Ask anyone in Tijuana how Chef Javier Plascencia and his restaurant Mision 19 have impacted the city and they will all tell you that without him, the city and Baja wouldn't be where it is today.
In the last few years, the area has transformed from a place where only drunken tourists wanted to visit, to a place no one would dare travel to, to today — a true foodie destination.
As a freelance reporter living in San Diego during the time that Plascencia was first profiled by the New York Times in 2011, I remember feeling relieved after seeing the story. I’d been covering Baja since 2008, crossing the border for Fox News Latino when no one else would, and telling people (mostly my worried family) that I wasn’t covering the drug war, just artists, fashion designers, architects, and chefs, so clearly I wasn’t in any danger.
Not unlike my blogs, ShopLocalSD and ShopLocalLA, in which I cover lesser-known independent boutiques in San Diego and Los Angeles, Tijuana was the place I felt I needed to shed a light on.
Like the U.S. in 2008, Tijuana was going through serious economic turmoil — but unlike the U.S., it was for different reasons. There was a war going on between feuding cartels, and innocent people in the city were suffering because of it. Rich Mexicans were being targeted by kidnappers and the poor were being caught in the crossfire.
During that time, the hipster folks in Tijuana, who didn’t have the money to leave and move north to San Diego, decided to stay. Business owners moved their businesses off the main tourist areas, such as Revolucion Ave, and began to focus their energy on what could be produced locally. Savvy chefs, such as Plascencia, began incorporating locally-sourced ingredients onto every menu, craft brewers opened up shop, and artists took over spaces that once housed stands selling junk to tourists. A culinary school opened and began training young chefs.
“The culinary school has been one of the most exciting things to happen to the food scene in Tijuana. There are so many great young chefs coming out of there—many of whom I work with in my kitchens. They’re super-creative. They just need experience in a real restaurant,” Plasencia says.
After a brief escape to San Diego in 2006 (Plascencia’s brother had been threatened by kidnappers), he returned in 2010 and opened Mision 19 in the center of the Zona Río business district. Since its opening, the restaurant has been visited by famed chefs, including Rick Bayless and Anthony Bourdain, and even recently awarded Best New Restaurant by Travel and Leisure magazine.
Plascencia now owns multiple restaurants in both Baja and the U.S.: “Romesco in Bonita, near San Diego; the much-admired Mision 19 and Erizo Cebicheria, both in Tijuana; Guadalupe Valley's Finca Altozano Bermejo, in Sonora, Mexico. In mid-April he plans to open Bracero Cocina de Raiz, located in the “Little Italy” neighborhood of San Diego.
“My food is basically traditional Mexican recipes with a modern twist, all while using locally- sourced ingredients. I look for local craft breweries, wine from the Valle de Guadalupe (wine valley in Baja) and now, the hot thing is local mezcals and tequilas,” Plasencia says.
Today, the gastro scene in Baja has gone from the gem of insiders and hungry journalists, to Plascencia’s appearances on the TV shows like The Taste. “When Javier was on The Taste recently, the border culinary community was stoked that our local chef was going national,” says W. Scott Koenig, aka El Gringo, who has traveled extensively around Mexico since the mid-90s. His blog, AGringoInMexico.com, reports on south of the border destinations, culture, events and cuisine.
“We watched the episode, and he was great, but seemed a little out of his element with all the flash, glitz and drama of that particular show. I think Javier is happiest and feels most comfortable out in the Valle de Guadalupe, and cooking over a wood fire and enjoying a glass of wine," says El Gringo.
"He’s Tijuanense with a touch of San Diego — a laid-back small town surfer and one of the coolest, calmest chefs I’ve met,” he adds.
From appearing on The Taste, to chef Flor Franco cooking for about 160 editors at Condé Nast in New York City, and chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero, serving up his renowned “Baja Med” cuisine in Paris to French diners, who knows whether Baja will become a culinary destination to rival other major cities. After recent changes in the region, there is no doubt tourists are back, and they’re eating, drinking, and dining in some of the best new eateries in Baja.