For months, I’ve been watching my San Diego writer and blogger friends — even some from OC — visit Bracero Cocina de Raiz. The restaurant has only been open three months and the itch to visit got the best of mec, so I decide to drive down to San Diego and taste for myself, some of the beautiful dishes I’ve been seeing on my Facebook feed.
We arrive to a bustling restaurant. The stunning two-storied sprawling eatery is 200 shy of 5000 square feet, with stand-out decor running throughout. Take for instance the wall of hats aligning the wall as you make your way up to the second floor, or the moving art installation paying homage to the restaurant’s namesake. (The Bracero program allowed the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the United States.) **photos in collage courtesy of Bracero Cocina de Raiz**
The restaurant is the latest venture from Javier Plascencia, who is a well-known celebrity chef in Baja having several restaurants, the most famous being Misión 19 in Tijuana. Cocina de Raiz means “cooking from one’s roots” and the extensive menu offers an array of excellent selections in each of the five sections.
I suggest you start with something subtle like Albacore Two Ways/ Seared/ Tartare ($16.95). Its composition comprises crispy tempura-style eggplant, layered with seared tuna sitting in a burnt onion crème fraîche which we can’t get enough of. It is mildly reminiscent of French onion dip, but so refined it makes your mouth long for more. The lime salsa verde and jalapeño ponzu add a tinge of acid and heat respectively to the dish.
The next two dishes are so mouth-puckering good and so robust in flavor, I highly recommend you wait until you get the more subtle dishes out of the way before eating these. Otherwise, your mouth will miss the nuances of those other dishes such as the one before.
Carrot Aguachile ($16) looks as beautiful as it tastes. Chunks of local tuna and sweet Baja media luna scallops swim in a bath of carrot, ginger and ghost pepper. There is a distinctively kick which lightly stings the mouth, but it makes me crave for more. The cashews and smoked steelhead roe are dotted sporadically throughout so it is difficult to pick everything up with our forks. I suggest we use spoons to scoop a little of everything. This way, you’ll definitely get the full experience of every single component on the plate.
The same goes for Baja Hiramasa Crudo ($16) a stunning dish of white fish in a coconut aguachile, flavored with cured pineapple. Slices of tomatillo add tartness; the avocado gives a richness to the mix; while chiltepin (a wild Mexican chile) and serrano provide a hint of heat. Toasted coconut provides the crunchy element and a mild sweetness to balance the palate. The flavors remind me of pina colada, and calms the mouth especially after the heat from the carrot aguachile. We are going back and forth on the two, loving both for different reasons.
I am surprised Chef Javier is at the restaurant, but honored he stops by our table to say hello. He is extremely gracious as always and thanks us for coming in.
Moving on, we try three tacos Fideo ($5), Beef Tongue Confit with Chile Morita Verde ($5.50) and Mexitarrean (Gyro Style) Adobada ($5.50). My friend, who is not usually a fan of tongue is impressed by the texture and flavors of the beef tongue confit. I, on the other hand, enjoy the Mexitarrean the best. The filling reminds me of al pastor, and is topped with jalapeño tzatziki, olla beans, and a piece of roasted pineapple.
We are both enamored with Corn Masa Crispy Perfect Egg ($13). A runny poached egg is encased in corn masa and fried. The egg is then cut in half, topped with beef tartare, potato foam, and a sprinkling of vegetable ash which coats the plate. An unctuous cippolini onion “confit” graces the plate, and is so delicious we want another. This is one of the dishes which we dissect, deconstructing each component on the plate, then bringing them all together again. The slivers of burnt chives are magical, adding a hint of char here and there. Each bite provides a different taste depending on what you happen to pick up. It is one of our favorites of the night and my photo does it absolutely no justice.
Shrimp & Bone Marrow Sopes (14.95) is immensely decadent and I suggest sharing. Black bean corn masa sopes are topped with shrimp and bone marrow, before they are composed with fried parsley and a paper thin slice of watermelon radish. Chile de arbol and avocado crema combine to create complex layers of flavors in each bite. It is rich, bold, and sinful.
There are two dishes we are a little disappointed with, one is the “Sabina Bandera” Tostada ($13.95) which we feel is simply, a ceviche tostada topped with uni. Unadventurous palates may enjoy it, but we find it a little too ordinary, especially when there are SO many outstanding offerings on the menu.
The other is Albondigas + Crispy Brisket + Shortrib ($24). While we both absolutely love the sublime albondigas, the shortrib is dry and on the bland side. The chochoyones — reminiscent of masa gnocchi — are a little dense, but it is the ayocote (runner) beans caldillo I’m not able to stop eating. Pickled chayote squash is an innovative accoutrement — the perfect acidic component on the plate.
My favorite dish item of the night has got to be Wood Grilled Octopus ($16.95). There are no words that will aptly describe the wow-factor of this dish starting with the plating.
The octopus is tender with a stunning char coating, and is delicious enough on its own. Cut a piece off, scoop some of the olives, crispy green garbanzo beans, yuzu roasted peanuts and jalapeño, onto your fork and eat. Then, take a piece of octopus and run it through the squid ink black bean sauce and put it in your mouth. This is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. There are five or six textural components affording a different experience in every bite. I’m trying to make this plate last as long as I can, but still end up eating about 75% of it. It is SO good.
The savory portion of our meal comes to an end. I don’t have a sweet tooth, nor do I have room in my stomach for dessert, but there are two items on the menu which catch our eye. I am curious about the Soft Corn Tamale ($11) with goat’s milk caramel, a quenelle of aged cotija cheese ice cream, several Concord grapes, and bits of cashews. I’ll have to admit, the tamale is to-die-for. It is incredibly light and its softness dissipates in my mouth as quickly as the ice cream. The only component I am unsure about is the grapes, as it neither enhances nor detracts from the rest of the dish.
My friend’s eyes says it all when I see the spoonful of Coconut Flan ($11) being consumed. As I am still relishing in the tamale, it takes me a few more minutes before I get to the flan, but when I do, it is absolutely divine. Nectarine slices add freshness, but it is the alegria, or Mexican sesame candy, which adds a welcoming crunch to the soft flan. Lemon verbena ash is dusted on the plate lending a hint of citrus to the plate. Absolutely stunning!
Throughout our meal, we are discussing the creative preparation and ingredient combinations on the plates. The marriage of textures and flavors are so progressive, so outside of the norm, it creates chatter while taking our taste-buds to another level. We have been experiencing menu fatigue, tired of repetitive menus, and chefs who stay safe, who are not willing to push the envelope, or to step outside of the box. I think this is why our meal at Bracero is a breath of fresh air. I can’t wait to return again if only to eat the carrot aguachile, wood grilled octopus, and those mind-blowingly good desserts.
Bracero Cocina de Raiz
1490 Kettner Blvd
San Diego, CA 92101