The reason our bus left Union Station so early on a Friday afternoon was so that we could make it to a pair of marquee Baja Culinary Fest dinners in up-and-coming Tijuana. About 30% of our gastronomical tour group attended a game-focused feast at Miguel Angel Guerrero’s restaurant – La Querencia – but the bulk of bus goers opted for dinner at Mision 19, the most ambitious restaurant yet from rising Baja culinary star Javier Plascencia, who drew additional culinary support from chefs John Sedlar (Los Angeles), Pablo Salas (Toluca) and Angel Vasquez (Puebla).
We started on the third floor of Via’s eco-friendly, mixed use development, at Bar 20, home of Mixologia Contemporanea. As longtime Plascencia supporter and tour organizer Bill Esparza pointed out (and he would know), this is perhaps Mexico’s most ambitious cocktail program to date. Some members of our group settled on an open air patio with a central fire pit and wavy settees. Inside, we admired the backlit bar from high tables, under a ceiling with exposed wood planks and next to a lounge and DJ deck that dispensed Depeche Mode and U2. Entering Mision 19, we passed recycling and compost bins. Who else supports those practices in Tijuana?
The industrial dining room is glass sided, with dangling railroad ties and staves, polished concrete floors, wood tables with stone centerpieces sporting cacti and bright red tuna [cactus fruit], and a wine wall that partially conceals the kitchen of the auteur, aka “cocina de autor.”
Stacie Hunt and Paulina Avelez paired wines, and Ramon tended to our table, during a marathon meal. We received many breads, beginning with crispy flatbread brushed with olive oil.
Plascencia and Sedlar were known entities prior to our meal, so it was fun to learn about new chefs like Vasquez, whose Primer Tiempo was one of the night’s highlights. His Tiradito de Hamachi featured rosy fish fillets with thin-shaved watermelon radish (rabanos), crunchy dry charales with bulging eyes, crumbled chicharron, tart limon en conserva, creamy, punchy habanero, black salt (sal negra) with and crunchy sea asparagus (salicornia). The Baja pairings fluctuated during the meal, but one of my favorites was JC Bravo-Palomino 2010, a dry, acidic white wine.
Plascencia dazzled diners with his Segundo Tiempo: roasted bone marrow (Tuetano de Res Rostizado) topped with silky yellowtail tuna (atun aleta amarrilla), savory tobiko, serrano air (aire de serrano) and tiny crostini on a sea salt bed with more decorative, naturally salty salicornia.
Revered L.A. bartender Julian Cox works with Sedlar on a regular basis at Rivera and Playa, and he prepared a refreshing Cocktail Negrito Sandia, featuring fresh juiced watermelon, gin, mint, “seasoning” and a salty finish.
We enjoyed fluffy Zucchini bread before Salas presented his Tercer Tiempo: watercress salad with brown sugar vinaigrette (Ensalada de Berros con Vinagreta de Piloncillo), crisp string beans, fresh peas, and both tiny crumbles and firm white squares of queso de rancho Alegria. The pairing was a minerally glass of Paralelo Emblema 2010.
A savory jalapeno tomato cornbread muffin segued into Sedlar’s twist on a signature dish for Cuarto Tiempo: The airy sweet corn flan (Sardinera flan de elote) appeared in a dyed husk topped with quinoa negra and flor de calbaza, plated with firm, flaky grouper fillet flavored with vadouvan, French curry. The pairing was Pijoan Dominica 2009, which was too tart and sugary for my taste.
Sedlar went back to back with Quinto Tiempo: quail (Codorniz) from Baja’s Valle de Guadelupe, plated with smoky enfrijolada sauce, garlic cream sauce and a chile relleno filled with earthy duxelle de champinones.
For Sexto Tiempo, Salas prepared a stack of soft pork tenderloin in mole like almendrado (almond sauce), presenting on papa cambray with tangy shaved olives and capers. The pairing consisted of Vino shimul-yumano 2009.
We enjoyed tiny ridged croissants that would have been even better if warm, before Vasquez offered Septimo Tiempo. A seared square of braised pork belly arrived on a puree of surprisingly sweet plantain (platano), vainilla, orange (naranja), with tart green tomato relish, stewed beans and a cocoa reduction that didn’t reduce the sweetness of the dish quite enough. The pairing: Estacion porvenir-textura 3 2009.
At this point, about three hours into the dinner, some of us were starting to fade, so we ordered a round of espresso, which coincidentally arrived with tiny ciabatta. That led to Octavo Tiempo, in which Plascencia presented dry aged duck (pato anejado en seco) with fuyu persimmon, tart pomegranate seeds (granada), Brussels sprouts (col de Bruselas) and marzapan. The duck was too chewy, and the overall elements, too sweet. The pairing: Vinas Pijoan-Leonora 2009.
Local cheeses are always welcome, and for Noveno Tiempo, Plascencia gathered four interesting Quesos Regionales, arranging them from spongy goat to firm and funky, plating with honey and artisanal marmalade.
Our final course – Decimo Tiempo – was an interesting study of color, texture and flavor, complete with bitter chocolate (amargo) fudge, a milk chocolate orb, a brilliant red flower, a crush of salty peanut (cacahuate salado), and a mildly sweet, earthy tube of yellow autumn squash (Calabaza De Otono).
At the end of the meal, the chefs and bartender took a curtain call to a round of applause, including an L.A. contingent of Julian Cox, Joe Panarello (Rivera chef de cuisine), John Sedlar and Kevin Luvande (Playa chef de cuisine).
So many people participated in the meal that they couldn’t all fit into a single photo. Check out Mision 19 Chefs with Javier Plascencia at the center, celebrating their triumph at the inaugural Baja Culinary Fest, which may very well (and hopefully will) become an annual culinary tradition.