July 23, 2013

Photo Essay: A Culinary Tour of Tijuana

I got on the bus to Baja to learn about art and architecture in Tijuana, but I'll be honest: I really wanted to eat.

Over the last year, there has been a massive restaurant boom in Tijuana, a city better-known for its street food tacos and caesar salad (yes, where it was born) than fine dining. But that is all changing, and I wanted to taste it.

Even better was experiencing the architectural modernity surrounding these new flavors, like at the Culinary Art School, where Jorge Gracia's use of local materials (concrete, wood)...

...intermingles with locally-brewed Güera Coquetona ("Flirty Blonde") cerveza...

...paired with salmon ceviche, octopus tacos and cheesy crostini...

...finished off with cajeta, the Mexican cousin to dulce de leche - a goat's milk caramel dessert popularized in the U.S. by celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless.

As refined as the dishes were, the architecture itself, though clearly modern, is somewhat unrefined...

...or, rather, rough on the surface, the poured concrete not made out of finely ground gravel but rather clearly defined stones...

...pressed when still wet by 2x4s (or, rather, 1x4s) to give the appearance of wood.

Gracia also designed much of the furniture in the interiors of the offices... well as the wood-warm ladies' locker room and toilet...

...which was by far the best public restroom I have seen in a long time, perhaps ever.

In the back of the courtyard between the two main buildings of the school (one side administrative, the other side demonstrative) lies an amphitheater-style lecture hall, whose podium is a stovetop.

Just beyond that lies a fire pit for roasting...

...and a time capsule, buried in the concrete below, to be opened ten years after its placement, in 2020.

Moving on from the fledgling culinary talent, we returned to the Zona Río business district of Tijuana to visit the VIA Corporativo corporate high-rise...

...which, among its many floors, houses Mision 19, one of Tijuana's most exciting new restaurants (as well as a variety of business offices).

Before eating lunch, we headed to the roof, to amble along the sky-high catwalk...

...which provides 360 degree views of the city below (including, again, the flood control channel they call their river).

Up on the roof, we also got a sky-scraping view of the cámara de luz y aire, the "sky and air" tube that not only provides light and ventilation for the building, even several floors down...

...but also adds a fantastic, green-tinted sculptural element, with textures and reflections and, on a sunny day (unlike ours), plenty of sunlight pouring downwards and an airy aperture facing skywards.

Both the internal and external glass features (i.e. windows) in the VIA Corporativo are tinted green, casting a green hue on our white tablecloths and plates inside the Mision 19 restaurant where we sat for a late, multi-course lunch.

First up was a scallop parfait with avocado mousse topped with pork crackling, again paired with the "Flirty Blonde" beer from Frontera we'd sampled earlier at the culinary school.

Next was a rustic truffled wild mushroom risotto topped with foam, paired with the "Nostro" red wine from Ensenada-based Mexican winery L.A. Cetto.

Our next small plate was a standout for sure: Niman Ranch pork belly with a baby back rib. It's comfort food for culinary sophisticates, and an interesting example of how Chef Javier Plascencia can elevate the familiar without losing its accessibility.

Finally, we cleansed our palates with bite-sized cheesecake garnished with strawberry sorbet and pretzel crumble, a perfectly sweet finish to one of the best meals I've had in a long time (and well worth the cost of the bus trip).

Of course, Chef Plascencia is not new at this. With what he calls "Baja Mediterranean," he is continuing the legacy that his family first started with several restaurants that became local institutions, including the Giuseppi’s Italian restaurant chain, and with their recent acquisition of Caesar's, the tourist mecca with tableside preparation of...yes, caesar salad.

But as much as he might be revolutionizing Baja cuisine, he makes the experience distinctly characteristic of Tijuana, sourcing ingredients locally and serving wines from the nearby Guadalupe Valley. In its Mediterranean, coastal climate, many exciting ingredients flourish, and Chef Plascencia utilizes them in dramatic presentations befitting the ambiance of the modern skyscraper setting.

Stay tuned for a detailed photo essay on another one of Jorge Gracia's architectural designs, a private home currently under construction.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Bussing it to Baja

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