can take its place alongside New York's Cosme and San Francisco's Cala as wildly ambitious restaurants, run by Mexican-born chefs, that are changing the way Americans think about Mexican food. Eating at Plascencia's restaurants in Tijuana reveals that Bracero's greatness did not occur in a vacuum: It's the latest expression of a culinary style he's been exploring and honing his whole life. And the restaurant only also reveals part of his culinary personality, one nuance of his border identity. Tuna two ways with burnt onion crème fraiche and eggplant tempura is wonderful. But abolone chorizo and scallop parfaits and other arresting dishes from the mind of Plascencia and the traditions of Baja await on the other side. Crossing the border fluidly helped shape Plascencia's identity as a chef. It can help shape ours, too, as diners and as people.
Mision 19: Misión San Javier, Tijuana, +52 664-634-2493, mision19.com
Erizo: Avenida Sonnora 3808, Tijuana, +52 664-686-2895
Bracero: 1490 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego, (619) 756-7864,bracerococina.com
Romesco: 4346 Bonita Rd, Bonita, (619) 475-8627, romescomexmed.com