Bracero — Cocina De Raiz
’Tis the duty of a reviewer to arrive at a restaurant full of objectivity, shed of opinion and predisposition. That said, I couldn’t help but expect a lot entering world-renowned chef Javier Plascencia’s new double-decker, dual-kitchen Little Italy eatery, Bracero. The cross-border chef has wowed foodies hungry for creative spins on Mexican cuisine rooted in traditional Baja flavors and techniques from his eight-year-old Bonita bistro, Romesco. And translation of his proud heritage via delicious dishes at his myriad restaurants south of the border have won him a reputation as one of Mexico’s most groundbreaking gastronomic ambassadors. When food transcends flavor and nutritional values to change opinions and educate diners about a country and its people, that’s special; the kind of thing that raises expectations. That can be dangerous for both chef and diner, but rest assured, expectations, no matter how lofty, are bound to be not only met, but exceeded at Bracero.
Excuse me as I gush, like crema and chorizo from between a freshly griddled, house-pressed corn tortilla topped with 18-month-aged cotija cheese. That decadent sensation comes courtesy of a Fideo taco, one of many takes on this street-food staple. Other standouts include a “Mexiterranean” gyro-adobada hybrid with zesty pork offset by pineapple and jalapeño tzatziki, and a petite round of masa stuffed with the most tender lengua on either side of the border — it’s a thing of beauty.
Other classics including tamales (huitlacoche in banana leaves), tostadas (corvine ceviche, clam, and urchin), chilaquiles and guacamole are elevated, but perhaps the best upgrade is in the sopes. Thick disks of corn are topped with shrimp bathing in a beefy bone marrow reduction garnished with bright fried parsley.
While one’s appetite for done-up but familiar Mexican will be sated, so too will the hopes of epicures on the hunt for something more contemporary. A seafood coctel packed to the gills with abalone, smoked salmon roe and an oyster in a spicy tomato liquid evocative of Maria Sangrienta is given a luxurious, velveteen texture care of uni and a quail egg. Lightly seared albacore is placed atop tempura-fried eggplant with a squirt of burnt onion crème fraîche for a unique symphony of textures and flavors. Then there’s the “perfect egg,” an extra-large, masa-crusted oval of farm freshness topped with salty beef tartare. It’s a brilliant, “breakfast” triumph wherein runny yolk meshes seamlessly with an airy potato foam. Employing a critic’s microscope, the lone knock on the dish is pretty Padron peppers that are unnecessary and, with stems intact, impossible to incorporate into a forkful representing the perfect bite.
Bracero’s downstairs kitchen pumps out raw items, tacos, and small plates, while the second floor cocina — which is equipped with a caja china (wood-fired oven) — handles a variety of larger, family-style dishes including whole fish, lamb asado, and New York pork chops from Julian-based Cook Pigs Ranch. An ancho chile sabayon, and zucchini filled with corn and smoked pork jowl, constitute the creative accoutrements for the latter.
In every aspect, Bracero follows in the footsteps of Romesco, overtly communicating Baja’s identity to its most nearby neighbors. This extends to the beverage list. Roughly 70 percent of wines hail from the red hot Guadalupe Valley and ales of numerous Baja craft breweries (Agua Mala, Insurgente, Wendtlandt) are on tap. It’s everything a Plascencia disciple — or newcomer — could desire, and more. (619.756.7864, www.bracerococina.com) Brandon Hernández
Photography by Vincent Knakal