No disrespect to King Midas, but for people who like food, spending time savoring the work of Chef Javier Plascencia is an opportunity to really experience a golden touch. Let me tell you about our time at Romesco Mexiterranen Bistro.Leave it to Javier to bring me out of a long lull of writing about a food experience. June was a month of a few really fantastic food adventures, but we turned the corner into July and decided it was time to spend some quality time in the South Bay of San Diego – which for those unfamiliar generally consists of Chula Vista, National City, and Bonita. Actually, it might include San Ysidro and Otay, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that there has been some great energy developing around good food in this part of the San Diego region for some time, and with the elevation of the Baja Mexico food scene just across the border it seems to be upping the ante on some San Diego restaurant offerings as well. Either that, or the rising tide of popularity really is lifting the visibility of all the “ships” in the region. Enough history for now, let’s talk about the food.
The only bad thing about getting to certain parts of the San Diego region is that our founders lacked the forethought of their east coast brethren and failed us on the mass transit front. So many of the most delicious destinations can only seriously be sampled by car (or an mood-killing, soul-crushingly long bus ride). Given the transport hurdles, we were pleased two of the core members of our food team were ready to suit up for this trip. Yes, I’ve taken to bad sports analogies. We have only so many friends who value discovering great food, are willing to plan trips around such food, and don’t have to reserve funds for youth soccer or braces or something. So when we find people who share our vision of a world in which great food, great cocktails, and abundant sharing are the norm, we hold on to them with all we’ve got. We made the 15 minute drive to Bonita, turned into a strip mall (ack, I hate parking lots!), and ushered ourselves in for a nice feast.
We were seated immediately, which makes sense because we showed up for lunch at 3:00 when the place was almost empty. One of our tricks to get to enjoy ourselves is to pick slightly off hours for meals. The servers have fewer tables and we generally can add the hour we would spend waiting in line to the couple hours we’ll spend sampling, laughing and talking over the meal instead. I don’t yet know from my restaurant friends whether we are unwittingly compromising in some other way, but so far this has worked out. Except, well, here’s the thing. Probably the only thing I could complain about on this trip was the service delay. I am not, as a rule, inclined to complain about service delay. I mean, I’m out eating with friends for pete’s sake. If it takes a little long usually I’ll just enjoy what’s currently on the table, in my glass, and the conversation that’s going on. However, failing to make a drink offer to four grown adults with thirst in their eyes who walk in talking about the cocktails is just a missed opportunity.
Okay, I lied, one more small complaint but then I will get to the food, I swear. We did ultimately get ourselves beverages and the beer nerd in me would be remiss if I didn’t utter a small caution. I love Agua Mala (an Ensenada brewery), and I routinely enjoy their Astillero when I can find it. But hops just aren’t meant to last forever. You could say it’s my fault for not looking at the date on the bottle (January 2015 served in July), but doing that outside of the anonymity of a super market or bottle shop feels a bit douchey. If you have a restaurant that chooses to serve good beer by the bottle, please have a quick conversation with the brewer about when it is no longer good to serve. If that were my first time trying that beer it would be dead to me. Not because the beer isn’t good as the brewer intended it, but because it became a malty shadow of its true self after hanging out in the back for so long. This is not beer snobbery, the beer actually does taste different in a way that is not desirable. Okay, enough already…food!
These two were among our early favorites. I’ve found a handful of people whose recommendations always are on point (so far). If you are reading this and not following Karen Barnett Blair (of Small Bar and funny throwback FFA photo fame), stop what you’re doing and go do that now. The beef albondigas below came out in a nice chipotle cream sauce. I am not, as a rule, a fan of meatballs. My wife, on the other hand, is a fan, and said these measured up. We’ll get to my favorite food items in a minute, but these dishes and the serrano ham, cheese and potato croquetas (not pictured) were a good first wave of offerings.
One of our companions was pretty committed to trying the Caesar salad. This was different than the “updated” version one might find at an Italian restaurant in the U.S. The history of the Caesar salad is worth a read (so is a trip to Caesar’s in Tijuana, I hear). I have to admit I wasn’t overwhelmed with my original Caesar experience. While I can’t call myself a purist now that I know I haven’t been eating the original version, I do like anchovy in my Caesar – it was prepared well, just not my favorite version.
This next dish is something I really must insist you order if you visit. Well, at least if you like seared ahi. This was delicious. Nicely seared, the sauce looks sweeter and more dominant in the photo than it was over the preparation, and the jalapeno slice adds exactly what you’d expect. Put this on the list.
I don’t usually drop photos of drinks into my food posts, but this one was among the better cocktails I’ve had this year. This is a drink for people who like a drink that has balance of sweet and tart, the alcohol is present but not hit-you-over-the-head strong, and the salt around the edge actually adds to the drink rather than being a distraction. Another recommendation from Eating & Drinking San Diego – a Facebook group started by this food guy named Edwin Real.
If you’ve never heard of fideo, give this next taco a shot. I’d never heard of it, but one of our companions used to have it home made when she was a kid. As much as we like trying new things, we don’t usually get to try something we’d never even heard of before. This was a fun taco texturally and had great flavor. I’m pretty pleased with this one. Put it on your list.
Now I’m into the part of the menu that I’d qualify as “must order.” This next bit was outstanding. I try to use that adjective sparingly so it carries at least a little weight. I enjoyed the way this short rib was seasoned – picked up a little heat, but really enjoyed what I think might have been a hint of cinnamon or something sweet in the meat. I was fortunate to get this shot when I did because the bowl vanished in fairly short order.
These last photos rounded out our meal. The menu has a full set of entrees that we didn’t get to, but I’ve heard the risotto is worth a trip on its own. This is the cochinita pibil, a dish we pretty much always order if it’s available to be had. For those wondering, here’s a great link about the dish.
We love crossing back across the US/Mexico International Border (thanks in no small part to the emergence of SENTRI – the best deal for getting across the border in a timely way). One of the reasons we like that little trek is that we frequently stop for “line churros.” This probably isn’t a thing. It’s probably just the name we give to the dude who fries up churros right before you actually get in line to walk back across. Nevertheless, when we got the dessert menu there was one item we had to add to our meal.
If you have a sweet tooth, this is a good option. Not too much dessert so that you feel too over indulgent when finished, but a nice sweet accent to a tapas adventure. Speaking of which, a Facebook friend mentioned that Romesco has a very cheap, very worthwhile tapas bar that opens on a certain days at a huge discount for those on a budget. Check the Tapas Tuesday on their site for details.
Chula Vista is the second largest city in San Diego County, together with its smaller sibling Bonita they make up the core of San Diego’s South Bay. I’ve been excited to watch a handful of restaurants grow in prominence from hidden local gems to destination spots for people across the San Diego region. With the expansion and development of the Chula Vista Bayfront and a potential university coming on line in the next several years, the role of the region that connects Tijuana to the city of San Diego will be increasing in interesting ways.
Given that it’s just as easy to get to great restaurants in Tijuana as to some parts of eastern Chula Vista and Bonita, it will be interesting to see how the evolution of our food scene goes over the next five years. Chef Plascencia just opened a new place called Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, so hopefully this trend towards embracing real food and our unique San Diego/Tijuana mega-region will continue to grow as people experience cultural moments through food and then expand out to the broader experiences that the communities in the South Bay and Tijuana have to offer. Thanks for dropping by.