Opening this Friday, El Jardín is one of the country’s most anticipated restaurants and the highest stakes endeavor yet for its executive chef and guiding force, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins. A native San Diegan who was also raised in Tijuana and Guadalajara, Zepeda-Wilkins’ culinary career began at the age of 19, first in the pastry realm and then on the savory side, which led to a high-profile position as chef de cuisine of the now-shuttered Bracero, named one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in the nation in 2016. Partnering with Rise & Shine Restaurant Group owner Johan Engman to bring El Jardín to Liberty Station, she competed on ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Top Chef Mexico’ while traveling and cooking extensively throughout Mexico and the U.S. as she developed the restaurant’s contemporary Mexican menu.
Although the chef’s presentations may be modern, her ingredients and recipes are steeped in history, ranging from plates inspired by her aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara to regional dishes tasted throughout Mexico; diners will discover fresh scallops from Sonora, mole crafted by a one-woman operation in Puebla, dried shrimp from Valladolid, and flavors imparted by lesser-seen ingredients including mamay pit and ant resin.
Zepeda-Wilkins says she’ll regularly swap in dishes to keep dishes fresh, both for sake of diners and her own. A six person chef’s counter will feature its own nightly menu and she also plans to launch family meals, available for groups, that will range from whole pig feasts to carne asada dinner with all the fixings. A guest chef series, launching later this fall, will highlight chef collaborators from acclaimed Mexican restaurant as well as chef friends including St John’s legendary Fergus Henderson.
Rejoining Zepeda-Wilkins from Bracero’s kitchen are sous chefs Paola Gonzalez and Leo Gutierrez, as well as consulting beverage director Christian Siglin (Cutwater Spirits, Craft & Commerce), whose cocktail list pulls in unique ingredients from the menu, including Chiapas coffee-infused tequila, housemade pineapple tepache, and avocado leaf tea. A tequila twist on a Spanish gin and tonic is garnished with herbs from the on-site garden. In addition to a large selection of agave spirits, from mezcal and tequila to sotol and Bacanora, as well as Mexican and local craft beer, advanced sommelier Molly Brooks has assembled a wine list that features Mexican producers as well highlights female vintners and winery owners.
Zepeda-Wilkins and Engman sourced nearly every decor from local artisans, including murals by artist Gloria Muriel, Huichol-beaded bull skulls, handmade chairs from Guadalajara, and textiles woven by families in Chiapas. Much had been made about the matriarchal nature of the restaurant, and Zepeda-Wilkins says she’s committed to continuing fostering the relationships made through creating the restaurant and maintaining a warm and welcoming atmosphere for El Jardin’s diners that will extend to the her staff.
El Jardín will be open for dinner nightly from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. A bar menu will be offered from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Weekend brunch, served on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m, will launch later in July.