Bracero is the highly anticipated restaurant by Chef Javier Plascencia, a star chef in Tijuana and a leader in the Baja movement, which opened in Little Italy a few weeks ago.
We are big fans of Chef Plascenica’s food and have been eagerly anticipating this opening. While we’ve never had the pleasure of dining at Mision 19, we have dined at Romesco’s several times as well as trying his food at several chef collaboration and tasting events.
The restaurant is divided into two levels. The downstairs is open seating while the upstairs section takes reservations. We had a friend coming to visit and I immediately tried to book a reservation but had no luck getting a table on a Saturday night for this hot new place. However, following the restaurant’s guidance, we arrived shortly before the doors opened and were just barely able to snag a table in the downstairs section. We were there about 15 minutes early and already there was a line and within minutes of opening, it was completely full.
The downstairs section has tables sets for groups of two and four. Anything larger and you’re seated at one of the longer community tables, which is where we ended up with our group.
A few people in our group ordered cocktails and one person ordered a beer. I didn’t take any photos of the drinks. We hit a small snag to start our meal when the beer appeared to be forgotten and we had to ask for it again.
BEEF TONGUE CONFIT WITH SALSA VERDE
First to arrive were our trio of tacos. The finely shredded beef tongue had such a different texture than the normal chewy beef tongue I’m used to. I loved how tender the meat was. The real star though, was the made-to-order tortilla it sat on. I’ve always viewed tortillas as a vehicle for the taco filling, but these tortillas were effortlessly soft and bursting with corn flavor. I could easily just eat a pile of these tortillas.
One of our friends, who grew up eating homemade tortillas and had been a bit doubtful of the high prices set for these tacos, admitted that the tortillas were pretty darn good.
LAMB NECK BARBACOA
Equally enjoyable was the barbeque lamb neck taco. It was juicy, flavorful, and good enough that we ordered two.
After we polished off our tacos, one of the servers arrived bringing us various house-made sauce creations to eat with the tacos. Obviously the restaurant was still working out some kinks since these clearly should have arrived before our tacos did. It is too bad as they were quite good.
WOOD GRILLED OCTOPUS
My favorite octopus dish of all time is the one at Romseco’s, also owned by Chef Plascencia, so I couldn’t wait to see what he was doing with this version. Tender smoky pieces of octopus were surrounded by a colorful array of beans and tomatoes and finished with a black bean and squid ink sauce. While I didn’t find this dish as amazing as the one at Romesco, it was still a really well prepared octopus dish that I really enjoyed and would order again. It was also our first look at the unique plate designs they chose for this space.
After this dish, our dinner hit another snag. If you’re counting, that’s three now, and that’s not including the lack of water refills. Our meal seemed to come to a standstill. Our friend, who had skipped lunch and was already starving when we arrived, was starting to get impatient. When we asked about the status of our food, the server informed us that the entrees take a bit longer.
This is logical explanation, except for two things. First, we weren’t just waiting on entrees. We still had a raw dish and another appetizer that hadn’t yet arrived. Second, sharing our table was another group who had arrived after us and ordered much later than us, and they had already received all their food, including their entrees.
After a few minutes, our server came back and told us she had checked on our entrees and they’d be here shortly. We then reminded her we still had other courses we were waiting on…
While these arrived pretty as a picture, I found the flavors a little too mild. Perhaps it was hastily prepared after they realized we hadn’t been served it yet?
CAJA CHINA LAMB ROASTED ASADO
Finally, our entrees arrived. Like all the dishes preceding it, the presentation was beautiful, which is pretty hard to do when you’re working with a pile of brown meat and bones. The flavors of this dish were simple and earthy, letting the natural flavors of the lamb be the star.
ALBONDIGAS + CRISPY BRISKET + SHORTRIB
The shortrib was another winner. I didn’t really eat much of this one, but our out-of-town friend was so impressed that he said he would return for this dish alone, despite the snags in service.
SHRIMP & BONE MARROW SOPES
Last to arrive, was another one of our small plates, which had obviously been forgotten since it arrived at the end. While I’ve never really enjoyed bone marrow, Chef Plascencia’s bone marrow sopes at Romesco’s is always a must-order for me and it’s about the only time I’ll eat it. So I was extremely happy to see a version of it.
The sopes were crisp on the outside, with a soft interior. They held together well even though they were heaped high with shrimp and bone marrow bites. This was a very tasty bite though I missed the presentation from the Romesco’s version.
At this point in the meal, a manager came over to check on us. She had apparently heard about our dissatisfaction with the meal pacing and wanted to see how everything was. I normally don’t like to speak up when I’m dining out, but since she had asked a direct question, I told her our unhappiness with how long we waited for most of our food. I was pleased to see that at least they were working on the service and that the restaurant was aware of the issues.
The manager offered to comp us dessert since we had some issues with our meal. Here, there was a little confusion. After we perused the dessert menu and chose our desserts, she came back to take the order. It soon became apparent that she had only meant to comp a single dessert, which I think is a little unreasonable given that there were five of us, we had spent over $150, and they had forgotten so many of our dishes. However, I will give her credit, once she realized we had each chosen a dessert, she didn’t even blink an eye and smoothly took all our orders.
So many times I feel the weakest portion of a restaurant’s meal is their dessert. But this was not the case here. The restaurant obviously has a very talented pastry chef on board. Each dessert was beautifully presented, thoughtfully created, and a real treat to taste.
The flan was light and creamy, without being overwhelmingly sweet as many flans are. The fresh summer peaches and lemon verbena added a touch of acidity and the alegria candy and freshly grated coconut added textures to round out the dish.
My favorite of our desserts, this was such a refreshing and playful plate. Cucumber mezcal granita, mango sorbet, candied chili ancho, dried tamarind. I loved the sourness, textures, and the cool, refreshing granita. The colors were so lovely as well.
SOFT CORN TAMALE
Another group favorite. The soft corn tamale was soaked in a bed of goat’s milk caramel, paired with aged cotjia ice cream and topped with concord grapes and chopped cashews. There was just something so comforting about this dish.
DULCE DE LECHE COYOTA
This was my least favorite of the desserts we tried, but it might be because I don’t generally like citrus based desserts. I just found the kumquats and citrus notes a tad overwhelming.
STONE GROUND CHOCOLATE MEZQUITE
After all the other desserts we tried, I did find this one to be a little boring. The chocolate cake bites were fudgy and rich, but overall the dish seemed a little dry, with only the dollops of avocado cream and ice cream providing any moisture.
Overall, we really enjoyed the food here but found the service still has a lot of kinks to work out, which hopefully they will. I did appreciate the effort of the manager to stay informed and her efforts to make up for the mistakes during service. My friends did say they enjoyed the food and would return and I hope to come back again soon and get a chance to see the upstairs section. Despite the hiccups with service, this was one of the best meals we’ve eaten in 2015.
Tip: If you can’t get a reservation in the upstairs dining section, remember the downstairs sections is open to walk-ins. Just make sure you arrive before they open to snag a table.
Bracero Cocina de Raiz
1490 Kettner Blvd
San Diego, CA 92101