Edible San Diego — Winter 2011
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Just Down The Road
Jay Porter

A Taste of History

This is part of us,” says Javier Plascencia, looking around at the well-dressed locals in his dining room on a Wednesday afternoon. “This is part of our history. My father’s father was a bartender here. We have to do it really good.”

Only a very special restaurant can take inspiration from its own history stretching back for generations, and given San Diego's limited culinary record it may be surprising to find that such a restaurant exists here. However, although this restaurant has served San Diegans for over 80 years, it is not itself.

San Diegan. This is the newly renovated Caesar’s, originator of the Caesar salad and proudly Tijuanan since days when French- and Italian-inspired kitchens welcomed Americans and Mexicans alike in swank dining rooms up and down Avenida Revolución.

“We rescued the Ensalada Victor,” says Plascencia. He explains that this salad was the signature dish at Victor’s Restaurant, a local institution for many years that closed a few years ago. The Victor salad derives from a Caesar salad but uses Mexican cotija cheese instead of Parmesan cheese, adds Heinz A-1 sauce to the dressing and is prepared in a cazuela (clay pot) instead of the traditional wooden bowl of the Caesar. “Only one guy made the salad there for many years, and then another guy worked with him for 15 years.We got the second guy; he makes that salad here.” That second guy, Efraim Montoya, prepares Caesar and Victor salads to order alongside Armando Villegas, who worked at Caesar’s Restaurant in the 1980s.

More that just salads classic Tijuana dining. Plascencia’s kitchen offers an extensive array of traditional Continental dishes such as Beef Wellington, Pulpo Gallego (a staple of Spanish cuisine, octopus with boiled potato and Spanish paprika) and escargot with olive oil, Parmesan, parsley and garlic. Particularly notable is the Italian thrust of the menu, including Milanesa a la Zingara and Chicken Cacciatore.

"Chicken Cacciatore was a dish that was really popular in Tijuana," says Plascencia, whose father began his career working at local Italian restaurants, on his way to becoming head of the leading culinary family in the city. "The [classic Tijuana] cuisine is real influenced by italian.if you ask a Tijuanero what their favorite food is, a lot of times they'll say Italian."

While Plascencia’s revival of Caesar’s incorporates the rich history of Tijuana dining, it also rides the new Baja Gastronomic wave of using local ingredients and taking a Mediterranean approach to food. “The Baja-Med movement is really strong,” says Plascencia. “Maybe more in Ensenada and the wine valley, but also here.What I’m really happy about is that a lot of young cooks are investigating their products [i.e., ingredients].The product is where it starts.”

Caesar's, along with Plascencia's other restaurants, uses 60 gallons per week of olive oil from the nearby wine valley, the Valle de Guadalupe.Additionally,the fish andshellfish served at Caesar's come from Mexico, whether it's abalone from Benito Altamira's farm in Erendira (a couple hours south of Tijuana), or local spinys served, in season only, as Lobster Thermidor.

Even the wines and beers reflect baja's emerging in North American cuisine."Old Caesar's was 100 percent French and Italian wines,"

Explains Plascencia. “Now it’s 95 percent Mexican. With all these things happening in the wine valley, we as restaurateurs want to feature all these wines. And they’re getting better and better every year.” The restaurant’s beer selection includes craft selections from Mexicali’s Cucapá brewery, and even the house beer is made locally by Cerveceria Tijuana.

Asked about the merging of historic and modern Baja, Plascencia explains, “This is the new Caesar’s. It’s old school, but ...” his voice trails off, since the purpose of the restaurant should be obvious to any observer. “A lot of people love these old-school dishes. You can see it in their faces. We’ve had people cry because it brought back memories. This a place where people can feel happy.”

It’s not just Caesar’s that is breathing new life into Tijuana’s venerable center. In recent years, Sixth Street has exploded with vibrancy as the city’s young bohemians have repopulated nightspots seemingly abandoned a generation ago. Now, on weekends, stylish twentysomethings go from longtime Calle Sexta landmarks like Dandy del Sur and La Estrella to new venues such as La Mescalera and Don Loope (owned by a member of pop music’s Nortec Collective).

Caesar’s Restaurant is just steps from the intersection of Sixth and Revolución.“My family, we were really sad it shut down,” says Plascencia, who, being a decade or two older than the current Scenesters, remembers when Avenida Revolución was a party-hearty nightclub strip before it fell out of favor in the early 1990s. “When we bought this, I’m in Tijuana, and I hadn’t stepped on Revolución in probably six years.”

If a revival of the classic venues on Revolución combines with the youth movement on Sixth Street, Tijuana’s downtown might resume its place as the most sophisticated and lively cultural district in our region. It’s a role that still resides in the cultural memory of Tijuanense.

“Families here, there’s more tradition, more continuity. Your grandfather will always be talking to you about the old days, what he ate, what restaurants or bars he went to. Stories go around.”