NO matter where you sit in Mision 19, it’s impossible to forget where you are. The restaurant, perched on the second floor of a sleek office building, is a handsome study in concrete, wood and glass, wrapped in floor-to-ceiling windows. Tijuana confronts you from all sides.
“I am proud of being from Tijuana,” said Javier Plascencia, the restaurant’s chef and one of its owners, sitting behind a wall of wine bottles at his private chef’s table. Nearby, waiters in dark coats and ties gracefully maneuvered among tables of women in suits and men with sweaters tied over their shoulders. Hints of cologne mixed with musky wafts of mesquite and charcoal.
“I want there to be no mistake,” he continued. “This is a Tijuana restaurant. This is what Tijuana can be.”
Mr. Plascencia is determined to use Mision 19, which he opened in the heart of this city’s Zona Río business district in January, to help revitalize not only Tijuana’s food scene, but also the city itself. Scarred in recent years from waves of drug violence, Tijuana, just south of the United States border, has gone from being one of Mexico’s most visited cities to one of its most feared, a significant blow to an economy that depends on tourism.
The kidnappings and killings that scared away visitors also encouraged many well-heeled Tijuana locals to flee north. For a time, Mr. Plascencia, 43, was one of them. In 2006, his family opened Romesco in Bonita, Calif., in part to give the community of Tijuana exiles living there a taste of home.
“In the ’90s, we all knew who the drug dealers were,” he said. “They came to our restaurants, we cooked at their baptism parties, but they didn’t mess with anyone. They respected who we were. But then that started to change, and you didn’t know who people were and how they would react. Suddenly there were no rules anymore.”
There was even a period when he took a bodyguard with him to work after his brother was threatened by kidnappers, he said.
Rafa Saavedra, a local writer and cultural critic, said that while “the general perception of Tijuana is that it’s a violent and dangerous city,” he believes that the city is undergoing a “new creative boom” led by young entrepreneurs like Mr. Plascencia.
“They are not just looking to make money,” Mr. Saavedra said. “They are looking to invest in the future of the city and its people.”
As a culinary destination, Tijuana is perhaps best known for its street food, especially mariscos, birria and tacos of all stripes. But it also has a long tradition of fine dining, and Mr. Plascencia’s family has been at the center of it for nearly three decades. Their Grupo Plascencia consortium, headed by his father, Juan José Plascencia, is now responsible for 10 restaurants scattered across Tijuana, including Casa Plascencia, a Spanish-themed meat emporium, and Villa Saverios, the Roman-columned marble flagship. Situated in the heart of Tijuana’s Zona Gastronómica, or restaurant row, Villa Saverios is the go-to venue for birthdays and wedding showers among Tijuana’s middle and upper classes.
“Their restaurants have been so important for the region for so long,” said Tru Miller, an owner of the Adobe Guadalupe winery in the nearby Guadalupe Valley. “Javier has the ability to bring Baja cuisine to an international audience in ways that nobody has really done before.”
Mr. Plascencia, who was born and raised in Tijuana but attended high school and culinary school in San Diego, refers to his cooking as Baja Mediterranean: traditional Mexican cuisine combined with ingredients and flavors that flourish in Baja California’s coastal Mediterranean-like climate, including olive oil, abalone and arugula. It’s a style espoused by other Tijuana chefs, like Miguel Angel Guerrero, of La Querencia; Jair Tellez, at Laja; and Martín San Román, of Rincón San Román. But Mr. Plascencia brings a flair for dramatic presentation, an appreciation for Tijuana street food’s deep flavors and a binational approach to farm-to-table cooking.
At Mision 19, everything he cooks and all the wine he serves come from within a 120-mile radius, which means not only Tijuana markets and local Baja farms and vineyards in the Guadalupe Valley, but also farmer’s markets in San Diego.
“When you say local in Tijuana, you are talking about Tecate, Ensenada, Rosarito and parts of San Diego,” he said. “It’s a very big local.”
The menu is loaded with showstoppers. There’s the duck skewered with licorice and sprinkled with guava dust. There’s the risotto topped with salt-cured nopalitos (prickly pear cactus) and charred octopus. Or there’s the dish that’s already something of a signature: slow-cooked short ribs bathed in a mission fig syrup on top of a black mole sauce. After he cooked it at the Test Kitchen, a Los Angeles restaurant with a rotating cast of guest chefs, Jonathan Gold, a food critic for LA Weekly, named it one of his top 10 dishes of 2010.
Bill Esparza, who runs the Los Angeles food blog Street Gourmet LA and frequently invites local foodies down to Tijuana for tastings with Mr. Plascencia, praised the chef. “There is nobody like him in Mexican cooking right now,” he said. “He travels throughout Mexico, to L.A., to San Francisco, looking to learn and be inspired. He watches everything that’s going on in the food world, and he’s like this incredible sponge. He’s creating a whole new vocabulary of Baja cooking.”
The Plascencia food empire had a humble start. In 1969, Mr. Plascencia’s father quit his job in a Tijuana factory to open Giuseppi’s, a small pizzeria. He stored the pizza boxes, cheese and cans of tomato sauce based on his mother’s recipe in the family garage. There were soon 13 pizzerias across the city. The Giuseppi’s name lives on in a handful of full-scale Italian restaurants, Tijuana institutions since the 1980s.
“I compare my father to Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque,” said Mr. Plascencia, who grew up washing dishes at Giuseppi’s on weekends and learning the details of customer service from his father. “He is always at the door. He knows all of his clients by name.”
Three years ago, the family bought Caesar’s, the classic tourist mecca and watering hole for visiting Hollywood stars that opened its doors in the 1920s. Best remembered for its claim to being the birthplace of the Caesar salad, the restaurant holds particular significance for Mr. Plascencia because his grandfather worked there as a bartender.
After a painstaking renovation, Caesar’s — with its elaborate tableside preparations of the famous salad, its walls covered with vintage photographs and menus and its original bar meticulously restored — is now an elegant trip back to Tijuana’s past.
“Tijuana is not very good at preserving its history,” Mr. Plascencia said. “Ceasar’s is so important to the story of this city. When we heard it was for sale, there was no way we were going to let that legacy be lost.”
Caesar’s, Mision 19 and other high-end restaurants here rely on the city’s wealthy elite and a small cadre of middle-class bohemians who can afford $25 main courses. They have also come to depend on two classes of tourist far removed from the party-seeking Marines and college students from north of the border who were once a key source of the city’s income.
The first group could be called medical tourists, Americans who go to Tijuana for cancer treatments, dental work or plastic surgery. Then there are the maquiladora tourists, executives from the thousands of internationally owned factories, or maquiladoras. “They might be from Japan or Korea and are here to work on a project or open a new plant,” Mr. Plascencia said. “They are not coming to get drunk at a bar. They are looking for a nice meal.”
He insists that things in Tijuana are getting better. According to recent news reports, officials in the state of Baja California estimate that, over the last two years, crime in the region has dropped nearly 40 percent. Most agree that the city is safer and calmer now than in 2008, when the death toll reached an all-time high. Many locals who once fled the city are now moving back. In the downtown tourist zone, there are new trendy bars, diners and fashion boutiques, along with a bilingual tourist police unit designed to make visiting Americans feel more comfortable.
Last week, Tijuana’s mayor joined the mayors of four other Baja cities in announcing a new pro-tourism initiative. A large mural on busy Calle Sexta reads, “In spite of everything, Tijuana is moving forward.”
To reassure customers from the States, Mr. Plascencia often calls with personal invitations. For big food events or tastings, he’s driven people across the border himself, all part of his mission to use his restaurants to both sustain and reimagine the city that he loves.
Last fall, hundreds of people, including Al Gore and Jimmy Wales, a founder ofWikipedia, arrived for Tijuana Innovadora, a $5 million two-week conference designed to showcase Tijuana as a center of finance, arts, ideas and innovation. Mr. Plascencia cooked for many of the conference’s events, including a dinner for Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, who began the event with a speech praising Tijuana’s improved security.
The attempted makeover came with a brutal reality check. In the middle of the conference, two decapitated bodies were found hanging from a local bridge.
“It was a reminder of the challenges we face here,” Mr. Plascencia said. “But I am not worried. Things will get better, and I will be right here cooking.”