Javier Plascencia at El Take It Easy - San Diego, CA

Dinner - Monday, March 5, 2012

Javier Plascencia is a man in the spotlight - the chef from Tijuana (who actually attended culinary school right here in San Diego) has garnered numerous accolades in the past year - from a feature on "Mexico, One Plate at a Time", to being the subject of an article in the New York Times and a profile by one of my favourite magazines, the New Yorker. I'd only heard about Plascencia last February, when a post by Street Gourmet LA put him on my radar. His food looked fantastic, and since then, I've been actively looking for an opportunity to try it without crossing the border (visa issues ad nauseum).

Leave it to Jay Porter, outspoken owner of The Linkery and El Take It Easy, to bring Plascencia here for a pop-up dinner at the latter establishment. While I've never found the food at Jay's restaurants particularly compelling, I deeply respect his love of our region's product, and his efforts to promote true farm-to-table cuisine in San Diego. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that we would see this union of the two men, given their common goal of highlighting the local bounty.

Reservations filled up well in advance of this one-night event (not surprising given Plascencia's fame). The evening's menu ran $40 for 5 courses - each course a version of a dish served at one of his Tijuana restaurants. The big question for us was: would we be seeing the cuisine of the punchy Mexican maestro in its true form, or would it tend towards the oft-times insipid flavours we've unfortunately experienced at El Take It Easy.

Amuse - Scallop, beef tendon, nopales
We began with a rather interesting bite from the kitchen - the marinated beef tendon was mildly acidic, its characteristic chew working with the stickiness of the nopales to complement the scallop's natural sweetness. A nice start.

Uni, ahi, green shrimp
We were advised to eat the tostaditas from right to left. The ceviche of green shrimp was passable - well-flavoured but texturally challenging because of the chewy (over-marinated?) shrimp. Much better was the avocado mousse spread below its shell - light and airy, impeccably smooth. Next was the ahi tartare, served with short rib chicharron - my favourite bite of the dish. It was salty, creamy, crunchy and extremely addictive. Finally, an uni flan - it expressed all the expected characteristics of sea urchin, although I found mine slightly muddy.

Caesar salad
The Plascencia clan can now lay claim to Caesar's, the restaurant where Caesar Cardini purportedly invented his namesake salad during the era of Prohibition. According to lore, Caesar was opposed to the idea of anchovies in his salad, so the original dressing recipe does not include it - instead, the hint of fishiness is provided by a healthy dose of Worcestershire sauce. Accordingly, the version served to us used this recipe, freshly made in small batches by what looked to be some of Caesar's staff brought up from Tijuana (I would've liked a true tableside preparation, but it would've been impossible given the hectic nature of the pop-up dinner). What can I say, the salad is a timeless classic - the crunchiness of the full leaves of lettuce, the marked acidity of the dressing. Here, simple is best.

Heirloom bean risotto
Wild mushrooms, black truffle, huitlacoche powder, epazote air
I found this the most visually striking plate of the evening - a study in contrasting colours. It was a delicious mushroom and truffle porridge, but it's interesting how words create expectations (this brings back memories of the shark's fin soup at benu). The epazote foam was largely overpowered by the earthiness of the fungi, as was the huitlacoche powder (not to mention the fact that part of the pleasure of huitlacoche is its texture). Putting expectations aside, I loved the deep flavours from the mushroom and the creaminess of the porridge.

Berkshire pork en Caja China
Mole de fiestas, root vegetables, chochoyones
The pièce de résistance - pork slow-roasted under coals in La Caja China, the Chinese Box. The myth is that Chinese immigrants brought this technique over to the New World (yes, trust us with roasted meats). It was gorgeous, especially with the rich mole poured tableside. The mole was so complex - perhaps one of the best I've ever enjoyed. The vegetables were a nice counterpoint to the meat, except for the large chunk of beet, which I found overpowering. To soak up the sauce, some chochoyones (essentially dumplings made from masa harina) and a side of pumpkin bread (not pictured) were provided. I must confess, I cleaned my plate with my finger - it was that good.

Mexican chocolate ganache
Coffee, cardamom cotton candy, mezcal-compressed strawberry, natilla ice cream
A rather large piece of chocolate ended the meal. This was a fairly straightforward dish, with the exception of the killer cardamom cotton candy - vendors should sell this at fairs instead of the usual junk. I was rather surprised at how understated the coffee was in the context of the other components - perhaps for the best, given its ability to overwhelm.

It seemed evident that the dishes served tonight were just a tantalizing taste of Plascencia's ability (shackled as he was by logistical constraints) - an elaborate advertisement, if you will. It beckoned to us, "For the real deal, you'll have to make your way across the border". And perhaps that is the point - most of us in San Diego are overlooking a huge and still burgeoning food scene a mere half-hour drive away. It looks like I'll need to get that visa taken care of very soon.

El Take It Easy
3926 30th St.
San Diego, CA
Phone: (619) 291-1859