TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA – When El Gringo amigo Juan Jose Plascencia of Grupo Plascencia invited me to join KPBS television personality Su-Mei Yu on a location scout of Tijuana’s culinary hotspots for a season 3 episode of Savor San Diego, I jumped at the chance. We enjoyed her Valle de Guadalupe show last season with chefs Martin San Roman and Juan Jose’s brother Javier Plascencia and had met Su-Mei in 2013 at a press event at Whole Foods Market.
I met our “fixer” Erika Santana in San Ysidro on a bright Saturday morning. Erika is the founder of the Slow Food Foundation in Baja California and has grown its membership from just a handful to over 70 in the past year. So many Baja California chefs and restaurants are already adhering to the foundation’s best practices and the region is becoming a world-class culinary destination, so Slow Food having a presence here just makes sense. You’ll be hearing more about Erika and Slow Food in Baja California muy pronto!
Once Su-Mei arrived with her crew – creator/producer Lorena Whiteside and cameraman/DP Eric Naso – we loaded into Erika’s van and headed south into “TJ”. Celebrating it’s 60th year in 2014, Tijuana’s historic Mercado Hidalgo was the perfect place to begin our scouting and story. As we were there on November 1st, the Mexican Day of the Dead, there was an ornate four-sided ofrenda (shrine) in the parking lot as well as sugar skulls, catrinas (decorative skeleton figures) and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) for sale at its many shops. The mercado is unique in Baja California as it offers products from all over Mexico – from Oaxacan moles to medicinal herbs from Michoacan.
At the mercado, we visited Carnitas Jerezano, where owner Doña Josefina and her son Jesus concoct carnitas in the Zacatecan style – using local suckling pig which is very tender and makes for a much less greasy plate of carnitas. In addition to carnitas, Josefina laid out a spread of her traditional specialties for us to taste, including gorditas (corn cake stuffed with pork), a chile relleno (stuffed poblano chile) and her excellent chicharron (fried pork skin) – perfectly crispy on the outside and all soft, slightly salty goodness within. Su-Mei was so happy with our first feast that she threw her arms around Josefina in a big abrazo as we were leaving.
After a stroll though some of the mercado’s shops, we visited the birreria El Rincon del Oso. Jovial owner Fernando Palomares greeted Su-Mei with a cup of his award-winning birria de chivo – a marinated and spiced goat soup with its origins in the state of Jalisco. She happily slurped her birria as Fernando described the dish and its many ingredients which include cinnamon, cumin, allspice and a dozen other herbs and spices which comprise this savory stew.
La Cava del Queso sells cheese from all over Mexico and Baja California. We sampled their queso añejo, an aged white cheese with a very sharp bite. Owner Homar Rubio explained the cheese making process for Su-Mei and gave her a tour of their processing equipment and extremely large wheels of cheese in the back.
Saying adios to Mercado Hidalgo, we drove to nearby Caffee Sospeso, a “third wave” coffee shop in Tijuana that’s takes its Joe very seriously. The first thing that struck me was the sign saying, essentially, don’t even ASK for cream and sugar. The barista emphasized the importance of not diluting the drink in order to best enjoy the essence of the bean’s flavor. The second thing I noticed were the cold brewing apparatuses. It can take a day for the water to drip through the myriad glass coils and chambers of these tall glass machinations, resulting in a very good, very caffeinated cold brew.
A 10 minute drive from Caffe Sospeso brought us to the Tijuana Culinary Art School, run by El Gringo amigo Javier Gonzalez, nearly deserted on this late Saturday morning. We toured the facility designed by Jorge Gracia – also known as the architect behind the pods at Encuentro Guadalupe – and interrupted a craft beer making class where Su-Mei sampled the student’s frothy, dark coursework and enjoyed a piece of sweet pan de muerto.
Next up was Verde y Crema, chef Jair Tellez’s farm-to-table restaurant in the tony Chapultatec neighborhood (El Gringo’s full review of Verde y Crema can be found here). Jair’s brother Vladimir Tellez showed us around the dining room and kitchen and we enjoyed a mezcal tasting at the restaurant’s eclectically cool bar. Su-Mei squealed with delight upon her first taste of sal con gusano, the extract of dried maguey worm mixed with salt and chiles typically served on oranges as an accompaniment to joven (young) mezcal. “I LOVE this little worm dust!” she exclaimed between sips. This is a public television host after El Gringo’s own heart!
After a quick stop at BCB (Baja Craft Beers) to check out their selection of regionally-produced cervezas, we parked next to Tacos Kokopelli, Tijuana’s venerable taco truck in Zona Rio. Su-Mei jumped onboard, enthusiastically questioning the cook on technique, ingredients and the challenges of preparing and serving their street side menu. As we enjoyed our “Gringo on Vacation” and “Kraken” tacos, another gaggle of gringos rolled in led by my amigos Club Tengo Hambre, Baja California’s “roving supper club”.
Just across the street from Kokopelli is the new Telefonica Gasto Park, a collection of seven- and growing – food trucks serving everything from handmade smoked bacon sausage at Humo to a surprisingly fantastic seared tuna sandwich with mole negro from Sobre Ruedas. We were pressed for time here, but El Gringo had visited earlier in the week and found everything to be fresh, imaginative and very, very good. Oh, and all but one of the trucks – Otto’s Grill – are owned and operated by Culinary Art School grads.
Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s Baja Med restaurant, La Querencia was next on our list. The interior is lined with stuffed deer heads, trophy fish and even a small black bear, just a few of Miguel Angel’s hunting conquests and possibly entrees at one of his restaurants. We enjoyed the beet carpaccio; cucumber salad with pine nuts, veggies and queso fresca; house salad with grilled shrimp and octopus; beef cheek tacos, and tacos of smoked marlin and abalone. Everything was fresh, delicious and wholly satisfying.
Tana Plascencia greeted us at the entrance of Villa Saverios, Grupo Plascencia’s restaurant that offers tapas and entrees with a Spanish flair. After a brief tour of Saverios, we drove to Casa Plasencia, which features “Mediterranean” cuisine and is an El Gringo favorite. Leading us upstairs, Tana pointed out the bullfighting photos and posters, giving Su-Mei an overview of the family’s long restaurant history in Tijuana.
Upon hearing that I’d never tried the trout baked in a crust of rock salt, Tana insisted we order this house specialty. Our server wheeled out a cart with our trout, cracking open the rock salt encasement and filleting the tender pescado table-side. The fish was delicate and delicious and Su-Mei happily munched on the remaining bones and head, a favorite delicacy enjoyed during her childhood in Thailand. To accompany our trout, we sampled the black rice – which gets its color from squid ink – and calamari, also exceptionally good.
Punto Siete is a new Japanese fusion restaurant in Tijuana’s Zona Centro on Constitucion and 7MA, part of the Bustamante Group‘s 7MA Lofts project which represents the area’s only new construction in 60 years. Tijuana photographer Josue Castro – whose studio The Kitchen is housed at the 7MA Lofts – joined us for an early dinner there. TJ Culinary Arts School grad chef Moisés Arredondo is one of the young guns expanding the boundaries of Baja cuisine. Punto Siete fuses regional ingredients with Asian concepts of balance, technique and presentation. The pork belly with tequila miso and guava is presented as a succulent “sushi roll” served atop a piece of encino oak which is lightly burned with a blowtorch to give the pork a smoky flavor, and was cameraman Eric’s favorite dish of the day. We also enjoyed a yellowtail triadito and the house salad with goat cheese.
Appropriately, given that restaurant Mision 19 sparked the current wave of interest in Tijuana with it’s Baja Med cuisine, our night ended in the kitchen with Javier Plascencia, Ryan Steyn, Drew Deckman, Zahie Tellez and other notable Baja California chefs – busily preparing the night’s sold out dinner for the 2014 Baja California Culinary Fest. Finishing up at Bar 20 just upstairs from the restaurant, we sipped our mezcals, a fitting and necessary digestif after a day of eating our way through the culinary corridors of Tijuana.
Your Gringo in Mexico,
The Season 3 Tijuana episode of Savor San Diego with Su-Mei Yu will film sometime in early 2015 and air as part of Season 3 during the year. Follow El Gringo on Facebook for more behind the scenes and airing information.