The culinary buzz in Tijuana

Published 06 April 11 12:02 PM

Recovering economy, greater sense of safety pushing revitalization of all kinds of eateries

 By Sandra Dibble pv["p.a_3"] = " "; , UNION-TRIBUNE

 Photo by Sean M. Haffey
Photo by Sean M. Haffey
“We have a unique opportunity to create a cuisine for Baja California,” said owner Miguel Angel Guerrero, inside his newest restaurant, El Taller, which specializes in Baja Med cuisine. His is one a number of new restaurants that have opened in Tijuana in recent months, a hopeful sign of recovery for the city's economy.

TIJUANA - Ten months after Miguel Angel Guerrero opened El Taller, the restaurant has exceeded his highest expectations. Customers have been packing into the converted warehouse with a corrugated tin ceiling and large wood-burning oven to celebrate family birthdays, meet business associates and catch up with friends.

"With just a little, you can do a lot," said Guerrero, an avid hunter and diver who at times serves up his latest catch or vegetables grown on his family's rancho. He is both the chef and majority partner of El Taller, which opened last June off Agua Caliente Boulevard with an investment of less than $160,000.

Starting in late 2007, the Great Recession and drug-related violence proved devastating for Tijuana's restaurant industry. Many eateries struggled for survival while others closed altogether.

But Guerrero saw a business opportunity in serving good food in a warm atmosphere at prices affordable enough for a younger generation of diners. The risk paid off.

"We were like, ‘Wow,' " he said, recalling his astonishment at the variety of customers who began showing up. "Everyone from 10-year-olds to grandmothers in their 80s."

Across Tijuana in recent months, restaurant owners have been heartened by the return of customers - mostly local residents - attracted in part by new culinary offerings ranging from high-end cuisine to street fare.

Tijuana's restaurant chamber, Canirac, lists 22 restaurants that opened in 2010. Its tally does not include at least a dozen establishments that have started this year.

There appear to be no precise numbers about restaurant openings, patron counts or revenue. But those knowledgeable about Tijuana's restaurant scene agree with the assessment of Javier González, director of Tijuana's Culinary Art School: "There's been a boom at all levels - not just fine-dining restaurants, but taco shops, Asian cuisine, especially sushi."

While the region's slowly recovering economy has helped, the greater sense of public safety has been key, González said. "People have been eager to go out again in the afternoons and evenings. Today in Tijuana, a big part of conversation is, ‘Where did you eat? Where are you going to eat?' "

The latest buzz among Tijuana's economic elite is Misión 19, where the menu includes oysters from the Bay of San Quintín, artisan cheeses produced in the Ojos Negros Valley and artichokes grown in Ejido Eréndira, south of Ensenada. Waiters pour wines produced in Guadalupe Valley.

Misión 19 opened in January in Tijuana's Río Zone, on the second floor of the city's first certified green building, Vía Corporativo. With its modern décor and view of Tijuana's hillsides, the restaurant is aimed at food lovers able to pay $20 and up for chef Javier Plascencia's unusual combinations and vanguard techniques. One of his signature dishes consists of beef short ribs wrapped in fig leaves, bathed in black mole sauce with black Mission figs, sprinkled with cacao and served with small corn masa dumplings and purée of kabocha squash.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey
“It’s a good time to open a restaurant, if you’ve got the guts and the money,” said Javier Plascencia, partner and chef of Misión 19, which features unique combinations of fresh local ingredients.

Three Tijuana partners who own the building, including César Leal, invested close to $500,000 to launch Misión 19. Leal said they searched far and wide for the right chef before finding him close to home: Plascencia, 43, is a member of a prominent Tijuana family that owns some of the city's most successful restaurants - Casa Plascencia, Villa Saverios and the reopened Caesar Restaurant on Avenida Revolución.

Misión 19 is courting not only wealthy residents of Tijuana, but also executives in the city's maquiladora industry and Americans who cross the border for medical treatment. The menus are in English and Spanish, and the plan is to translate them into Chinese and Korean as well.

Plascencia and Guerrero are both champions of Baja Med cuisine, which uses fresh local ingredients to create dishes that blend Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian flavors. "We're the last frontier, there is nothing written in stone, we're writing the story every day," said Guerrero, a law school graduate who opened his first restaurant, La Querencia, a decade ago in Rosarito Beach.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey
Bluefin tuna served with cactus paddle salad at Misión 19

He and Plascencia have done little marketing for their restaurants; they said most of their customers have come through word-of-mouth. News of their cooking skills has traveled beyond Tijuana, both in Mexico and the United States, where Plascencia has developed a following in Los Angeles.

But even those with less renown are finding new opportunities in Tijuana as rents have fallen. Cesar Escandón, president of Canirac, recently closed his small restaurant in the Río Zone to open 58 Restaurante on Avenida Revolución. He is paying less than $900 a month for a site that used to rent for $3,800.

The region's culinary boom has been years in the making, and many link its origins to the establishment of Baja California's wine industry. Training programs have played an important role as well, starting in 2003 with the opening of the Culinary Art School in Tijuana. The Autonomous University of Baja California launched its School of Enology and Gastronomy at its Ensenada campus in 2006, and has plans to expand later this year to Tijuana.

For government authorities, the growing culinary movement offers chances to revive Baja California's struggling tourism industry. After hotel accommodations, visitors spend the most on eating out, said Juan Tintos, Baja California's tourism secretary, who has been working with food writers such as Rick Bayless, a Chicago chef who specializes in Mexican cuisine.

"Baja has some of the best food found in Mexico," said Bayless, who plans to feature the Baja California peninsula his TV program, "Mexico: One Plate at a Time." "The combination of local talent, local ingredients, organic produce, local winemakers and local breweries promises to push the region even further."


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