Editor’s note — this restaurant has closed: On July 30 we learned that El Jardín restaurant in Liberty Station closed to undergo a total transformation. The new concept will not include its critically acclaimed Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, but rather will be a collaboration of three of Rise & Shine Hospitality Group’s chefs who will create a new menu. The bar will focus on signature “margarita-forward” cocktail selections, as well as an array of beers and wine. The restaurant is expected to reopen on Wednesday August 28, as the new El Jardín Cantina. Ranch & Coast connected with Chef Zepeda-Wilkins on the heels of this news, who said, “It’s with a heavy heart that I announce my departure from El Jardín. I could not be prouder of our team’s accomplishments over the past year or more grateful for the opportunity to realize this formidable dream — from creating a platform to showcase the richness and depth of regional Mexican cuisine, to empowering each and every member within the El Jardín family. Our gratitude extends to all those within the San Diego community and beyond who have ardently supported us in our mission. I am excited for the next step in my career and look forward to what the future will bring. I’ll be in touch with more news on that soon.”
Posted on August 2, 2019
You can spend months gallivanting across Mexico, forging relationships with culinarily-astute grandmothers along the way to get authentic tastes of each region’s heritage, or you can spend an evening at El Jardín, where celeb chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins spent months doing all that legwork for you. The goal of her epic(urean) journey was to meet and cook with women across that nation so she could celebrate them through their recipes upon her return, and that vision is beautifully executed at El Jardín, her year-old Liberty Station restaurant.
Dishes on Zepeda-Wilkins’ menu cite the locales from which they hail — Tijuana, Puebla, Sonora, Oaxaca. Some are micro-regional, such as a spin on Caesar salad with crispy chicharrón and aged Cotija cheese based on the recipe from its birthplace in Tijuana, or a taco stuffed with smoked ground pork and dressed in a sesame-laced sauce inspired by Szechuan Dan Dan noodles. The roots of that fusional offering trace back to Mexicali’s La Chinesca district, Mexico’s largest Chinese community.
Not a seasoned south-of-the-border sojourner? No problem. A map of Mexico isn’t needed to navigate the perfect start to dinner on El Jardín’s shaded patio, where the sounds of acoustic guitar and maracas waft in on the smoky breeze from the outdoor rotisserie. Simply order a trio of salsas and molcajete of creamy guacamole with light, puffy corn tortillas that you break into chips sized to your liking. The spiciest of those condiments is made with toasty chili de arbol that’s subtle with a slow burn. Try it on anything meaty or earthy. For seafood dishes, opt for the salsa verde, which gets its tartness from tomatillos. That ingredient — a cousin of similarly acidic gooseberries — makes for an all-natural sweet-and-sour broth when combined with strawberries in a spicy aguachile served with tender chunks of oft-changing fish.
Upon first slice, a quartet of squash blossoms encased in a pillowy batter reveals dense crab or a lava flow of salty Oaxacan quesillo, making for a lovely, versatile starter. Tender al pastor (chile- and citrus-marinated) octopus with traditional pineapple and cleverly untraditional chickpea purée and cilantro yogurt sauce touches on all the senses. Then, there’s the bone marrow. Whereas this near-ubiquitous offering is usually served by its lonesome, Zepeda-Wilkins tops hers with smoked shrimp and a dusting of crumbled chicharrón. This smart, rich take on surf and turf will make it hard to go back to naked beef butter.
Stars of the land and water are both on-point where mains are concerned. A wood-grilled ribeye is more than just a hunk of meat thanks to a spicy, garlicky ajillo sauce and rose-hued oyster mushrooms. A chile-marinated Baja sea bass is a masterpiece served whole and offering various textures from luscious cheeks to a moist midsection and crisp, charred tail end, all of which taste delicious packed into warm tortillas. Or, go with what is easily the most wholesome and thoughtful take on a Sonora hot dog in history thanks to wagyu beef, chorizo, crispy pork jowls, and a side of sunchoke chips.
Regardless of the region, Zepeda-Wilkins invokes equal parts innovation and homage. The food at El Jardín is anything but the same old thing — in many cases something you’d have to travel a great distance for — and it’s all very good. 619.795.2322, eljardinrestaurantbar.com BRANDON HERNÁNDEZ
Culinary Innovation: 4
Food Quality: 5
Wine & Cocktail List: 4
Craft Beer Program: 3
Photography by Vincent Knakal