Bracero – Cocina de Raiz

First, we have to make full disclosure — the general manager of Bracero is a good friend of ours.  But with that on the table, I will do my best to be fair and impartial in this article.

Bracero is the latest restaurant from Chef Javier Plascencia, who is widely known for his restaurants in Baja, Mexico, and Southern California, including the award-winning restaurant, Misión 19, in Tijuana.  A bracero is a Mexican laborer who is admitted into the United States on a temporary basis to do seasonal work (typically agricultural work).

The foodies of San Diego, and the media were anxiously awaiting the opening of this restaurant, because of Chef Plascencia’s reputation and because it promised a new refinement of traditional Mexican flavors.  Some have written that the restaurant has not lived up to its hype.  But I think that is a little unfair.

As a concept, Bracero is two restaurants in one.  Upstairs is a reservation-only finer dining experience.  There are not a lot of tables, and a significant portion of the upstairs space is dominated by a large mechanical art installation created by Tijuana artist, Daniel Ruanova.  The sculpture is based on the “cortito” (a short handled hoe that was used my braceros).  The downstairs space is intended for more casual diners and reservations are not accepted.  There are communal tables and a bit more of an open floor plan.  The space is beautifully designed with touches of farm and vineyard tools that artistically displayed.  You cannot help feeling like the space is something special.

The same menu is served upstairs and downstairs.  In fact, there are even two kitchens.  The left side of the menu comes from the kitchen on one floor, and the right side of the menu comes from the kitchen on the other floor.  Here lies the biggest challenge of Bracero. . . .  How do you run two different restaurants with a common menu, where both are sourcing food from two separate kitchens?  For example, a cold plate we ordered (prepared in kitchen 1) was supposed to be served with fresh tortillas (which were prepared in kitchen 2).  The tortillas arrived about 10 minutes after the paired dish.

We visited Bracero on two occasions since it opened and we sat in the upstairs dining room both times.  With many new restaurants, you have to give the staff time to master the menu and to refine service elements.  On both of our visits, we got a sense that they are still progressing on that learning curve.  I will say that the positives far outweighed any minor glitches in service or seasoning that we experienced.

The menu has small cold and hot plates, street tacos and some family style main courses.  Following the wake of Juniper & Ivy and Kettner Exchange, Bracero offers a shared plate tasting experience.  I love this format, especially for a restaurant like Bracero that is introducing the local palate to flavor combinations and ingredients that are new and so different from what we typically encounter.  If you are an adventurous diner, this is the place for you!

We have tried quite a few items on the menu and some of the standouts were the Albacore Two Ways (Seared and Tartare) [This was one of our favorites!], the Shrimp Green Machine Ceviche Tostada, the Shrimp and Bone Marrow Sopes, the Callo de Hacha (Scallops), and a very interesting take on Griddled Cheese in Hoja Santa (a Mexican herbaceous leaf which is wrapped around the cheese).

On our first visit we sampled two of the street tacos (Casa Plascencia Beef Cheeks and Lamb Neck Barbacoa).  Both were surprisingly under-seasoned.  We chalked this up to a new kitchen staff rather than a flaw in Chef Plascencia’s recipes.  On our second visit, we tried the Mediterranean (Gyro Style) Adobada and the Cook Pig’s Ranch Carnitas.  Both were so delicious that they, alone, provide motivation to return for another meal here!  The Adobada (marinated pork) is served in a flour tortilla with jalapeño tzatziki, olla beans and fresh pineapple.  It’s a Greece-meets-Mexico Feta-Fiesta!  Opa!

I excited and at the same time disappointed with Bracero’s wine list (and this will likely get me in hot water with my friend).  They have made the strategic decision to only offer wines from Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, or from Mexican-owned wineries in California.  From the positive perspective, the wine list offers one of the largest selection of Mexican wines in San Diego, and many of the best wines that Valle de Guadalupe has to offer.  I like many of the Mexican wines that I have tried, but I haven’t found any thus far that I have loved.  Also, I find the prices for many Mexican wines to be out of alignment with the quality of those wines.  I wish that the wine list reflected the diversity that is offered by the menu.  Chef Plascencia is not afraid to extend beyond his Mexican roots to breath new life into his dishes.  I wish the wine list offered that same diversity.  A smattering of wines from Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Sicily or Sardinia would complement the menu and offer a broader pallet of options to choose from.  Sorry Woody!

I have seen Yelp reviews all over the boards for Bracero.  Some people love it and others are less enthusiastic.  I believe it comes down to expectations.  If you are coming to Bracero expecting what San Diegan’s have come to perceive as a traditional Mexican dining experience (similar to what you might get in Old Town), you will likely be disappointed.  Bracero offers an amazing combination of unique ingredients, flavor profiles and preparations that are unlike anything offered by local restaurants.  If you enjoy going on a culinary adventure that will have you tasting things you wouldn’t typically find on your place — you will certainly be in the “Love it!” category.

I am a fan and I will continue to support this amazing restaurant.  Bringing something so new and different to the San Diego food scene is something that should be celebrated.  For that reason alone, I am willing to overlook one or two faux pas and encourage them to continue to push the culinary envelope.  Come to Bracero with the right frame of mind, and you will have an amazing experience.

Bracero Cocina de Raiz Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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