The best restaurant in our region may not be in San Diego. It may not even be in this country. If Tijuana's Misión 19 (Misión de San Javier 10643, Zona Urbana Río) isn't the best local restaurant, it's certainly a finalist. And that's why we crossed the border into Tijuana for what was clearly the most innovative food I have tasted recently.
Once upon a time, Tijuana traded on its "wrong side of the tracks" reputation, selling itself (in more than one way) to off-duty Navy personnel and kids looking for fun (or trouble). But when the cab dropped us off at a spectacularly modern, superbly designed building in the heart of Tijuana's Zona Río, there were no cheap hookers (or booze) to be found, no forlorn donkeys painted as zebras and no Tweety Bird dolls. The floating staircases were the only visual evidence that we weren't in one of the tonier sections of our fair county.
Misión 19 is the flagship restaurant of Javier Plascencia, one of the vanguard chefs of the new Baja Med cuisine. The first dish on the tasting menu was a statement of intentions and a primer: Baja Med on a plate. Using the best local ingredients, a refined European technique and the culinary traditions of his land, Plascencia's appetizer was a remarkable parfait of avocado meringue, labne, Baja scallops and chile chiltipin, garnished with a deeply briny sea bean. The overall flavor profile was familiar, but combined as the elements were, instead of bold flavors crashing against each other, what emerged was a subtle interplay, more string quartet than bombastic symphony.
The hit parade continued with a dish of grilled octopus with puréed garlic, pistachios and habanero salsa. Aside from the drama of the presentation, the texture, temperature and flavor contrasts offered a cascading series of intrigues. The perfectly grilled octopus offered textural interest with the slight crunch of the grill's kiss playing against the supple interior, not to mention the interplay with the pistachios and puréed garlic.
Perhaps the best dish was a risotto with heirloom beans, truffles, huitlacoche and epazote foam. It was also the richest dish of the evening. This risotto would have pleased in any high-end Italian restaurant. But the epazote foam and the beans suggested something slightly different, something that the huitlacoche and truffles delivered: a conversation between the "Baja" and the "Med" that carried through on the promise of that first appetizer.
Misión 19 offers a very different kind of Mexican cuisine from what we're accustomed to on this side of the border. More refined? Yes. But also something more than that, something new and creative and a statement that carries an even broader message still. And yet Plascencia's cuisine is also unmistakably Mexican and unquestionably Baja. It speaks, quite specifically, of a time and of a place. It speaks of a new Baja that has shed its inferiority complex and no longer feels the need to sell itself cheaply.