Chef Javier Plascencia's Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro | 'Baja Med Cuisine' Translates to 'Amazing'

January 21, 2014

'Baja Mediterranean' or 'Baja Med,' for short, has become an increasingly broad term (much like 'Mediterranean') to describe the modern, high-end, culturally diverse cuisine, prepared from locally sourced ingredients, coming from chefs of Baja California, Mexico. Although many a chef has adopted the term to label their individual concoctions of Mexican and Mediterranean influences and ingredients, it's Chef Javier Plascencia and his family that are centrally responsible for the term's manifestation. The man has reached legend status in Tijuana and Baja, especially among in-the-know foodies and those within 'the industry,' and his double-digit restaurants are known as some of Mexico's best. Romesco Mexiterranean is Javier's only American-based establishment, located in Bonita, just a 15 minute drive south of downtown San Diego.  This unassuming corner unit in Bonita Shopping Center has been a San Diego dining destination since opening in 2006, and for those seeking elevated and inspired cuisine from one of the region's most renown chef's, this is his closest spot.

We've had exceptional dining experiences at Chef Plascencia's Erizo in Tijuana and Finca Altozano in Valle Guadalupe, so we were beyond excited to finally dine at Romesco. Upon entering, the restaurant is reminiscent of an old-school Italian eatery, but being from Jersey, that may be a subjective observation. Dim lighting, mellow jazz, chandeliers, male servers in formal black and white, and dark wood accents set the mood in the main dining room.  Through a set of double doors, enter the more casual tapas bar, an ode to Spanish culture which offers a lounge-like vibe that frequently hosts live music.  

Although many have labeled the menu simply as "Mexican," it is way beyond that.  Romesco is a vast hodgepodge of cultures coming together in one menu - Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, Asian - from upscale tapas, to street food favorites, to classic dishes reimagined. This is not Americanized-Mexican food by any means, and it should not be pigeon-holed into the genre of a "Mexican restaurant."

We were fortunate to make our way to Romesco for its 1/2 priced Tapas Tuesday, so we got down on many different dishes from the lengthy list of small plates (full prices quoted). But first, we ordered glasses of house made red sangria, which were just as delicious and refreshing as ever experienced.  
The Roadside Ahi Tuna Tostadas ($5.85 each) were first on our list, as the dish's reputation preceded itself. A stack of guacamole, fresh Mexican cream, mixed greens and mild habanero with Asian spiced ahi atop a crispy corn chip culminated in deliciously wild contradictions, but at the same time combined perfectly.  These tostadas are so seemingly simple visually, but so complex in flavor. We were in love at first bite!
We kept the tostada theme going with an order of Orejas De Mar (2 for $6.95), and being that we were blindly served this dish, we were initially perplexed by the protein because it was absolutely delicious and tender, but unlike anything we could recall.  We found out it was a Mexican King Topshell, which is an abalone-type shellfish, here prepared escabeche style (poached), and served with a mild chimichurri habanero dressing, cherry tomatoes and red onion slivers, along with corn tostada chips.
Javier Plascencia's octopus dishes are known to be fantastic, and his Pulpo Asado a las Brasas ($7.75) exceeded expectation. I have no clue how he gets grilled octopus so tender, while also filling the protein with so much smokey, char flavor.  Our amazing server brought us glasses of Equa wine from Romesco's lengthy selection - a Valle de Guadalupe blend of Grenache and Petite Syrah that worked to elevate the rustic flavors of this dish.
There was no end in sight, and our next tapa was the Taquitos Dorados de Chachete (3 for $5.95), a staple from the lunch menu that combines beef cheek, greens, cotija cheese, marinated tomatoes and onions, mild salsa Aguada-style, radish and Mexican cream making for delicious deep fried tacos.  Don't be scared of beef cheek - once braised, it is juicy, succulent and tender. Let your mouth decide, not preconceived notions.
Continuing our exploration of the Romesco menu, we sampled the Cazuelita de Gambas ($7.25), two intertwined shrimp immersed in a garlic tomatillo sauce with fresh thyme, chili, all baked with feta cheese in a mini cast iron pan.  This tomatillo sauce rivaled any Marinara or 'red sauce' that I'd ever eaten, and if tasted blindfolded, I would have thought it an Italian Sunday gravy made by a traditional Nonna Italiana.  The shrimp was delicious, but the sauce was the true star of the plate.  We tried very hard to save our appetites and not tap into the fresh bread on the table, but this sauce commanded a dip party.
We were still going strong due to the reduced-sized tasting portions, so a sampler of tacos was welcomed at our table.  First up were Grandmas Tacos de Fideo (2 for $6.15), which blew my mind.  Spaghetti tacos with fresh cream, Spanish chorizo, salsa verde and fresh cheese?!?  Yes, you heard it, spaghetti tacos! And they were glorious.  Plascencia was a lucky little lad with a grandma so creative!  Also on the plate were the patented Gobernadores tacos (2 for $7.15) - a simple mix of shrimp and mozzarella with habanero salsa and certainly some bread crumbs folded inside a grilled tortilla. It's understandable why these are soo popular.
Romesco pays homage to a Tijuana invention that Plascencia has since adopted - the Caesar salad (as of 2010, the Plascencia family owns and operates Caesar's Hotel where this salad was invented in 1924). Waiters make Caesar salads table-side at Romesco using the classic recipe ($10.85 or $12.25 tableside).  Our server Gustavo was charming and adorable explaining the ingredients and working them all together, and we must say, the result was the best Caesar salad we've ever had, hands down.
Alright, finally, and without further ado, our main course was the slow-cooked beef short rib ($27.50), a favorite at Romesco, and for good reason, as this plate of the most succulent, Cabernet sauce-glazed beef short rib comes atop braised fennel, mixed seasonal veggies and yukon gold potato puree for a rich, hearty, and simply perfect dinner.  Paired with a Madera 5 Tempranillo-Cabernet blend, this course sent us into a euphoric state of fullness.
Wait! Not finished yet! Gustavo wouldn't let us throw in the towel without dessert - a perfect date night plate of crispy "Tijuana Border" churros with Dulce de leche dip, vanilla bean ice cream and a shot of Mexican hot chocolate ($8), paired with a powerful port wine. This put us over the top, but we wouldn't have had it any other way.  It was an ideal end to one of the best meals we've had in a long time.  Bravo!
It is inspirational how 'Baja Med' cuisine frequently abandons culinary norms and mores in its journey toward deliciousness. Cultural styles of cuisine came into being due to a locality and tradition that was limited in its access to ingredients, and were built upon by its surroundings.  With an increasingly globalized culture and access to ingredients like never before, the future of food is a melding of influence, tradition and ingredients, as Javier so evidently embraces. While initially some unities may seem alien, the ever evolving nature is a welcomed one, sure to bring exciting and innovative flavors to the table. A delicious melting pot!

If you haven't been to Romesco lately, make the trip, and hey, get down to Mexico and sample more Baja Med cuisine at other Tijuana and Baja California restaurants.  You'll be very happy you did.

4346 Bonita Rd (between Bonita Road & Billy Casper Way), Bonita
(619) 475-8627


Closed Monday
Tuesday - Thursday Lunch 12 - 4 pm
Tuesday - Thursday Dinner  5 - 10 pm
Friday - Saturday Dinner 5 pm to 10:30 pm
Saturday 2 - 10:30 pm
Sunday 12 - 8 pm

Happy Hour Tuesday - Sunday 3 pm to 7 pm
Sunday All day (dining room)
Tapas Bar closed Sunday

Nightly Specials (at time of publishing):

Tapas Tuesday
1/2 off tapas all day inside Tapas Bar.

Winedown Wednesday
50% off all wine bottles & Pasta Night with
Live Italian Music. Pasta entrees starting at $ 9

Thursday Beer Lovers Festival
Craft Beer Specials - 36 oz. Pitchers starting at $ 5.
Live Dj inside the Tapas Bar

Martini Friday
All house Martini's $7 from 8 pm until closing in both bars, Come listen to your favorite 80's Music with Dj Luis Santa Maria from English Beat

Sangria Saturday
Sangria Pitchers Special $14. All Day with DJ Luis Santamaria from English Beat

Happy Hour all day in Dining Room bar
$1 off beer
$2 off wines by the glass
$5 Tequila Shots
$6 Sangria and Margaritas
$7 House Martinis

Romesco Baja Med Bistro on Urbanspoon