When we think of Mexican food, we automatically imagine certain flavors and ingredients (chiles, beans, tomatoes, mild cheese, tortillas made with corn or flour) and certain basic forms (tacos, enchiladas, tamales, salsas, and so on). Whether our frame of reference is Rick Bayless or Taco Bell, the Yucatán or Amarillo, we generally know more or less what to expect. But sometimes what is actually put on the table in front of us in Mexico itself confounds our expectations, a fact that is perhaps nowhere demonstrated more vividly, or closer to home, than by the “Baja Med” cooking of northern Baja California—food based on the excellent raw materials of the region but owing more to the culinary traditions of Italy, Spain, Provence, and sometimes the eastern Mediterranean than to the cocina mexicana of our imaginations.
I first encountered Baja Mediterranean cooking a few years ago at Laja, Jair Téllez’s culinary oasis in the Valle de Guadalupe, just north of Ensenada in the heart of the Baja California wine country. The delicious food was based on vegetables and herbs just out of the garden, wonderful fish from the nearby Pacific, and locally raised lamb—but it was accented with things like porcini oil, homemade pancetta, baby arugula, and preserved lemon (as opposed to, say, huitlacoche oil, homemade chorizo, baby epazote, and pickled jalapeños). At first this discomfited me. But then it dawned on me that Baja California was as “Mediterranean” in climate, agricultural production, and cultural heritage as what the Spanish used to call Alta California—the part north of the Mexican border. And if restaurants in Santa Monica and Berkeley (and beyond) can draw inspiration from the Mediterranean, why shouldn’t those in this most agreeable corner of Mexico do the same?
Nobody called it “Mediterranean” back then, but there has been Spanish food (above all, paella, which is something of a regional obsession) and Italian food (in many guises) in northern Baja—and specifically in the notorious border town of Tijuana and the lively fishing port of Ensenada—for generations. One of the leading exponents of Baja Mediterranean cooking today, Tijuana’s popular Villa Saverios, in fact, descends from a pizzeria—said to have been the first in Baja—called Giuseppis, opened by a pizza-loving local named Juan Plascencia in 1967.
Plascencia’s son Javier now oversees the family business, which today includes, besides Villa Saverios, four branches of Giuseppis and a “continental” restaurant with Greek and Spanish accents called Casa Plasencia (spelled without the first “c,” as in the city in Spain) in Tijuana and a new “Baja Med bistro” called Romesco, in Bonita, on the American side of the border. The younger Plascencia literally grew up in the business, doing his homework in the kitchens of his father’s places and napping on bags of pizza flour. Later, he joined the culinary program at San Diego Mesa College, took courses at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, and worked for several U.S. restaurant and hotel chains before returning home.
Villa Saverios is a terrific place. The dining room is warm and comfortable in a quasi-Tuscan-villa style, with bare wood floors, mottled walls, ample white-napped tables, and a glass room divider etched with images of grapes. In the open kitchen at one end of the room, chefs work with quiet proficiency—Javier Plascencia is himself the executive chef, but the day-to-day cooking is done by a talented, diminutive young man named Manuel Brito—and ovens and grills glow with mesquite embers. “In Tijuana, we love the flavor of mesquite,” says Plascencia. “We grew up eating tacos al carbón on the street, and the meat was always mesquite-grilled.”
Possibly the most definitively Baja Mediterranean dish on the menu is an appetizer of grilled octopus—the little purple kind, like Italy’s moscardini—in a sauce of garlic and red chiles, atop a coarse chickpea purée with a few drizzles of parsley pesto around the edges and small homemade corn tortillas and a pot of dense yogurt on the side. The effect is somehow Middle Eastern, Italian, and Mexican all at once, combining flavors of sea and earth with both heat and cooling acidity. Unconventional ceviches include one of tuna with jalapeños, avocado, ginger, and soy vinaigrette (there have long been Japanese farmers and fishermen here); another of baby abalone—farmed abundantly in northern Baja and a local favorite—with flecks of dried chile and a few twigs of sea bean; and another of scallops with minced Persian cucumber and olives. And speaking of unconventional: Plascencia has created a rosy-hued mussel cream soup with “sea urchin ice cream”—a frozen urchin roe emulsion stirred into the hot liquid—garnished with a slightly sweetened crouton, almost like a slice of biscotti. Extraordinary.
“When we opened Villa Saverios in 2000,” he says, “we were very Italian, and we used mostly imported products. We didn’t even know that there was olive oil in Baja. Today, we use as many Baja products as we can, and not just seafood. And growers work with us.” The quality of Saverios’s produce was demonstrated by a grilled vegetable risotto, inset with tiny haricots verts, baby broccoli, wiry asparagus, and miniature yellow squash, all vivid in flavor and distinctly smoky, and topped with bits of finely chopped roast suckling pig. “This tastes like the countryside,” said somebody at the table. Of which country didn’t seem to matter.
The sign outside la querencia, just across the street from Villa Saverios, reads “Baja Med Cocina.” The young chef-owner, Miguel Angel Yagües, grew up hunting in Baja with his grandfather—“a farmer who owned ranches all over northern Baja”—and fishing and diving off the Baja coast. He studied law in college, but gave it up to go to culinary school in Mexico City, and then opened his own restaurant, the original La Querencia, in 2002 in the laid-back beach town of Rosarito, about 20 miles south of Tijuana. Yagües grows many of the herbs and some of the vegetables he uses on family land, and makes his own sausages and Spanish-style ham.