Inspiration, passion, and traveling around the world are the kinds of things that feed a chef's desire to cook and create dishes. With all his senses, he breathes these flavors, he tastes these ingredients, and he watches in great detail the world changing in front of him day to day. Urban cuisine is an important source of inspiration for most cooks—and Tijuana-based chef Javier Plascencia is no exception.
Plascencia grew up in a family of restaurateurs and spent most of his youth in professional kitchens. His father Juan José Plascencia (also known as "don Tana") is one of the most important figures in his career. One of the most memorable experiences that he shared with don Tana was his first visit to Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant, where for the first time he saw a kitchen that was working in perfect harmony.
I spent a day with Plascencia to go visit some food stalls in Tijuana and talk about how the local flavors are a huge influence on his cooking, and reflected in his restaurant empire that stretches from Baja California to San Diego. If there is something that makes a taquería in Tijuana unique, it's the smell of meat roasting over coal-fired grills. On many occasions, I have read and heard Plascencia say that these same smells have been the inspiration for the dishes at his restaurant Misión 19.
We arrived at the first taqueria, Tacos Hipódromo, one of the many places where Plascencia prefers to eat roasted meat tacos. He built his own taco: a freshly made tortilla, grilled meat, some creamy guacamole on top, cilantro, onion, and salsa. Between bites, he explained the basis for a dish called "Tablita" that he serves at Misión 19, which contains essential flavors like coal, dough, and salsa. "We cook our meat in an air-tight bag and then we finish cooking it on a grill to make sure that it gets that smoky flavor that represents my Tijuana." He then adds some serrano chilies to add a spicy touch to one of the most emblematic dishes at Misión 19.
Since we are talking about roasted meat, one of the can't-miss offerings in Tijuana are the tortas at Wash Mobile, another one of the joints Plascencia has been frequenting since his youth. He told me that when he was young he would exchange pizzas from his family's restaurant for the tortas made with carne asada at Wash's. He admitted that he visited this stall "three to four times a week."
After our tacos, we got into the car to go to a seafood spot, one of the places that inspired his restaurant Erizo: Mariscos Rubén. In this lonchería, we get fresh products from the waters of Baja California and Sonora, and the options are endless: homemade salsas, cocktails, and irresistible tostadas. Señora Mirta, along with her husband Rubén, have operated in this institution for almost 25 years. A small carriage during its first five years of operation, Mariscos Rubén grew and stayed in the same location for the past two decades.
Plascencia ordered a tostada de jaiba (crab tostada) and told me about the many occasions where he visited Mirta to buy shellfish for his restaurant Saverios, which is located a few blocks away from Mariscos Rubén. Mirta knows how to pick a fresh product, and the quality of this place's dishes are always on point. Some of the other dishes that Javier orders frequently are the tacos gobernador and the smoked taquitos made with coal-cooked marlin.
"Are you still hungry? Let's go to one of my favorite places for burritos," Javier told me. On our way, we continued to eat and talk about the impact of urban cuisine in Javier's career.
I asked him if he had ever found another place in the world with a street food culture that resembles Tijuana's. "In Vietnam," he said. "It's one of the trips that has taught me the most." He was excited to see people cook over grills on the streets there because that is a signature style of Tijuana.
Although his taste is always faithful to street cooking, much of his professional training comes from his family restaurants. "There is a need in the city for young people to start their own restaurants," he said in reference to the current food truck trend, a favorite plan of those graduating from cooking school these days. "Tijuana is a city with a lot of culinary talent, just like many other cities in Mexico, and I think we shouldn't lose our restaurant tradition."
We have arrived to another culinary iconic place in Tijuana: Bol Corona. There, Plascencia recalled the skating rink and Donas Venecias, where he used to go in his youth. He walked up to the small window of a green and white building and ordered a burrito machaca, a kind of burrito that you could eat any time of the day. (I've visited this place numerous times in the mornings.) Javier picked up his order and sat on a stool. "This here is a classic salsa. I grew up on this," he said, unpacking his order.
Tijuana is one of the cities with easy access to seafood from the Pacific Ocean and ingredients from the valley, including wine and olive oil from the renowned winemaking region of Baja California. Those are key elements in the training of any cook—that, and the influence of the migrants in this border city. All of this is clearly reflected on this city's street food, which itself was the best cooking school for Plascencia.