Editor's note: ¡Viva Tijuana! is a multi-story series about the life and culture of San Diego's modern neighbor to the south. More stories from the series can be found in links below.
When looking for the source of Tijuana's sizzle, start with chef Javier Plascencia. He is the spark plug whose daring cooking ignited Tijuana's culinary and cultural renaissance, and no one would claim otherwise. And that's not just because their mouths are too full of his signature smoked oyster asada to say anything except, "Mmmm."
Nicknamed "the Mexican George Clooney," Plascencia is the real star of Baja-Cali cuisine.
The son of a Tijuana restaurant family and the product of a cross-border upbringing, Plascencia took a daring gamble on his hometown by opening a fine dining restaurant after years of drug-related violence had transformed Tijuana from a buzzing tourism magnet into a no-visit zone. Plascencia opened the upscale Misión 19 in 2011, and its stunning, sophisticated food turned Tijuana from a ghost town into a destination, while taking the cuisine scene to otherworldly levels.
Foodies on both sides of the border took notice, as did the taste-makers at The New York Times and The New Yorker. Fueled by the growing arts scene, booming food-truck culture and rise in hipster tourism that followed, Tijuana got its mojo back. And no one is happier about that than the man who made it happen.
"Before, (Avenida) Revolucíon was dead. It was like a zombie street," Plascencia says on the phone from Mexico City. "And now you walk and you see people outside having a great time in all of these shops and galleries. I love it."
What gets Plascencia fired up about Tijuana? Lack of zombies is just the beginning.
Fans know that Plascencia loves the burn of a Sonora chile and the crunch of crispy chicharones. But exploring the heart of this chef's cooking requires chopsticks and maybe a nice Chianti.
"My first Tijuana food memory is when I discovered fettuccine Alfredo in my parents' restaurant, and I went crazy. I had to have it every day," Plascencia says of Giuseppi's, the family's Tijuana pizzeria. "We didn't have many Mexican restaurants in Tijuana, so all of my food memories are Italian and Chinese."
When Plascencia opened his sophisticated Misión 19 in the flagging Zona Rio business district, it was a move that was as audacious as the food that made him famous.Risky, with the potential for epic failure. For the chef in charge, it was also a no-brainer.
"I grew up in Tijuana, and I lived there in the 1980s when it was happening, and there were tourists everywhere, and the restaurants were full," Plascencia says. "I knew that Tijuana had something to offer. People used to come here to drink cheap beer and eat tacos and misbehave. Now they come for the arts and the music and the better quality of beers and wines and restaurants."
His family has opened pizzerias in Tijuana and a "Mexiterranean" restaurant (Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro) in Bonita. In addition, Plascencia opened the highly publicized Bracero Cocina de Raiz in Little Italy in 2015, only to part ways from that venue and Romesco in January 2017.
When the Plascencia family took over Tijuana's iconic (but fading) Caesar's restaurant in 2010, they rescued an important piece of culinary history. Not to mention one heck of a salad.
"Tijuana doesn't have much culture and history to it, and the Caesar salad is one of the few things that we had to offer that was authentic and from Tijuana," Plascencia says. "In Tijuana, people are very proud of it, and we are very proud of it."
If Plascencia could eat only one taco for the rest of his life, it would be the classic carne asada street taco. To capture the spirit of Tijuana and its most celebrated chef in just a few bites, grab one.
"The beef needs to be grilled over charcoal, and it needs to be on a really, really good corn tortilla," Plascencia says. "Then avocado or guacamole and a really good salsa; spicy and hot."
The essential Plascencia
From fine dining to food trucks, a guide to this top chef's empire:
Misión de San Javier, 10643 (second floor)
Zona Urbana Río, Tijuana, B.C.
Erizo Baja Fish House
Av. Sonora, 3808-2
Chapultepec, 22020, Tijuana, B.C.
LUPE food truck (at Finca Altozano)
Carretera Ensenada-Tecate Km. 83
Ejido El Porvenir, Ensenada B.C. 22750.
Carretera Ensenada-Tecate Km. 83
Ejido El Porvenir, 22750, Ensenada, B.C
Jazamango Restaurante (his latest project)
Calle Naranjos, Esquina Jardín,
Plaza Principal, Fraccionamiento Las Huertas
Tres Santos, Todos Santos, B.C. Sur 23300