You could count Bonita’s Romesco Restaurant as two eateries under one roof. The main dining room, with a checkerboard floor and walls wainscoted in dark wood, opened in 2006 and offers quiet, soft-jazz – tinged comfort and a menu described as Baja-Mediterranean. That growing culinary movement celebrates local Mexican ingredients and cuisine but is also open to ideas and techniques from other, farther-away food cultures.
Separated from the main bistro by a set of double doors is a Spanish-style tapas bar. Established in April 2009, it’s a lively, more casual space that stays open long into the night and features both late-afternoon and late-evening Happy Hours, when the traditional and less conventional tapas are all half off.
If we’re keeping tally, that would bring the number of eateries under chef-owner Javier Plascencia’s wing into the double digits. His family’s restaurant group operates a number of well-regarded eateries in and around Tijuana’s gastronomic district, including a Peruvian-inspired seafood joint, home-style Italian spots and Villa Saverios, a more formal Baja-Med counterpart to Romesco. Plascencia’s latest Tijuana project, set to open this year, is called Mision 19 and will highlight artisanal farm-to-table food.
But Romesco, located 15 minutes from the Gaslamp, is the family’s only San Diego restaurant. It’s one of few of its kind in Southern California, though the food fervent wish it wasn’t so, as evidenced by the raves Plascencia garnered after a recent three-night stint at an L.A. kitchen space.
Many of my favorites are filed in the antojito section of the menu, the house’s takes on Mexican street snacks. In a classic seafood-centric taco called gobernador, shrimp and cheese are melded inside a griddled corn tortilla and served with spicy habanero salsa. Palm-sized tortillas are filled with shredded beef cheeks that have been stewed until soft and savory. They come as a pair of pre-assembled tacos or as a larger, sharable dish, the meat served separately in a casserole with a small stack of tortillas alongside.
Last summer, Romesco’s owners took over and restored Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana, whose original owner, Caesar Cardini, is said to have invented his namesake salad in the 1920s. They do a tableside Caesar at the Bonita place, though at a recent dinner the dressing was overpowered by heavy doses of Worcestershire and Maggi sauce.
Romesco’s twists on tapas include baked cheese studded with Spanish chorizo, a dish of grilled octopus and, in a surprisingly tasty starch-wrapped-in-starch snack, noodles called fideo are broken into short lengths, toasted in oil then softened in broth, to be stuffed into tortillas along with fresh salsa, cheese and Mexican crema. Fideo is also the base of Romesco’s fideua, a southern Spanish version of paella (the more familiar rice-based paella is also available) that cooks the noodles together with shellfish in a saffron-scented stock.
The eclectic menu also includes pastas and a steak or two, but the dish that’s really worth the drive is one rarely spotted in local restaurants. Originating from the Mexican state of Puebla, chile en nogada echos the colors of the Mexican flag; Green poblano peppers are roasted and filled with picadillo, a salty-sweet mix of meat (here, pork tenderloin and filet of beef), dried fruit and warm spices. The pepper is then blanketed with a snowy-white sauce of milk and walnuts and sprinkled with ruby-red pomegranate seeds. Though it’s a seasonal dish, traditionally served in the fall to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, I cheer Romesco’s decision to prepare it year-round.
More celebration of Mexico’s culinary riches comes in liquid form. The restaurant carries several beers from Cerveceria Tijuana, a Mexican craft brewery, and the wine list is peppered with bottles from wineries based Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe, arguably the best wine region within an easy drive of San Diego.
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4346 Bonita Road, Bonita
— Candice Woo