A 'Top Chef' Star Has the Best Mexican Food in the City at El Jardín
The Liberty Station restaurant shines when Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is on the line
Albondigas made with smoked beef and pork in chipotle, rice, grilled carrots, and chochoyotes
2885 Perry Road, Liberty Station
Albondigas en chipotle
Buena Onda cocktail
Mexican food is the crab in San Diego’s bucket. The old saying refers to how crabs behave when trapped in a bad place. One crab will attempt to escape. If left to its own devices, it easily could. But the other crabs pinch its legs and drag it back into their dilemma. No crab makes it out because the other crabs are awful and won’t let it.
The bucket in this case is the widespread belief that Mexican food must be cheap. Bus ticket to nowhere cheap. The crabs trying to escape are highly trained chefs who love Mexican food. The crabs pulling them back into the bucket are the misguided, the bullheaded, the big problem—in other words, us.
Happens every time. A good chef grinds her own heirloom masa into tortillas, marinates the finest pork for days, tops it with expensive-delicious aged cheese, rare peppers, fresh herbs, a crema that would make Paul Bocuse applaud, and a fresh, Rick Bayless-y salsa. The taco is worlds better than Roberto’s (no offense to the local legends). The chef calculates her costs, reasons she must charge $10 to turn a small profit. And San Diegans say, “Whoaaaa Bernie Madoff! Stop the con! We’re San DIEGANS! We know tacos cost three dollars!”
Famed chef Richard Sandoval tried to elevate Mexican food in our city. He did it with Venga Venga in the heart of our middle class Mexican American community, an audience you’d think would appreciate seeing its favorite dishes get star-chef treatment. It didn’t work. Top Chef alum and Mexicanophile Chad White opened Común in the East Village. That space is now an Italian restaurant, and he’s making ceviche in Spokane. Bracero, the Little Italy concept from Javier Plascencia, was nominated for a James Beard Award for the best new restaurant in America in 2016. It closed a year later. There was Frida, El Vitral, so many ambitious crabs yanked back into our comfort zone of rolled-taco mediocrity.
In our defense, we were trained to be Mexican food misers. Of all the countries on the planet, US citizens spend the smallest percentage of their expendable income on food. Augment that with the fact that Mexican food has long been San Diego’s highly affordable honorary native cuisine. We seem unaware you can serve it without a paper bag. So it’s easy to see why, no matter how self-defeating, we refuse to let it dream, to be more. It’s as if San Diegans attempted to learn Spanish, but refuse to learn anything but the common nouns. We’re ignoring the verbs, the metaphors, the proverbs, the lyrics, the infinite beauty of the entire language of Mexican food.
It’s a shame, especially for a city that brags about its Mexican food. It suggests that we don’t understand or don’t care about a few things that may make or break El Jardín, the new concept at Liberty Station by another Top Chef alum and San Diego native, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, with partners Rise & Shine Restaurant Group.
The potential misunderstandings: First, the cost of quality ingredients. The average taco shop buys budget frozen beef. For El Jardín’s albondigas (Mexican meatballs, Zepeda-Wilkins’s grandmother’s recipe), she uses Snake River Farms beef and Kurobuta pork, served in a plasma of chipotle, rice, grilled carrots, and housemade chochoyotes (corn dumplings). Her chicken is from the progressive, award-winning Pasturebird ranch in Warner Springs. Better meat means better flavor (not to mention health). El Jardín’s produce is either grown in their on-site organic garden or bought from Specialty Produce or farmers’ markets. The Cotija cheese is aged in caves in Cotija, Michoacán. The pasilla mixe (a famed smoked chile grown in Southern Mexico) is shipped from Oaxaca. Their corn is from growers in Mexico, nixtamalized (a process of preparing in an alkaline solution) and ground in the restaurant fresh as can be. Ingredients matter. You can’t make an Aston Martin from Tonka parts.
Second, the cost of talent. No disrespect to our beloved moms and pops in the city’s casual Mexican joints. But Zepeda-Wilkins has spent years training under some of the country’s best, including Gavin Kaysen (who ran Daniel Boulud’s empire before opening his own place). Moms and pops usually do a couple sauces and cooking techniques exceptionally well; Zepeda-Wilkins has mastered dozens. There’s also the cost of staff, including the woman whose sole job is to make fresh masa tortillas to order, every day, all day. And the bartender, who’s making excellent, Mexico-inspired craft cocktails, like the Buena Onda with mezcal, pineapple, lime, serrano bitters, basil, and cane sugar.
Third, the cost of the look, feel, vibe, and experience. It’s significantly easier to charge $3 a taco when your only design element is a neon sign. At El Jardín, there’s a lush interior plant wall and a Día de los Muertos altar (with photos of the staff’s loved ones), fire pits and rare Mexican plateware and purse stands. The large patio costs more than my house (I don’t own a house, but if I did, it would cost less). Zepeda-Wilkins planted a sprawling garden overseen by San Diego’s Urban Plantations, growing Mexican fruits and veggies not usually found locally (plus some of Dan Barber’s heirloom seeds) for her dishes and cocktails. They’ve done everything except alter the flight path of departing jumbo jets from the airport, which sound like they’re breaking the sound barrier of your ear drum.
If it sounds like I’m trying to justify this restaurant and its chef, maybe I am. Because the first night was a lot of mistakes and shrugs. The second night, however, was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. If El Jardín manages to re-create my second night on a more consistent basis, it could set a new standard of Mexican food in San Diego.
For reviews, I make reservations using pseudonyms and try to sneak in. Sometimes it works. It does my first night here. The patio is largely empty on a Tuesday, which seems to be the case for most restaurants at Liberty Station (the property doesn’t come alive until weekends, something they need to address). We start with the rockfish tostada. The tortilla crisps are so wonderfully textured they seem to be part chicharrón, the warm-sweet flavor of toasted corn making store-bought crisps seem like a cruel joke in comparison. But the fish is off, has a yesterday scent and taste, which is especially noticeable in a raw presentation. The El Jardín Salad (changes daily depending on what’s popping in their next-door garden), is less a salad than two giant pieces of roasted kabocha squash. The squash is radioactive orange, flaunting the work of thriving organic soil and promising nutty flavor and freshness. But it is wildly undercooked, and seems to have absolutely no seasoning. Nearly inedible.
The pozole rojo (hominy stew, once a holiday classic in Mexico, now a year-round staple), has that intense flavor you can only get from time and patience and a chef who knows how to lay layer upon layer of flavor. Not a surprise, since Zepeda-Wilkins often worked in her aunt’s pozole restaurant in Guadalajara as a kid. But the stew liquid is poured tableside in a relatively tiny portion, and acts more like a sauce. The taquitos, featuring red-wine-braised short ribs, should be bursting with the flavor they spent hours building into that meat. But there either needs to be more short rib or less shell, because the flavor is lost. And there absolutely needs to be a stellar sauce (romesco, chipotle, avocado crema, something) and salsas, something that sings or stings in the way only good Mexican sauces can. The biggest crime in cooking Mexican food is being dull. (The following visit, we’ll be served three fantastic salsas, and Zepeda-Wilkins will inform me that these should have been served with the taquitos—which would’ve made the dish.)
The lamb barbacoa is just about perfect, with subtle hints of agave smoke and tepache (a housemade alcoholic brew made of pineapple rinds, usually sweetened with piloncillo), which is echoed by chunks of fresh pineapple in the warm sauce. It tastes like a Hawaiian luau thrown in Guadalajara. But the soft tortillas taste of sulfur, which means the masa may have over-fermented during the grind, or is past its time. A dessert is served that looks exactly like a single overripe banana on a plate. It’s a hilarious, minimalistic, almost punk idea in today’s world of Instagram plating with edible flowers and gold leaf. Crack the exterior with a fork and you’ll find a plantain semifreddo, chocolate fudge cake circles, ancho chile, Oaxacan chocolate jam, and Criollo cacao nibs. Food art rarely tastes this good.
By the end of the night, Zepeda-Wilkins gets wind that I’m in the house. She emerges to explain she’s been in the office designing the new menu (slow Tuesdays are when many chefs do managerial duties). Which means she wasn’t on the line, quality controlling. And the sous chefs left to the task that night weren’t on their game.
I return on a Thursday, and she realizes I’m the Claire Smith in her reservation book. She’s in the kitchen overseeing the dishes, interacting with guests, cleaning tables and running food and doing it all. With her skill-set intently focused, the night is a revelation. Everything, on all points. Some of the best Mexican food I’ve eaten anywhere in the country.
The tacos with geometrically perfect grill marks on their crispy-soft tortillas, filled with smoked shrimp tossed in lime kosho (a spicy condiment with Japanese roots), poblano peppers, caramelized onions, menonita cheese (a soft, white melter from Chihuahua), and grilled corn. The white widow cream sauce is worth every bit of Scoville pain with habanero, cream cheese, cilantro, lime, and garlic. A rib eye tartare with lemon and tomato gets the right zing from spring onions and cilantro to offset the fat from the ancho mayo and avocado.
If you’ve been to any stand in Baja selling birria—the famed Mexican stew of many chiles (ancho, guajillo, cascabele, etc.), herbs, and spices (usually cumin, cinnamon, oregano, garlic, thyme, cloves), and beef simmered long enough to become velvet—you’ll recognize that Zepeda-Wilkins plays with hers by including ramen noodles, making it a cross between Baja and tonkatsu. And those albondigas, a combo of smoked beef and pork smothered in chipotle sauce, rival Italian restaurants for best meatball dish.
The salsas arrive, and they’re on another planet from taco shop salsas—a charred tomatillo and serrano, a salsa martajada with the holy trinity (tomato, onion, jalapeño), and the showstopper salsa macha, whose smoky fried chile oil with macadamia nuts would make shoes a worthwhile meal. I put some on the roasted chicken, which is brined in a salt-sugar solution with avocado leaves, then basted with salsa macha, butter, and lime. The chicken is outdone by its side dish, a “maizotto,” featuring cracked hominy cooked like risotto and finished with aged Cotija, cream, and salt that tastes like classic American creamed corn after a sabbatical south of the border.
The dessert this night is pixtli ice cream, the unique flavor of mamey sapote fruit (a flavor similar to pumpkin or sweet potato or fall itself), almond brown butter cake, and blue corn pinole crumb (flour sweetened with cinnamon and other spices). The simple fact that it’s not a churro speaks to Zepeda-Wilkins’s mission here—to showcase the lesser-known stars of Mexican food.
My El Jardín experience was like a chill followed by a hot flash. But the hot flash burned off the memory of their off night. Zepeda-Wilkins needs to be on that line, poking, prodding, tasting, making sure the salsas hit the tables. Every single day. Nothing less than the best Mexican restaurant in San Diego is potentially at stake.