The ceilings are low, the expectations are high, and the Slayer-loud salsa grooves are making the mezcal tremble in its glass. The wines on the blackboard are all from Baja, mostly from the Guadalupe Valley area, which may be the great wine area closest to Los Angeles; the kitchen is plating tostadas and sopes with the seriousness — and the tweezers — associated with restaurants like Providence and Bazaar. A waiter brings over tacos, their tortillas smoky, intensely corn-flavored, griddled to a slight crispness at the edges, filled with broth-softened fideo noodles and a paste of well-seasoned blood.
Are we at the Test Kitchen again? Guilty as charged — as we've mentioned, the facility is more of a recital hall for chefs than it is an actual restaurant. And the guest last week was Javier Plascencia, the Tijuana chef at the forefront of what is sometimes called BajaMed Cuisine, a movement that marries the flavors and structures of the traditional Mexican kitchen with European technique, placing real Mexican cooking within the international culinary mainstream for perhaps the first time. For the first time in the history of Mexico, perhaps, the best restaurants in Mexico may now be in the shadow of provincial Tijuana.
I'd always wanted to eat at Plascencia's Tijuana restaurants, which include the elegant Villa Savieros,and the manly, meat-centric Casa Plascencia among others, but never quite got around to making the short drive south. He has a restaurant, Romesco, north of the border now, but the idea of fine dining in Chula Vista was always too much of a disconnect. But to experience what is often considered the most interesting cuisine in Mexico right here on Pico — why weren't you there, too?
There were meaty tacos with beef cheeks and those tacos with fideo and morcilla; cold-pressed-octopus terrine with slippery, salty cured octopus; and tiny, crunchy sopes filled with citrus-bathed Baja abalone. (Plascencia is a big supporter of local agriculture, unfortunately including the farmed yet endangered Baja bluefin he garnished with home-dried beef on a tostada.) A small composition of uni and raw quail egg, and a crudo plate including geoduck ceviche with persimmon and conch in escabeche could have come from the imagination of either Nobu Matsuhisa or Rivera's John Sedlar. Plascencia just reopened the ancient Caesar's on Avenida Revolución, birthplace of the Caesar salad, and the saladero he imported for the week made an astonishing version of the dish — leaves crisp, dressing garlicky, but with a powerful, almost animal presence I had never tasted in a Caesar before.
Lamb raviolini were slightly clumsy, although the deep lamb consommé in which they floated, always the best part of a barbacoa feast, was elegantly flavored with maguey leaves and the Mexican mint yerba buena. A short rib wrapped in fig leaves and roasted over wood was astonishing: The sweet, charred fragrance that floated from the meat when you unwrapped the package was intoxicating as perfume, and the few drops of black, bitter mole on the plate, flavored with raw cacao, were as different from most poblano moles as the space shuttle is from a Piper Cub. To finish: four stages of a single Baja cheese, from its origins as a squeaky queso fresco to its logical end as a powerful, 10-year-old slab.
I wish I could tell you that Plascencia is planning to open in Los Angeles. But until then, Tijuana is only three hours away.