Javier Plascencia Eyes Barrio Logan
The award-winning chef is all over Mexico, but looks to make a San Diego comeback
Chef Javier Plascencia | Photo by Jaime Fritsch
Javier Plascencia was the face of gourmet Mexican food in San Diego. His big, beautiful restaurant, Bracero, opened in Little Italy in 2015. It was nominated for a James Beard Award for the best new restaurant in the country. And then, in 2017, it closed. He also pulled out of his Chula Vista restaurant, Romesco.
He was gone. At least on this side of the border.
Since Bracero closed, he’s been doing one project after another in Mexico, with his outdoor, vineyard-side, tree-shade restaurants Finca Altozano and Animalón in Baja’s wine region Valle de Guadalupe. Then there’s his year-old restaurant Jazamango in Todos Santos. And developing his new concept in San Jose Del Cabo. In October, he’ll host the Valle Wine & Food Festival, bringing a who’s who of chefs, including Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco), Trey Foshee (George's), Rick Bayless, Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Michael Mina, you name it.
And today he’s in Barrio Logan, meeting with a man who owns a building, sketching out plans for his San Diego return. I caught up with him this morning.
Where have you been?
I’m living between Cabo for the Todos Santos restaurant and Tijuana and Valle. I also go cook at other restaurants.
What do you like about Todos Santos?
It’s a super cool, relaxed beach town. I went there for surfing many years ago. Then I started going more frequently to go see this project. I got invited by a group of investors from Colorado to do Jazamengo. It’s a really cool project. Todos is an up-and-coming food destination because there’s so many farms, so many boutique hotels. Lot of outdoor activities like biking. Very authentic Baja. The ingredients are so fresh. We work with a fishing family that’s been fishing there for 60 years, they’re sustainable, and they bring the fish to the restaurant every day.
What’s the Cabo restaurant going to be?
We found this really cool place that doesn’t feel like you’re in Cabo. It’s got a little river and lots of trees and a garden. Super, super cool space where we’re going to have an outdoor restaurant with an outdoor kitchen, very similar to Animalón under the trees. I just want to create experiences where you can have this amazing, beautiful, natural outdoor restaurant with really good food. Not too fussy.
How’s the food scene in San Jose del Cabo?
It’s growing like crazy. So many new chefs and restaurants opening up. A lot of talent. Lots of farmers. It’s going to happen in Cabo like it did for Valle. People are planning their vacations around the restaurants there.
What about Valle? How’s it handling all the media attention?
It’s still growing a lot. There are six hotels opening this year. Four new ones this summer, two in the fall. My brother just opened a little hotel called Partana with six rooms on the Finca property. 200 meters walking from Animalón. He’s going to build six more. Right next to Finca and Animalón we opened a creamery making ice cream using Mexican ingredients and milk from the Baja dairy farm, Ojos Negros. We opened a bakery and a coffee place. It’s basically year-round now. We used to close Mondays, but now we’re open because there’s enough people to feed on the weekdays.
I know water’s really scarce there. What issues are you facing?
Yeah, the vineyards can’t grow anymore because we don’t have the water. We have more than 100 wineries, mostly very small. The new hotels are also taking the water, but they’re small. We’re working with the government. Hopefully by next year we’ll have this situation resolved, because there’s so much happening there and so many investments. The wines are getting better. Need more art galleries, a cooking school. Other than that, it’s pretty spot on.
Why did Bracero close?
It was just bad decision-making and bad management. People really loved it and people always ask me about it. The food I wanted to cook was very labor intensive. And I didn’t want to cut corners. I personally made a lot of mistakes with the kitchen design. We had two kitchens, and that was a problem. I learned a lot from it. I usually do things my way, and it didn’t work out this time. You learn and I’m ready for the next one.
What are your plans for Barrio Logan?
I’m working with a person who has a location that I really like here. He loves Baja. We’ve started drawing up plans. It’s just a part of town I like. It’s growing so fast. When I’m here I feel like San Francisco and there’s a lot of creative people here. A lot of history. I like places that have history. I like old buildings that tell you a story.
So many good, higher-end Mexican restaurants have failed in San Diego. Will we ever come around to the idea that Mexican food can be elevated just like French food?
I think it can work. They need a little bit more time to understand why a taco costs five dollars if you’re using heirloom corn. That’s a lot of work and a lot of labor. If you want to use fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, it costs more. People have that perception that Mexican food needs to be cheap. But people are traveling more and more to different regions in Mexico. With what all the chefs are doing in Mexico City, and at places like Cosme in New York, people are starting to get it.
Tell me about the Valle Wine & Food Festival.
We’ll have Nancy Silverton and top chefs from L.A. and some of our friends here in San Diego. It’s a three-day event at Finca. It’s just a fun food and wine event with live music. We’ll have stations throughout the restaurants, cooking mostly with outdoor grills and woodfire ovens. People just walk around and have bites all over. Twenty something wineries, beer garden with local brews. It’s stronger than ever. I just made a collaboration beer coming out in two weeks with Bitter Brothers and Cervezeria Transpeninsular in Ensenada. It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, and it’ll be featured at the festival.
Where do you surf when you’re in town?
Usually Ocean Beach, a little in La Jolla. It’s too crowded now. My daughter lives in Mission Beach, so I try to get up there.
Valle Wine & Food Festival happens Oct. 5-7. You can check it out and get tickets at vallefoodandwinefest.com.