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Say the word Tijuana, and many people automatically think of a city riddled with drug violence. But native son Javier Plascencia is hoping to change all that by cooking up high-quality cuisine that focuses on the region's diverse ingredients.
Chef Plascencia is hard to pin down. If he's not in the kitchen of one of his restaurants, you might find him walking the aisles of Tijuana's outdoor market, Mercado Hidalgo, choosing foods he will feature on his menus later that day. The bags under his eyes and 5 o'clock shadow bear witness to his hectic schedule.
He takes me to the market, where patrons walk the colorful stalls filled with crates of candies, dried beans, chilis and fruits. Life-size pinatas hang from the low-slung roof. Plascencia says he gets a lot of his inspiration for dishes and drinks here.
"This is one thing that I never tasted [until] I saw it last week. They are called guamuchiles from Sinaloa," he says. Then he orders a kilo of the fruits, which look more like a bean and taste kind of grassy.
He also grabs some pitayas ... a neon pink prickly cactus fruit. He says he'll put both in a new cocktail he's working on. He points to a small bag of fried grasshoppers ... he grinds them up in a mortar and pestle and lines the rims of margarita glasses for a different salty taste.
Plascencia's menus are filled with a lot of underappreciated fare from his home state of Baja, from its rich seafood, clams, oysters and abalone to its cheeses.
He says Omar Rubio's stand has the best cheeses Mexico has to offer. "What I like about this store is that it's all Mexican cheese and he's got the imported [ones] really hidden away so no one will buy them," Plascencia says.
Baja has a growing artisan cheese community, along with world-class wines and olive oils, all cultivated in the state's Guadalupe Valley. Rubio says that Plascencia and a handful of other local chefs have given the region's fare and its sellers a real boost. "He's a very good chef, very good businessman. ... He has the movement ... very good movement," he says.
That movement has been dubbed Baja cuisine, or Baja Med. It's Mexican food, full of local seafood and produce, inspired by European techniques.
While enjoying Baja's fish and fruits seems like a no-brainer, Plascencia says traditionally Tijuanans prefer steak or imported salmon when they dine out. His early cooking lessons were in his family's restaurants, which mostly feature Italian cuisine.
"Somebody asked me, why, if you are Mexican, why are you cooking Italian? ... And that's when it hit me — but I'm Mexican and that's what I want to cook," he says.
Locals and tourists are warming to his new culinary creations. More nights than not his restaurants are packed.
A lot of that has to do with the drop in Tijuana's brutal drug violence early this year and a crackdown on a terrifying spate of kidnappings and killings, which had many rich Tijuanans fleeing across the border into San Diego, including Plascencia's family.
But he and the city have also been getting a lot of good press with write-ups in The New York Times and features with celebrity chefs on U.S. cooking shows.
"Everybody is very happy with me right now; the mayor and secretary of tourism, they are really happy. So maybe I won't have to pay my liquor license next year," he jokes.
The kitchen of Plascencia's newest restaurant, Mission 19, is small and immaculate. It's located in a sleek new steel high-rise in Tijuana's upscale Rio Zone.
Plascencia gets to work on some tiny avocados he found at the market earlier.
By early evening the restaurant is packed. A waiter brings out the soup, then grilled octopus, covered with elephant garlic jelly, garbanzos, potato wedges and a drizzle of pistachio oil. Next there's grilled duck, then dessert of broiled bananas, strawberries, some salty marzipan and oatmeal ice cream.
Plascencia knows Tijuana's woes can't be fixed with oysters and cocktails. But he says he'll keep trying, one palate at a time.