The sheer thought of opening a fine dining Mexican restaurant like Bracero Cocina in the heart of a border town like San Diego must have induced sleepless nights and angst filled days. The barrier to entry…overcoming or avoiding the prevalent local conversation; one fostered by the thousands of small proprietor operations that have done such a complete job of introducing and incorporating South of the border flavors into the daily lexicon of our San Diego food experience at taco shop prices.
In other words, when you can find a handful of places with great $2 tacos within a few minutes walk, it’s gonna be hard, virtually impossible, in fact, to justify a $6 fine dining version. ‘Cause really…how can you take a great street taco and make it three times better to justify charging three times as much?
A little over a year ago, when celebrated chef Javier Plascencia’s Bracero Cocina opened in Little Italy with the promise of authentic, elevated Mexican cuisine in a fine dining setting, I made a beeline in to taste what I had been missing in all my years of eating Cal-Mex, easily one of my favorite food categories of all time. What I found in the main level bar area that evening in their first month of existence was good food, decent flavors and okay service. All in all, it felt like a hip place that would be alluring to a vibrant tourist scene, where visitors, without much of a frame of reference, are more likely to accept sizzle in place of substance. But, it was nothing for a local to write, read or get excited about, especially at fine dining costs.
Yet, the whispers of the greatness coming out of the kitchen at Bracero Cocina by locals who should know better never dissipated. Rave review after rave review kept emanating from the two story corner Bracero occupies in Little Italy. So, recently, I found myself back in the upstairs, more intimate dining room for another go-round to see what it was I missed the first time around. Upstairs, you can actually hear the Techno pop music playing that I hadn’t noticed on our first visit. It seemed to confirm my initial impression, that this experience, perhaps, might not not be so much about eating Mexican food and being immersed in the culture as it is about having a unique dining experience in a happening setting.
That makes twice that I was hasty in forming an opinion about this place.
The menu at Bracero Cocina has been revamped from a year ago and, on the surface, still reads like menus you can find in corner taco shops all over town, with ceviches, crudos and tostadas. Notably, there’s not a taco to be seen these days. But the similarities between your corner taco shop and Bracero Cocina end at the paper menu. Chef Javier, it seems, did not come to town to open just another same ol’ thing restaurant in an attempt to siphon off tourist dollars. Rather, by tweaking his menu, and, ultimately, taking familiar Mexican staples and supercharging the flavors and textures with techniques ranging from traditional European to Asian, he has started to change the conversation about Mexican food in this town altogether.
That conversation could very well start with one of the best tostadas I’ve ever eaten. The serving temperature will surprise you at first. The dish is served cold, as in refrigerated, with the texture of a beef stew and definitive piquant, herbal nuances that are tightly controlled through the chilled serving temperature. The flavors in the black bean “gravy” are condensed, cradling the seasoned meat cubes, wrapping them in a cocoon of mealy savoriness.
As the meat concoction gradually warms in your mouth with each successive chew, saline, rich, slightly peppery flavors begin to expand. They warm to body temperature and treat your tastebuds to a symphonic experience that comes in waves and dissipates only because, well, you swallowed. The co-dependence of the temperature, texture and flavor elements in this dish are as unique an experience as you’ll find anywhere and will likely have you questioning the legitimacy of every “hot” tostada you ever eat in the future.
A friend commented when she saw my social media post about how she dreams of the shrimp and bone marrow sopes. Join the club. There’s a smooth oiliness to the bone marrow which coats the lightly cooked shrimp, providing some heft to the mouth feel of the dish without making it heavy. The nutty, corn forward texture and flavor of the lightly fried, edible masa plates used to carry the protein transform the dish into a surf and turf style, rustic adventure depicting how seafood, meats, produce and grains can live side by side and co-exist peacefully, regardless of their cultural differences.
Aside from shallowness of breath, the dish may lead to a rapid re-calculation of your food order for the rest of the evening – could you possibly have room to eat another order of these?
Circling back the masa, it’s house made and used in everything from the tortillas to the “perfect” eggs, which are soft boiled, topped with a salty, vinegary tartare and coated in raw masa. It’s creamy, tart, meaty, simple and complex all in the same bite, with the raw masa providing enough of a grainy textural contrast to convince you that this dish is a distant cousin of the tamale family.
Meanwhile, your eyes and cerebral cortex are telling you that, in fact, this is an alien species with no known relatives on this planet. In terms of sheer, delightful egg dishes, this is one that will probably hit your top five of all time and camp out there for awhile. At least, it did mine.
Portions at Bracero Cocina were deceivingly hearty, especially as we worked our way into the entree phase of the meal. Ribeye steak and “Catch of the Day” seabass were appropriately adorned with ingredient combinations of salsas and peppers that kicked up the heat just enough to get your attention. Yet, they retained enough of their original form to appeal to palates on both sides of the border that might be looking for easy to recognize dishes with a blast of excitement.
Regardless of the cuisine, Bracero Cocina is putting out superbly executed dishes full of highly imaginative flavors and textures. The fact that Bracero Cocina is serving Mexican food in ways you’ve likely never had before, well, that should only serve to cement their status as the place to beat…or emulate…for some of the best cuisine of any origin in this little ville. Enjoy, and Cheers, my friends!
1490 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92101