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From Romesco to Bracero & Beyond: Javier Plascencia Builds a Food Empire

An interview with the partners behind San Diego's biggest new opening.

L: Luis Pena, R: Javier Plascencia
L: Luis Pena, R: Javier Plascencia

This month, Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro celebrates its 10 year anniversary. The Javier Plascencia-led restaurant opened in 2005 in Bonita as an extension of the Plascencia Group family of restaurants, which includes Tijuana's Villa Saverios and Casar's. Focusing on the ingredients of Baja, Romesco would be one of San Diego first outposts to highlight a style of food that is now having a serious culinary moment. Since then, Plascencia has launched several more restaurants in Mexico, including Tijuana's Mision 19 and Erizo Cevicheria and the Valle de Guadalupe's Finca Altozano.

To ring in the anniversary, Romesco has several events scheduled, from a beer pairing dinner on Thursday to a Baja wine dinner on Friday with signature dishes from Plascencia Group restaurants and a family-friendly all-day brunch on Sunday.

We sat down with Plascencia and Luis Pena, who runs Romesco and will be a partner in Bracero Cocina de Raiz, their highly-anticipated restaurant coming to Little Italy in late May, to talk about Romesco's future, the Baja food boom, and more (!!!) new concepts for San Diego

Why did your family choose to put Romesco in Bonita?
Plascencia: I went to high school here so we knew a lot of people in the area. And at the time, a lot of people from Tijuana were moving here. We knew we could give great service and do good food, and brought some of the best things from our other restaurants. But since I was in the kitchen back then, I also wanted to do my own take on things; some of those dishes stayed and some didn't. Sea urchin wouldn't sell, and I tried to do a chef's tasting menu that didn't work.

How has the restaurant evolved?
Pena: It was a learning process, we had to adapt. Business here is very different than on the other side of the border. We had to change things around to fit the local taste. But the Baja food trend has now made us more of a destination, we're seeing a lot of new faces.

Plascencia: When we opened for lunch, it was strange to see people not having wine or tequila with lunch. Everyone just wanted to rush in and out, and our menu was designed the way that people have lunch in Mexico, over two or three hours. But things have come around, octopus, tripe and beef cheek are our bestsellers and we've been talking about adding new, more creative items. People are ready.

What other changes are you planning for Romesco?
Pena: Actually our lease is up and we're thinking about either staying here or taking Romesco to another location, possibly up north in a spot that would be more accessible.

You're opening Bracero in Little Italy next month, why has it taken 10 years for a second San Diego restaurant?
Plascencia: I opened Mision 19 five years ago and I wanted to be part of the Tijuana movement, so I was there for the first few years without leaving. Then Finca Altozano came and I did a lot of traveling and events. But I just moved back to San Diego and I've been going out to dinner every night to see what's going on locally. I'm really excited to be a part of it and bring something different here.

What are the big differences between opening restaurants in Mexico and San Diego?
Pena: There are so many more bureaucratic and logistical issues here. Over there, you can just build and then ask for forgiveness. And the money — you could open three Braceros in Mexico for what it costs to open one here.

Plascencia: Management here is very systematic. I'm more used to doing things by heart and writing down menus the night before.

How will Bracero be structured?
Pena: It will be the same menu upstairs and downstairs, but they will have different vibes; downstairs is first-come, first-serve and upstairs is reservations and tableside service.

Plascencia: Downstairs will have a raw and ceviche bar, plus a taco area where you can see the tortillas being made; it'll be casual for people that just want a few bites and drinks. Upstairs will be shared platters, nothing too fancy— just authentic, well-prepared food.

How does it feel to have the most-anticipated restaurant opening? Will it be something that San Diego's never seen before?
Pena: There's a little pressure, but we're pretty confident that we can deliver what people are waiting for.

Plascencia: Menu-wise, there will be things and ingredients that people haven't seen or tried before. I want to teach people about real regional Mexican food. I will be in the restaurant most nights and I want to educate people about Baja and convince them to visit the area. And with the restaurant's name, Bracero, we want to pay tribute to everyone from the workers in the fields to Latino immigrants making wine in Napa Valley.

What's the next evolution of Baja food in San Diego?
Plascencia: My chef colleagues from the industry in Baja are excited for what we're doing. If we're successful, it can help open the doors for them and I think they'll want to do the same. And I hope Bracero can help get more national recognition for San Diego.

After Bracero, what's next?
Pena: We're definitely planning on doing three or four more spots in San Diego.

Plascencia: I like seeing chefs who stay in their region and develop different concepts, I would love to do that.

King and Queen Cantina

1490 Kettner Boulevard, , CA 92101 (619) 756-7864 Visit Website

Romesco Baja Med Bistro

4346 Bonita Road, Bonita, CA 91902 619-479-8627