Heavy sits the yoke of expectations. Just ask a tiger mom's child or a first-round draft pick. Or you might have asked Javier Plascencia before the opening of Bracero Cocina de Raiz (1490 Kettner Blvd.) in Little Italy, easily the most celebrated restaurant opening of the year.
It was not Plascencia's first San Diego-area restaurant; he'd opened Romesco in 2005. But that was then—before the New York Times and New Yorker articles, before TV appearances on No Reservations and The Taste. It was before Plascencia became the face of the new Baja cuisine (aka “BajaMed”). Now the stakes were higher, and with Bracero Plascencia doubled down. It seems to have been a good bet.
The best dishes at Bracero are the small plates. The carrot aguachile, for example—ahi tuna and calla de hacha (think scallops) with ghost pepper, and smoked steelhead trout roe—is an elevated play on a classic mariscos dish tied together by carrots two-ways: shaved and juiced. Plascencia plays adventurously with a similar concept presenting beef tongue as a tiradito with toasted eggplant purée and a decidedly Mediterranean flavor profile.
In his shrimp and bone marrow sopes, Plascenscia refines one of Romesco's best offerings. Without the drama of the bone towers on the plate the focus shifts to the sopes themselves—crisp exterior, soft inside—and interplay of the shrimp and marrow. Plascencia again plays with the concept (masa offered in less familiar forms) with a dish of corn masa cups holding eggs cooked sous vide sitting over a potato foam with cascading raw diced beef and a cipollini onion. At its base this is the elements of a sope dish combined with the deconstructed—and recombined—components of a classic tartare.
There's more. Five-dollar street tacos may seem hard to swallow until you've experienced the deep flavors of the lamb neck barbacoa tacos emerging from the combination caja china/Santa Maria BBQ rig designed for Bracero by local craftsman Gustav Anders Rooth (the key to an entire class of roast-meat-and-fish main courses). Bracero's menu is long. But it is not the length of the menu that makes it a standout, but rather the ambition—more than Romesco or Finca Altozano, if slightly less than Misión 19.
It is, however, a different kind of ambition. One part of the eager anticipation for Bracero was the quiet, slightly embarrassed whispers that Bracero might be transformational. There was a sense, before, that San Diego's dining scene might not yet be ready for BajaMed. Maybe this would be different. Maybe this would make it different.
And the proof may lie in a dish that's no longer on Bracero's menu. Repeatedly I heard diners at neighboring tables bemoan the fact the butter fried escamoles (ant larva) dish that'd been on the opening menu was gone (supply issues). Ant larva?
Who would have believed San Diego diners would lament the unavailability of ant larva? Bracero may actually be the game changer even those who most anticipated its arrival did not dare fully expect. It does not speak down to us. It does not play it safe. Bracero is the new Baja cuisine without compromise.