By Frank Sabatini Jr.
From the chef-restaurateur hailed by multinational media for his ingenious interpretations of Baja-Mediterranean cuisine comes a new weekend brunch, which debuted last month at Bracero Cocina de Raiz.
Its introduction at Bracero seems overdue for a culinary deity like Javier Plascencia, who helped opened the Little Italy restaurant more than a year ago and announced on Jan. 3 that he will be leaving his post as executive chef in the coming weeks after gaining fanfare for such regular, daily offerings as complex crudos, gyro-pineapple tacos, and acorn squash in black mole.
Prior to launching Bracero, which will remain under the ownership of Mexiterranean Hospitality, Plascencia received numerous accolades for his “Med-Mex” cooking at Romesco in Bonita, of which he is also parting ways, plus several restaurants he operates in Mexico, including the acclaimed Mision 19 in Tijuana’s vibrant Zona Rio District.
Yet despite his history of swooning consumers on both sides of the border with dishes The New York Times described as “show-stopping,” Plascencia isn’t immune to the slipups a friend and I witnessed a few weeks after the curtain rose on Bracero’s brunch service, which is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
To be fair, the transitioning Plascencia wasn’t on property when we visited, nor had a replacement been appointed.
Our favorite dishes included two of the most familiar foods known to modern man. The house guacamole, served generously with novel additions of beluga lentils, black bean hummus and zaatar-dusted tortilla chips, was rich and velvety and worthy of repeat orders on future visits.
And if you’ve never experienced Caesar salad based on the 1924 recipe of Caesar Cardini when he owned a small eatery in Tijuana, the dressing and presentation at Bracero is something you won’t mind devouring before noon.
The heads of romaine are kept intact and drizzled in a brownish, emulsified admixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, crushed garlic, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese. Hate anchovies? Then this Caesar is for you. Cardini supposedly didn’t like them either, and they were added into the recipe later by his brother.
Another fave was the carrot aguachile, a ceviche-like starter featuring a boatload of raw ahi and citrus-marinated shrimp rising from a pond of juiced carrots, which my companion likened to gazpacho. The menu description cites cashews and ghost peppers in the scheme, but the minced nuts were too scarce to offer the intended crunch, and we never encountered a single chili pepper.
A few mishaps more difficult to ignore occurred during the second half of our meal amid a merry-go-round of servers who were efficient, but rather impersonal when coming and going in this confusing fashion.
What would have been terrific tasting refried chorizo-spiked beans were stone cold when served. They accompanied machaca con huevos, an overcooked egg scramble riddled in parts by sinewy beef. The saving grace was the baby potatoes, fried tenderly with onions and peppers in what seemed to be chili-infused oil.
The “Tijuana-style gringas” turned out to be a fancy quesadilla stuffed with buttery cheese, baby heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers and chicken that tasted boiled. Had the poultry been trimmed of its gristle and flame-broiled, we would have given the dish a rousing A-plus.
Provisional glitches aside, Bracero captivates guests with an artistically rustic motif that ascends to a second-level mezzanine. Its masculine design, accented with copious antiques, pays tribute to the hardworking Mexican nationals who took manual-labor jobs in the U.S. from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s under a series of government-contract programs that included The Bracero Program.
The concept is welcoming and historically significant. And it’s fueled by a sturdy selection of Baja wines and a cocktail list featuring excellent margaritas spiked with Mandarin Napoleon cognac.
Or if you’re seeking a boozier punch to your brunch, the “Czech Yourself” obliges with a tantalizing blend of smoky mezcal, herby Becherovka liqueur and absinthe, offering a carefree ending to whatever you eat.
Note: Shortly before press time, Placenscia released a statement saying in part: “Going into the new year, I will be taking time to focus on my restaurants in Tijuana, Valle de Guadalupe, as well as a new project I have in the pipeline in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur.”
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.