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KOOL Tijuana: A Savvy Synthesis of Tradition and Innovation

Stylish eatery highlights modern takes on Mexican gastronomy

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

La Caza Club was inaugurated in Tijuana’s bustling Colonia América in 2012 and introduced a thoughtful modern Mexican menu that was as revered–and popular–as the restaurant’s live jazz performances. Re-christened as 52 Kool (pronounced like “roll”) in 2017, the restaurant shifted the focus from music wholly to the food, and it became a fixture on nearly every Tijuana Top 10 list.

Recently, the modish eatery shed its appellation’s “52”–a reference to Mexico’s country calling code–and gained a new chef, Francisco (Frank) Guzmán.

Born in Los Angeles, the chef’s interest in cooking was born of necessity. Guzmán recounted during a recent visit that “When I was young, my parents were always working. Early on, it became my responsibility to feed my siblings, so I taught myself how to cook by watching YouTube videos.”

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

KOOL Tijuana chef, Francisco (Frank) Guzmán. Photo: A Gringo in Mexico

He later studied gastronomy in Morelia, Michoacán, his family’s hometown, and trained at Michelin-starred California restaurants such as Californios and Atelier Crenn. Additionally, he helmed kitchens as executive chef at prestigious Mexico City eateries Em and Lorea.

“Kool is the Mayan word for milpa (a time-honored Mexican intercropping system of corn, beans, and squash),” the chef explained. “I’m working with traditional Mexican recipes but introducing and experimenting with new flavors and cooking techniques.”

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

KOOL Tijuana. Photo: A Gringo in Mexico

His varied experience is evident on KOOL’s focused menu, which changes weekly depending on availability of ingredients and the guiding hand of his culinary muse.

“I design our menu based the 70/30 rule. 70% of what we offer has wide appeal to the fairly conservative tastes of our local clientele, a case in point is the aged ribeye steak,” Guzmán explains. “The other 30% is experimental. I’m constantly adjusting recipes to achieve just the right balance of flavors.”

An example is the almejas zarandeadas. Guzmán prepares the meat of chocolate clams–a Baja California Sur classic–as confit in olive oil and garlic. “If you don’t do it this way, the meat tends to be tough,” the chef explained. The clams are artfully plated atop a bed of decorative shells and finished with an irresistible Chinese-style XO sauce of dried shrimp and oyster—which provides a deep, satisfying umami. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year.

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

Almejas Zarandeadas, KOOL Tijuana. Photo: A Gringo in Mexico

I don’t usually order chicken when dining out, and when I do, I often regret it, noting that it’s something that I could have made at home. KOOL’s pollo en mole guyaba is an exception, however. The tender white meat is perfectly cooked–not too dry or overly moist–and the well-seasoned skin provides a satisfying crunch. The simplicity of this delectable dish belies its complex preparation.

Guzmán explains, “First, we brine the chicken for 4-6 hours. Then we dry it and rub the skin and cavity with guajillo, brown sugar, allspice, smoked paprika, coriander seeds, and black pepper. We smoke it for an hour with cherry or maple wood chips, roast it for another 20 minutes, and finish it on the grill for 5-10 minutes.” He continues, “I came up with the idea for the roasted guava mole as I ordered too many guavas for another dish one day. It’s like a mole negro, but with a bit of sweetness, which helps balance the smokiness and umami of the chicken.”

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

Chicken in Guava Mole, KOOL TIjuana. Photo: A Gringo in Mexico

The astutely assembled menu comprising just a dozen items indicates that great attention is being paid to each dish. It includes selections from the sea, the garden, and hearty entrees such as pulpo asado (grilled octopus), the dry-aged ribeye, and a generously portioned costilla de puerco (pork rib) with pronounced layers of luscious meat and crispy fat.

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

Pork Rib at KOOL Tijuana. Photo: A Gringo in Mexico

KOOL offers an outstanding cocktail program, curated by mixologist Gabriel Avila, whom I’d met several years ago when he was shaking, smoking, and mixing the libations at Otomi in San Miguel de Allende. A standout was the refreshing Palomilla of mezcal, pink grapefruit, and watermelon, and a flavorful Higo de Dios, a blend of mezcal, sherry, fig cordial, and a tincture of cardamom, which gives the drink an herbaceous finish.

KOOL Restaurant, 52 KOOL, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Chef Francisco Guzmán

Palamilla Cocktail at KOOL Tijuana. Photo: A Gringo in Mexico

The restaurant’s cava features wines from Italy, Spain, France, and other international regions, as well as several Baja California vintages. Additionally, the staff works with master mezcalero Armando Solís Martínez of Juarez, Mexico’s palenque Atávica to produce several in-house spirits. This includes two artisanal mezcals, as well as a tart tepache, the distiller’s spirited take on a traditional Mexican drink made by lightly fermenting pineapple or other fruit juices. Wine and spirits are also available for retail sale.

Guzmán, at just 30, is a chef to watch as Tijuana’s new wave of young culinary talent continues to innovate and entice. And KOOL, without doubt, will also make my Top 10 list this year.

Price: $$$. Dinner for two with a glass of wine will range from $40 – $50 per person. The price-to-quality ratio is wallet friendly, especially when compared to the cost of a meal of a similar level in the U.S.

KOOL, Miguel Alemán Valdez 2612, Colonia América, Tijuana. +52 664 686 3361, www.koolrestaurante.mx

Disclaimer: We were invited by KOOL to try their new menu items, complements of the house. No other compensation was provided for this review and our opinions remain steadfastly our own. I would happily, hungrily return to sample more of KOOL’s menu on my own peso.

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