Say adios to Tijuana’s tacky tequila bars and second-rate taco stands of your palate-less youth, and say hello to a new and exciting culinary scene.
New eateries like uber-chef Javier Plascencia’s latest restaurant, Misión 19, are the heartbeat of new Northern Baja cooking, where diners clink chile- and salt-rimmed glasses of tamarind margaritas and toast to the new Tijuana — a safe and delicious destination.
Misión 19’s spice-forward flavors are complemented by a stellar list of nearby Guadalupe Valley wines, and pairings are arranged by the restaurant’s knowledgeable sommelier; no one would have written that about a Tijuana watering hole 10 years ago. Dinners at Misión 19 kick off with pinchos, like fresh grilled octopus and crispy croquettes. The restaurant’s strength lies in its seafood, offering items you’ve never tasted before, like mezcal-cured tuna and yellowtail with salicornia, avocado, and cucumber salsa. But his diverse and often locally sourced menu presses on from there, with quail, duck kebabs with licorice-guava powder, Niman Ranch pork, and Sonoma foie gras. Beautifully arranged cheeses from Baja producers are served before the lip-smackingly good desserts, like the quartet of silky, homemade ice creams. (Photo courtesy of GastronomyBlog.com)
Erizo Cebichería (spelled the Peruvian way, with a “b”) is chef Javier’s 2-year-old seafood café, and is all the rage to those in the know. In the upscale Zona Rio, it anchors a sparkling clean mini mall. The interior is green, with old wood used for whitewashed tables; clever light fixtures; the bar; and a retail space for olives, olive oils, wines, and other local products. Eyes blink hard at a bright display case filled with whole fish, conchas (shelled seafood), Peruvian-inspired cebiches, smoked tuna and marlin, scallops, and bins of oysters, Pismo, chocolate, and geoduck clams not often seen in California anymore. The to-go or eat-in lunch vibe is casual, with flat screen TVs and a jukebox, but don’t be fooled: the people sipping Pisco sours are well-heeled insiders.
Start with a “shot” of sea urchin in a spicy tropical soup with a dried tuna swizzle stick. Scallop cebiche in cucumber and red onion vinaigrette has blissfully large shards of thin chiccarónes, and the tostada of shredded smoked marlin with tomato salsa and avocado slices served on a banana leaf is crisp, simple, and stellar.
A total renovation of Caesar’s, the original 1920s' home of Caesar salad — smack in the middle of Tijuana’s main tourist drag — is another recent star in the Plascencia family’s collection. Traditional, carefully prepared retro dishes such as carne asada, steaks, and pastas are served at lunch and dinner. Order the salad, of course; it’s made tableside by a master. The original bar room (with a big, brass Italian espresso machine) and dining room walls are covered with framed historical photos of festive times in the famous restaurant.
At La Querencia, chef Miguel Angel Guerrero salutes new Baja-Med cooking, with foods locally hunted, fished, and grown. The restaurant’s décor shocks the senses, with deer heads, geese, and duck trophies mounted on wall, but once you discover that Guerrero is an avid hunter-fisherman responsible for foods you’re about to eat, the fun begins. Be sure to order one of his carpaccios, like the razor-thin scallops with a drizzle of local olive oil and lime juice with infused chiles, or try blood-red beet carpaccio with blue cheese and mint vinaigrette. Must-order plates are country-style venison and hare paté, tequila-flamed octopus cracklings, and duck tacos.
It’s time to make tracks for Tijuana and top-notch, world-class dining. The fun starts here. ¡Buen Provecho!