A Tijuana chef—with ties to San Diego—is quietly becoming an international culinary darling with a daring new menu
Baja’s become a striking mover in regional cuisine on both sides of the border, and while its innovative chefs are crushing the clichés of what many diners think of as traditional Mexican food, at the heart of this movement is the Plascencia family, and in particular Javier Plascencia—a provocateur of creative and striking menus. The family owns and runs 12 restaurants, including Romesco on the U.S. side in Bonita. Javier Plascencia supervises four of the kitchens and runs three, including Tijuana’s Mision 19, named as a tribute to the artisanal food of Spanish missions from Baja to Northern California.
The restaurant, in Zona Urbana Rio, the city’s business district, sits on the second floor of a cool and modern concrete office building. But the airy space, while dominated by walls of windows, is warmed both by an infusion of wood—the long thick planks dangling along the windows and the sleek wood tables and chairs—and splashes of color found primarily in the burgundy upholstery and the tint of green in the glass.
I found the food to be just as cool and modern, both in the eye-popping presentations on squares of lava or slate and in the preparation, with clear influences not only of the Mediterranean cuisine Plascencia has long been taken with, but also Asian.
I’d heard buzz everywhere from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Street Food Fest (where Plascencia took top honors), so my expectations were high.
The menu and wine list is extensive. The wines focus on Baja wineries and the dishes are based on ingredients sourced locally—primarily in the Guadalupe Valley just east of Ensenada. To get the most from the menu try the Chef’s Menu—four, six, or eight dishes are available.
My first dish was a parfait of avocado meringue, thick housemade yogurt, diced Baja scallops, Persian cucumbers, soy jelly, chiltipin (a local wild chili), and a sprig of crunchy, salty sea bean surrounded by corn sand. The layers, shades of cool green, actually are meant to be stirred together and the resulting bites are an amalgam of sweetness with a tad of heat, umami from the soy jelly, and salt from the sea bean.
A petite salad of salt-cured nopal (cactus) strips followed. The nopal was mixed with Meyer lemon and grapefruit juice, topped with locally-farmed fried abalone chips, micro arugula, and a chile de árbol salsa. There’s heat. There’s crunch. All with grapefruit undertones providing a nice slightly sour acidity.
Then came surprises with the third course. It looked like a simple salad. Nestled between the lettuce leaves and slices of heirloom tomatoes was a long, thin slice of beef and scattered around the bowl were olives. At first glance, it appeared pretty basic. But the beef had been sous vide for more than 48 hours, or, as the menu charmingly says, “cooked to high empty for 48 hours and sealed at the moment,” rendering it silky, tender, and sweet.
Intriguingly, the waiter placed a spoon in front of me and instructed me to use it to pick up what I assumed were the olives. But the grayish-brown ovals, reminiscent of kalamatas, were, in fact, a molecular gastronomic tease: the mere essence of olive, petite olive juice balloons with all the salty brine you get when you bite into the real thing.
The meal segued to a hearty risotto. But, here, too, tradition is turned on its head. Made, yes, with Arborio rice, it incorporated meaty heirloom eye of the goat beans and pearl barley. The risotto’s creamy richness came not from cheese—there was none—but from the barley as well as wild mushrooms, zucchini blossoms, black truffle and black truffle oil, and a healthy topping of smoky tasting huitlacoche, the fungus on corn. Topping the risotto was epazote foam and a sprinkling of tiny geranium petals. With this, Plascencia spins traditional rice and beans into an elegant yet earthy dish. I loved the distinctive textures and flavors of the Arborio, the barley, and the beans.
The meal ended with a faux pork belly taco as Plascencia again upended expectations, this time merging three cultures. Instead of a corn tortilla there was a masa and maiz crêpe pinched together with a hint of cilantro peeking out. The three sauces? A curious combo of sweet soy, chile de árbol, and tomatillo and habanero.
Inside was more cilantro and slices of scallions topping strips of creamy pork belly. I added the chili sauces then topped it with a healthy drizzle of the soy blend, picked it up, and took a bite. Then laughed. Clearly, Plascencia was riffing on Peking Duck. The pork belly was a combination of tender juicy flesh and crispy salty skin. The soy sauce and the richness of the pork was so “Peking Duck” but then there was the cilantro, the scallion, and those spicy salsas. Taco… encased in a crêpe.
This isn’t the Mexican food that people go to TJ for—but it should be, because it clearly expresses the ingredients and cultural influences that are so key to the region. So bypass the cliché of what outsiders think encompasses traditional Mexican food, which is, well, primarily street food, and head to Mision 19 for the real deal.
Mision 19 is located at Mision de San Javier, 10643 in Zona Urbana Rio, about a five-minute drive from the border crossing off the 805.