by Wendy Lemlin
After months of delays, and about a year of anticipation, Bracero Cocina de Raiz finally opened in mid July. The first restaurant in San Diego proper by Baja mega celeb chef Javier Plascencia (Romesco in Bonita, Mision 19 and Erizo in Tijuana, and Finca Altozano in the Valle de Guadalupe) and partner Luis Peña, opened its Little Italy doors to much foodie-world buzz and advance reservations booked several months out.
Was it worth the wait? In a word, yes!
Bracero manifests Plascencia’s many facets as a chef and Baja native who has straddled both sides of the border in his education, upbringing and outlook. Although a world traveler, it has always been the flavors and products of Baja that have captivated him the most, and at Bracero, he makes them shine in his take on “Modern Mexican” cuisine. Those who have dined at Chef Javier’s other restaurants will recognize in Bracero the sophistication and creative use of ingredients that brought resounding international acclaim to his Mision 19 when it first opened in 2011, combined with a rustic ambiance that has made Finca Altozano a favorite stop on the Guadalupe Valley wine route.
From 1942 until 1964, the US government brought in Mexican migrant laborers to work in the agricultural fields and railroads through what was called the Bracero Program, and it is in honor of these Braceros (i.e manual laborers or “those who work with their arms”), from whom so many Mexican Americans today are descended, that the restaurant is named. Javier Plascencia adds, “To me, Bracero honors the history of Mexican cuisine in Mexico and the US. Cocina de Raiz means cuisine from roots, and relates the concept back to my Mexican culinary roots, mixing ingredients in both modern and age-old techniques, but keeping the authenticity of the dish intact.”
The restaurant is divided into two sections. In the street level, where walk-in diners are welcome, the menu takes a more casual, small plate, tapas-style approach and includes a “crudo bar”, featuring local Carlsbad shellfish and wild Baja seafood. Upstairs, where reservations are almost always required, (and, at this writing, completely booked on weekends for the next several months), both small plates and main dishes are served, the latter prepared on the custom built “Baja Caja”, an adaptation of a traditional “caja china” roasting and smoking grill.
Don’t be dismayed if you can’t get a seat upstairs; the “small plates” served downstairs satisfy in a big way. Albacore Two Ways has quickly become the house favorite, and for good reason. Mini stacks of albacore tartare, crispy eggplant rounds, lime salsa verde, burnt onion crème fraiche, and jalapeno infused citrus marinade known as tigre de leche are topped with pieces of perfectly seared albacore for a complex, yet lighthearted, textural and flavorful celebration. Baja Hiramasa Crudo conjures up tropical nights, with the raw fish given a bit of heat from chiltepin and jalapeno peppers, coolly balanced by coconut aguachile, tomatillo, cured pineapple, and avocado. Wonderfully textured tortillas are made on site using house ground masa, and several menu items show them off beautifully, especially the Fermented Rancho Gordo Bean Tostada, with the richly
flavored savory bean filling refreshed with the peppery greenness of watercress and arugula. The Shrimp Green Machine Ceviche Tostada delivers a generous mound of ceviche accented with pickled onions, avocado and watercress.
From the “upstairs” menu the Verde es Vida Salad combines a crunchy mélange of salt-cured cactus, watercress, spinach, zucchini, chayote squash, purslane, avocado and 18 month aged cotija cheese with Mexican oregano vinaigrette, and proves the translation of the dish’s name, Green is Life, deliciously correct.
One of the more intriguing dishes on the “Hot Small Plates” section of the menu is Acorn & Kabocha Squash in Mole Negro, with the natural sweetness of the roasted squash and plaintain albondigas pairing delightfully with the slight spiciness of the rich mole.
It’s probably safe to say that octopus is one of the most popular proteins in Baja cuisine today, and Bracero’s Wood Grilled Octopus, also on the “upstairs” portion of the menu, illustrates why. The tender pieces of tentacles have a pleasing smokiness and are given a textural contrast with green garbanzos and achiote seeds, and mounded on a base of black bean & squid ink sauce.
Even the desserts are highly inventive, making liberal use of fruits, flowers and seasonings in unexpected ways. I greatly enjoyed the Stone Ground Chocolate Mezquite (so much so that I wished there was a lot more of it on the plate), pieces of dark chocolate, brownie-like cake, served with atole (sweet corn) ice cream, ground chocolate, dabs of pureed avocado, and dahlia petals.
Of course, great food needs great drink and Bracero doesn’t shirk its duty there, either. General Manager, Sommelier and beverage program director JM Woody Van Horn, along with Bar Manager Christian Siglin, has curated an impressive roster of specialty cocktails, divided into “Shaken” and “Stirred” categories, wines (mostly from Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe and Mexican-owned California vineyards) and craft beers from Baja, San Diego and beyond, as well as carefully chosen tequilas and mezcals. In the “Shaken” department, I found the !Mahalo Guey! especially refreshing— a tropical, concoction of green tea infused rum, Kalani coconut, lime, and orgeat.
Javier Plascencia says of the restaurant’s interior, designed by the Los Angeles based studio Bells & Whistles “It is one of my favorite things about the restaurant. Like my culinary style, it is Modern Mexican, and the ambiance feels sexy and manly.” Honoring the braceros who inspired the name, a wall near the entry is decorated with rows of the type of straw hats worn by those farm laborers. Between the restaurant’s two stories, a room-sized glass enclosed motorized sculpture, titled The Mexican Labor Agreement (the official name of the Bracero Program), created by Danial Ruanova, incorporates hand tools once used by the workers in their back-breaking work which played such a significant role in the successful agricultural history of America.
On the custom made plates serving certain menu items, an outline design of a pair of cupped hands presents that dish, almost as an offering from the generations of harvesters who have brought a timeless culture of quality and flavor to the table. To them, I am grateful, as all who dine at Bracero will be.
Address: 1490 Kettner Blvd. San Diego, CA 92101
Hours: Dinner and late night!
Upstairs Kitchen 5pm until 10pm
Downstairs Kitchen 5pm until 11pm
Friday & Saturday
Upstairs Kitchen 5pm until 11pm