Across the US/Mexican border sits a hidden gem in the culinary world. Some amazing food has been coming out of Tijuana the last couple of years and has largely gone unnoticed. This is, no doubt, due to the past troubles associated with the drug cartels. Fortunately this is no longer the case. Tijuana has seen a renaissance of food in the culinary world. Chefs with the likes of Chad White, Javier Plascencia, and Drew Decker et al have been transforming the Baja cuisine to new heights.
I recently traveled across the border from San Diego into Tijuana to experience the food first hand. I had not been to Tijuana in many years, so I was a bit apprehensive. I met up with a very young and talented chef named Iker Castillo. Iker has been the Chef de Cuisine at La Justina since its inception. La Justina is spear headed by the very talented Chef Chad White, who also owns Comun in downtown San Diego as well as Craft Pizza Co. in La Jolla. He, along with the team at La Justina, is creating food that is making a new name for Mexican cuisine.
Shortly ffter the initial meeting with Chef Castillo, he and I went to the local market, Mercado Hidalgo, to gather some ingredients for the day’s special. Much to my surprise, it was better than anything on the US border in San Diego! The market showcased several different types of tunas (cactuses) that one cannot easily get on US side of the border. There was an amazing assortment of Moles, the so-called Mexican “truffle” Huitlacoche, as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables. We decided to purchase dried Pasilla peppers, fresh Guajillo peppers and some local vegetables.
Several dishes and signature cocktails were showcased that day. Of the drinks that were crafted by the in house mixologist Eddie, was one called “Labios Rojos”. This was a blend of fresh watermelon, Mezcal, Guajillo Chile’s and then torched. As expected, the drink was a blend of sweet, heat and salt. Chef Iker prepared a piece of local yellowtail that was cured in mesquite. It was then basted and seared in a sauté pan with a butter/garlic sauce. The fish was finished off in their glorious wood fire brick oven–giving it a slightly smoky taste on the back end of your palate. The finished dish was composed of the yellowtail, a cauliflower puree and some local heirloom vegetables that we got that morning at the Mercado. Having cooked and eaten all around the world, I will say, that if one were to close their eyes while enjoying La Justina’s food, you would not know better and would easily be mistaken for a high-end restaurant in Manhattan or LA.
I cannot say enough good things about the restaurant, Chef Iker and the team at La Justina. The short travel across the border was one that I will make again and will recommend to my fellow “Foodies”. Baja and Mexico should be proud of the food coming out of Tijuana. I implore more people in the US to travel south across its borders and expand their palates.