A lot of our US customers really don’t know what exactly is true Mexican food.
I’ve been wanting to open a modern Mexican restaurant on my own in the US for a long time. I come from a family of restaurateurs. My dad was a pizzaiolo who learned how to make pizza by sitting on the counter and carefully observing the pizza makers at Filippi’s in San Diego’s Little Italy. He asked a hundred questions until he figured out how to recreate it himself and then opened his own small pizzeria, Giuseppis, in Tijuana 48 years ago. To date, my family and I have opened and operate 13 restaurants in Tijuana. Still, all of this would not prepare me for what it takes to open up a Mexican restaurant in San Diego.
In Mexico, you can kind of do whatever you want when you open a restaurant. They are not as strict with permits and laws. When you open a restaurant in the US, the legal processes for things can be horrible. I learned this the hard way when I opened Romesco ten years ago with my family in Bonita, California, which we opened to satisfy our craving for our native flavors when we had to flee Tijuana for a while. Though, we ended up adapting the menu to what our new American customers wanted: tortilla soup, pasta, lemon chicken, and things like that.
Plantain and Pork Belly Taco-crepe + Peanut-infused Milk
I still wanted to do something on my own that reflected my Tijuana cuisine, so last year I openedBracero in San Diego. It has been a journey, to say the least. Believe it or not, Mexican cuisine is very time-consuming and complicated. You probably won’t be able to tell by the looks of the tiny cup full of salsa on your table at Bracero, but you would not believe how much time and labor goes into making just that one alone.
What we explain to our customers time after time at Bracero is that Mexican cuisine varies by region. Our younger customers understand this. They tend to be more well-traveled and open to tasting new things. They also ask a lot of questions. We like this. Older people, not so much. We get a lot of requests for chips, salsa, and burritos. I do not serve these items. They also expect big, big, big portions and are not willing to pay $5 for a taco.
We even get shit from our Mexican customers because they give us their whole “why am I going to pay $12 for one of your tostadas topped with raw uni and clams when I could just drive across the border and pay $4 for the exact same one?” If they only knew that my cost is $11 per tostada, and I’m only making $1 off them! A lot of our customers, regardless of background, don’t understand the business side of running a restaurant in the heart of San Diego versus one in Tijuana. As you can imagine, this can get really frustrating. We do have plenty of customers—usually they are people who haven’t been to Mexico—who don’t mind paying for the experience. When this happens, it is a very beautiful thing.
Don’t get me started on people who have lived in San Diego or anywhere else in California their entire lives and deeply love Mexican flavors, yet haven’t traveled to Mexico much or at all. They tend to think that they know Mexican food more than an actual Mexican!
Panqué with roasted sweet potato and spiced honey brown sugar + mazapan-infused milk
This mentality makes its way to our back-of-house operations, too. A lot of American-born cooks who work for me haven’t tasted the real flavors of simple, traditional, Mexican-style braised dishes or even a homemade mole, so it is really difficult to train them to accurately recreate proper Mexican flavors. I’ve definitely grown a lot of gray hairs in the process since opening Bracero.
Also, in my restaurants in Mexico, I’ve had loyal cooks and dishwashers who have been with me for 18 years, which obviously makes running a restaurant easier because they understand what it stands for as much as me. In the US, I have one cook one week and then I see him working at another restaurant up the street for 25 cents more. Still, there are a few good ones that I’ve found who have stayed with me and strive to learn new things every day. I’m grateful for them.
If there are any other Mexican chefs in the US reading this, it is definitely worth opening a restaurant in the US. Just know that it is going to take a lot more time and your presence in the kitchen, at least for a year. It will be at least double the amount of work than if you were to open another restaurant in Mexico. I, myself, am still not completely satisfied with Bracero, but I’m just hanging in there and putting in work. It will all be worth it in the end.
This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.
As told to and written by Javier Cabral
A chef based in Tijuana, Mexico, Javier Plascencia currently owns 13 restaurants in Mexico with his family, along with Romesco and Bracero in the US. This interview was made possible through a campaign he is currently doing with Got Milk?