Can an adventurous chef remake his city’s image?
BY DANA GOODYEAR
LETTER FROM TIJUANA about chef Javier Plascencia and the movement to rehabilitate the city’s reputation through its food.
Tijuana, situated in northern Baja and separated from San Diego by the world’s busiest border crossing, has long been seen as a curious outpost, a city too far from mainland Mexico to be truly Mexican and too culturally distinct from San Diego to be American.
Unlike other Mexican states, whose food traditions go back hundreds of years and are rigidly codified, Baja has no established regional cuisine. Plascencia’s mission is to define one and, in the process, to turn Tijuana into a site of gourmet pilgrimage.
Given the city’s recent history, this is a particularly challenging task. Mexico is regarded as the world’s kidnapping capital and even though conditions have improved, the popular perception of Tijuana as unsafe remains. This past January, Plascencia opened Misión 19, a forward-thinking restaurant with world-class ambitions.
Like other chefs of his generation, Plascencia is inspired by materia prima: ingredients raised in the area he considers his territory. Tijuana was founded in 1889. When Plascencia’s father, Juan José, was born, in 1939, it had twenty thousand people; now, with 1.5 million, it is the third-largest city in Mexico.
Prohibition in the United States turned Tijuana into a tourist destination. The tourist industry created a vogue for international, Vegas-style restaurants, staffed with Italian waiters and French cooks. Caesar Cardini, an Italian restaurateur with places in Sacramento and San Diego, moved his operation to Tijuana in the early nineteen-twenties. He opened Caesar’s, a bistro with a long wooden bar and a black-and-white checkered floor.
The first successful culinary export from Tijuana was the Caesar salad. Juan José grew up going to Caesar’s: his godfather, an Italian restaurateur married to his aunt, had been one of the original employees. Juan José apprenticed himself to his godfather, and gradually taught himself to cook. In 1969, he and his wife, Martha, opened what they believed to be Mexico’s first pizzeria, Giuseppi’s. Giuseppi’s, which now has five locations, is still a mainstay of family dining in Tijuana.
The Plascencias raised their children to work in the restaurants. Tells about Javier’s childhood and upbringing. In 1988, as Javier was finishing school, Juan José and Martha decided to open a more formal restaurant, Saverios, and Javier started working there, as an apprentice to the chef. Discusses the increase in crime in Tijuana in the aughts and the attempted kidnapping of Javier’s brother, Julian. Tells about Pablo Ferrer’s efforts to create a local market for the produce of Baja, California.
Mentions other chefs in the movement that is sometimes known as “Baja Med.” Writer observes Plascencia cooking. Describes a bus trip made by a group of Los Angeles food connoisseurs to the first annual Baja California Culinary Fest, which Plascencia had organized.