The Top Chef star’s new San Diego hot spot is influenced by centuries of history, but also by Momofuku ramen.
El Jardin, which the Top Chef star opened in late June, isn’t a typical San Diego Mexican restaurant. Zepeda-Wilkins’ hearty Jalisco-style posole is ultra-comforting and bright in both expected and unexpected ways. It’s made with heirloom corn, slow-cooked pork, and Mexican chiles, but also a dashi featuring ginger and lemongrass that gives the broth an Asian twist. I enjoyed this dish immensely. Across from me at our patio table was a Vietnamese-American diner (food-media entrepreneur Maria Nguyen of The Art of Plating) who said that the posole reminded her of bún bò huế. I could see her point.
El Jardin, which weaves in pre-Hispanic influences and old Mexican family recipes (albondigas made the way Zepeda-Wilkins’ mom does it; enchiladas suizas based on what the chef’s aunt served at her restaurant in Guadalajara), is a modern restaurant inspired by centuries of history and an understanding that Mexican food is deeply nuanced. El Jardin isn’t a place where you’ll find tacos with wan shredded lettuce or red enchiladas covered in glowing cheddar cheese. This Mexican restaurant and tequila bar in Point Loma’s Liberty Station development has a much broader worldview.
“Mexican food is a cuisine of immigrants,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “We take things from different cultures and bring in our own tastes, and they work together pretty fantastic. I don’t put myself into the box where it has to be within parameters.”
So it feels right to have, say, soy sauce in the kitchen because she knows that Chinese and Japanese immigrants left their mark on food in northern Mexico. Plus, she wants to acknowledge the history of the spice trade and the slave trade, and how that led to new flavors in Mexican food.
“It’s not a beautiful rainbows and sunshine kind of story,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “But at the end of the day, it happened.”
Beyond the history of regional Mexican cuisine, much of the inspiration behind Zepeda-Wilkins’ food comes from her own family. The corn in El Jardin’s posole makes her think of her grandfather, an abandoned street kid who worked on the railroads and in the fields. He was so good about saving and investing his money that he ended up owning 20 corn mills (molinos) in Nayarit.
And so much of what Zepeda-Wilkins has done in her life was impacted by her grandmother, who’s pictured in one of the most prominent photos hung up at El Jardin to honor the women who influenced the restaurant.
“She was my roommate, my confidante, my best friend when I was growing up,” says Zepeda-Wilkins, who was born in San Diego but also lived in Tijuana and Guadalajara as a child. “She lived with us my entire childhood. She was a matriarch in the full sense. Her spirit lives on.”
Paula Valadez was the mother of 16; eight of her children, including Zepeda-Wilkins’ mom, survived to adulthood. Valadez was a tiny woman but formidable.
“I remember her killing chickens in the backyard when I was in T.J.,” Zepeda-Wilkins says, recalling a moment from when she was 4 or 5. “That was the first time I remember my grandma being a badass.”
Zepeda-Wilkins also remembers her cousin getting into a fight and not being worried about being disciplined afterwards because “grandmas don’t spank.” Valadez made a point to make it clear that sometimes grandmas do spank. There were many other lessons.
“I never heard her complain once about anything,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “She taught me so much in the sense that no matter what cards you’re fucking dealt, you should have the poise and character to persevere.”
Valadez died in 2012, after being stricken with Parkinson’s disease. By that point, Zepeda-Wilkins was working three jobs to do her part for the family. She went on to become the opening chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s much-buzzed-about Bracero. She became a TV personality who competed on Top Chef in both Mexico and the United States.
Now she’s got a restaurant where she can serve her unfiltered, boundary-breaking versions of Mexican food, like birria ramen for brunch. She’s butchering whole grass-fed Australian goats for this traditional Mexican stew. She’s serving the birria with ramen because it makes perfect sense to her.
“I was a late bloomer with ramen,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “The first time I had it was David Chang’s ramen.”
This was during the first time she had visited New York City when she wasn’t “dead broke,” so she headed to Momofuku Noodle Bar.
“When I had the ramen, it was like, ‘This is the most comforting bite I ever had,’” she says. “It was like one those warm hugs. It was inviting. You feel the sustenance. It was a feeling.”
It reminded her of posole and other Mexican dishes that feel like a “hug in a bowl.” So if putting ramen into birria makes people think of El Jardin as an “American-Mexican restaurant,” well, whatever.
“I’d love to have a conversation with anybody who wants to know about my food,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “Not in a condescending way. There’s actually a story. I’d love people to know all the stories behind my dishes.”
For example, Zepeda-Wilkins, whose pastry background includes her time at Gavin Kaysen’s El Bizcocho, has a dessert called sobre el arcoiris ("over the rainbow") that’s a riff on the rainbow cookies with marshmallows she ate as a child.
“I wanted to be extremely playful with our desserts,” she says. “I could put churros and flan on the menu and sell out every night, but it wouldn’t match the restaurant.”
So Zepeda-Wilkins channeled the joy she felt when she and her two brothers ate the rainbow cookies their father would occasionally buy at the corner store in Tijuana. The best part was the marshmallows.
“We would eat the marshmallows and throw the cookies away,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “The marshmallow is the pièce de résistance. Everything else is OK.”
El Jardin’s sobre el arcoiris has meringue and cookie elements, but the spotlight is on the coconut marshmallows, white ones rolled in pulverized coconut and red ones rolled in freeze-dried strawberry.
“Technically, I wanted it to be a perfect marshmallow,” she says. “These are made with a quote-unquote French technique.”
They’re pillowy and sublime, with a jolt of intense sweetness.
That sweetness, Zepeda-Wilkins says, “is the fucking point … When you ask for a marshmallow dessert, it’s implied that there’s sugar and sugar on sugar.”
That’s the way “three rambunctious kids” liked it in Tijuana, so that’s the way it is at El Jardin.
For more stories about El Jardin’s origins, you can start by looking at the photos displayed in the hallway just off the kitchen and right by the bathrooms. There are pictures of indigenous women in Michoacán. There’s an image of a mushroom vendor at a Mexico City market, a woman who kneels ten hours a day when she’s working. (Zepeda-Wilkins knows this because she was looking for wild mushrooms and ended up having a long conversation with this woman.) There’s a shrine Zepeda-Wilkins made for her grandmother that was filmed on Top Chef. There’s a photo of Zepeda-Wilkins with her son and daughter. There will be other photos added to the wall as the menus and ingredients at El Jardin evolve.
El Jardin, 2885 Perry Road, San Diego, 619-795-2322