Award-Winning Chef Javier Plascencia Brings Upscale Tijuana Cooking to Miami
When chef Javier Plascencia says he’s spent most of his life inside kitchens, he means it. As a young boy growing up in Tijuana, he remembers stacking cardboard boxes on top of each other just to reach the counter inside his father’s pizzeria, Giuseppis. That’s where he first learned how to roll dough and make chorizo from scratch.
“I can still smell the fennel and cumin from that chorizo,” he says. “My dad’s restaurant was also where I tasted fettucine alfredo for the first time. I was a chubby kid, so there was actually a time when I ate it for a month straight. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
More than 40 years later, Plascencia has brought his talents to Miami with the December opening of Pez, a Baja-inspired Mexican restaurant in the city’s downtown area. It’s his first time overseeing a restaurant here, and as culinary director, he’s able to combine his love for Mediterranean flavor with his years of Tijuana-style cooking. The result is an upscale Mexican spot with a focus on seafood. It also marks Plascencia’s return to the U.S., after closing his wildly successful San Diego restaurant, Bracero Cocina De Raiz, which earned a James Beard Award nomination in 2016 for best new restaurant in the country, and spending some time back in Mexico.
“It’s pretty exciting to be over here,” he says. “I have five restaurants and a bed and breakfast in Mexico, so it’s fun for me to be in a totally different place.”
Born and raised in Tijuana, Plascencia grew up shuffling between his family’s restaurants. Though he attended high school and culinary school in San Diego, he maintained a close connection with his hometown. After all, his father was the king of a culinary empire in Tijuana, which includes their oldest restaurant, Giuseppis, which turns 50 in January and has since expanded into a large-scale chain of Italian restaurants, as well as Caesar’s, the 1920s tourist mecca known as the birthplace of the Caesar salad, and a few more.
“We took over Caesar’s about a decade ago, and now we must make 3,000 salads a week,” he says. “My grandfather was actually one of the original bartenders here. Restaurants run deep in my family. I’ve spent all my life learning from cooks. I knew from the start I wanted to be a chef. There was no other option.”
Back in Miami, Pez, a massive, 4,800-square-foot space with 150 seats, is the culmination of Plascencia’s four-decade career. It’s a place where he’s able to continue his mission of celebrating Mexican food, while also introducing Miami to a style of Baja Med cuisine it hasn’t experienced quite like this. The restaurant itself is welcoming and laid-back, similar to the kind of place you'd find in Plascencia’s hometown.
“Tijuana-style cooking is a blend of many different cultures,” he says. “We have the Pacific Ocean close, and we also have a lot of Japanese, Chinese, and Mediterranean influences. Not to mention, there’s also a lot of immigrants, who we learn from and cook for. There’s a vibrancy there that I try to recreate in all of my restaurants.”
On the menu, which is overseen by Plascencia and chef de cuisine Miguel Angelo Gomez Navarro, there’s the Tlayuda Oaxacalifornia, in which a traditional handmade Oaxacan corn-based tlayuda tostada is topped with a blended black bean spread, wahoo, sea urchin, and watercress, the Pulpo Altozano, a mesquite-grilled charred octopus with citrus soy, peanuts, and sake sauce, and La Green Machine, a tostada topped with a heap of shrimp, serrano, tomatillo, and cilantro.
“We’re featuring our own style of Sinaloa cooking,” he says. “You’ll notice almost all of our plates, from the seafood to the tacos, are grilled and cooked over wood. We cannot cook without that.”
Sofia Muñoz, who previously worked as the pastry chef at acclaimed Mexico City restaurant Máximo Bistrot, which was recently ranked 20 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2018, is in charge of Plascencia’s desserts. There’s the dulce de leche pot de crème, a rich French custard made with caramelized condensed milk and finished with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt and olive oil, and the taco de elote dulce, filled with charred corn ice cream, caramel popcorn, beer reduction, and corn ash. The beverage program is just as noteworthy, featuring little-known vintages and wines from Mexico’s Baja California region, along with Mexican beers, and selections of mezcal and tequila.
In addition to Miami, Plascencia is working on a project in Mexico’s Cabo San Lucas and looks to return to San Diego with a new restaurant.
“I like to keep my restaurants close, and I like to be close to where I grew up,” he says. “I’m a surfer too, so being near the ocean is important. I don’t see myself ever opening something in New York or Mexico City. It just wouldn’t be right. There’s so much happening in Miami, so it’s a great time to bring my food here. But otherwise, find me on the coast in California and Mexico.”
Pez, 20 W Flagler St, Miami, FL. 305-570-3440.