There was a period in my early 20s when I spent a significant amount of time in San Diego, and golden years were those indeed. Bar hopping after dinner out with friends in the Gaslamp Quarter; gloriously long days on beach cruisers winding through San Diego’s beach towns and around Mission Bay itself; the omnipresence of Mexican fare, which in terms of quality and variety, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Back in ’04-’06, shiny new Petco Park was already causing a ripple effect, pushing development and “revitalization” beyond downtown’s historic core. San Diego’s “East Village” neighborhood as it stands today, with its luxury high rises, upscale grocers and fully realized urban lifestyle, was but a figment in some enterprising developer’s imagination. All 12-ish blocks of Little Italy collectively counted less than a handful of Italian anything, with taquerias and dive bars perpetually encroaching.
But I digress: It’s been a minute since I’ve been on the ground in America’s Finest City and so the chance to spend 24 hours downtown — an overnight getaway to celebrate our wedding anniversary — was very much a welcome reunion. We had a triple date lined up for the restaurant du jour, Richard Blais’ Juniper & Ivy, in Little Italy. (Side note: That Little Italy would be the trending, cool neighborhood in San Diego? I did not see that coming.)
We booked a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel, quintessential San Diego new-ish school cool with it’s Nobu outpost and terrace pool and lounge — alas, no daytime pool party in December. When the hotel opened about eight years ago, it was a trailblazer in San Diego’s recent development. I’ve always been a fan of the Hard Rock brand and it did not disappoint. The front desk (aka “Ground Control” — RIP David Bowie) even sent up a complimentary bottle of bubbles for the occasion.
After a quick stop in the aforementioned “East Village” neighborhood — I’m sorry, after almost 10 years of living in New York, I can’t think of San Diego’s so-called “East Village” without a sense of irony. Like, who plucked that name out of the sky? — we were off to Juniper & Ivy for the best triple date ever: two of my longest, dearest friends, including one who officiated our wedding on the beach three years ago, and their wonderful spouses.
Here, a sampling of what we ordered:
Everything was absolutely delicious — if a bit disjointed. There was a Southern-ish element, a Pacific vibe, a trio of pastas, many small plates, a few cheeky nods to American “classics” a la corn dogs, General Tso’s, sweet potatoes and marshmallows and “Lamburger Helper.” I didn’t see a through line to the menu other than that it emerged from the depths of Richard Blais’ wildly creative culinary dreams. (Not that that’s a bad thing.) Impressive, still, that a nationally-known chef like Blais picked San Diego to open his first West Coast outpost over big sibs LA and SF. Strategically, it’s brilliant — he’s the first chef of that stratosphere to stake a claim here, and residents have welcomed him with open arms.
The next day: Fully in vacation mode, we’re back in Little Italy (of course we are) for lunch at Bracero Cocina de Raiz. So secretly full of anticipation: This is the kind of restaurant that did not exist in all in San Diego or anywhere in Southern California as I knew it for all of my formative years. Not in San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County; not even when I lived in East LA and Antonio Villaraigosa was our City Council member (prior to his mayoral term ’05-’13).
The difference being chef Javier Placencia — a Tijuana, Mexico, born chef who has traveled the world — is bringing his cuisine to California. Specifically, it’s ‘Baja Mediterranean’ cuisine. Beguiling? Sure. But it’s also fucking brilliant.
We only had lunch, which meant sticking to the House Guacamole (crispy beluga lentils / avocado / chickpeas / blackbean hummus / zaåtar & sea salt chips, pictured above) and the “TJ style” fish ceviche tostada (above right), followed by an order of tacos … and another order of tacos. Sharing was not enough when you’re working with options like these:
Placencia is a culinary ambassador and an innovator, and Bracero Cocina is a superlative love letter to the rich heritage of Mexican cuisine — and a nod to its future. Bravo to Placencia, Luis Pena and their entire outstanding team. Sitting underneath a giant, suspended farming plow, we watched a woman make tortillas by hand with a wooden tortilla press that is well loved and going strong — you can’t do better than that. The cocina doesn’t work without all of its moving parts.
San Diego: Apparently we’ve both grown up a bit. I’m impressed by the flourishes of sophistication and actual urbane cool. And your laid back, sunny, beach hair and flip flops vibe? Don’t worry, you’ve still got it. It’s in your DNA — and it’s why I’ll keep coming back, always. Thank you for the warm embrace!