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Chef Tempts Tourists Back To Tijuana By Focusing On The Food

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Chef Tempts Tourists Back To Tijuana By Focusing On The Food

The Spirit Of Innovation

Chef Tempts Tourists Back To Tijuana By Focusing On The Food

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Southern California.

And we go now just across the border to Tijuana, Mexico, a city once known for violence and lawlessness. We're going to hear about a chef who's trying to transform Tijuana's image by embracing the region's diverse ingredients. As part of our focus this week on innovation on the West Coast, NPR's Carrie Kahn has this story.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Javier Plasencia is hard to catch up with. The bags under his eyes and 5 o'clock shadow bear witness to his hectic schedule. If he's not in the kitchen of his newest restaurant or at one of the eight other eateries he and his family own, you might find him walking the aisles of Tijuana's outdoor market.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

KAHN: As an attendant directs cars in and out of the market's parking lot, patrons walk the colorful stalls filled with crates of candies, dried beans, chilies and fruits. Life-sized pinatas hang from the low-slung roof. Plasencia says he gets a lot of his inspiration for dishes and drinks right here.

JAVIER PLASENCIA: This is one thing that I never tasted, that I saw it last week. They're called guamuchiles from Sinaloa. And actually, I'm going to get a kilo.

KAHN: He also grabs some pitayas, a neon pink prickly cactus fruit. Both, he says, he'll put in a new cocktail he's working on. He also points to the small bag of fried grasshoppers that he likes to grind up in a mortar and pestle and line the rim of margarita glasses for a different salty taste.

PLASENCIA: These avocadoes are very, very good. Avocado criollos, they bring in from Oaxaca. You just can - you can even eat the skin. So I'm going to make you a really cool - a nice soup out of these avocadoes.

KAHN: Oh, wow. Plasencia's menus are filled with a lot of underappreciated fare from his home state of Baja: from its rich seafood, clams, oysters and abalone to its cheeses.

PLASENCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

PLASENCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says Omar Rubio's stand has the best cheeses Mexico has to offer.

PLASENCIA: What I like about this store is that it's all Mexican cheeses, and he's got the imported really hidden away so nobody will buy them.

(LAUGHTER)

KAHN: Yes, Baja has a growing artisan cheese community, along with world-class wines and olive oils, all cultivated in the state's Guadalupe Valley. Rubio says Plasencia and a handful of other local chefs have given the region's fare and its sellers a real boost.

OMAR RUBIO: He's a very good chef. He's a businessman, very good businessman, and he has the movement. He has a lot of movement.

KAHN: That movement has been dubbed Baja cuisine or Baja Med: Mexican food full of local seafood and produce inspired with European techniques. While enjoying Baja's fish and fruits seems like a no-brainer, Plasencia says, traditionally, Tijuanans dine out and prefer steak or imported salmon. His early cooking lessons were in his family's restaurants, which mostly feature Italian cuisine.

PLASENCIA: And somebody asked me why. I mean, if you're Mexican, why are you cooking Italian? So that's when it kind of it hit me, you know? But I mean, I'm Mexican, and that's what I want to cook.

KAHN: Locals and tourists are warming up to his new culinary creations. More nights than not, his restaurant is packed. A lot of that has to do with the drop in Tijuana's brutal drug violence and a crackdown on a terrifying spate of kidnappings and killings, which had many rich Tijuanans fleeing across the border into San Diego, including Plasencia's family. But he and the city have also been getting a lot of good press with write-ups in The New York Times and features with celebrity chefs on U.S. cooking shows.

PLASENCIA: Everybody is very happy with me right now.

(LAUGHTER)

PLASENCIA: The mayor and the secretary of tourism and - they are really happy. So hopefully, I won't get to pay my liquor license next year.

(LAUGHTER)

KAHN: The kitchen of Plasencia's newest restaurant, Mission 19, is small and immaculately clean. It's located in a sleek new steel high-rise in Tijuana's upscale Rio Zone. Plasencia gets to work on those tiny avocadoes from the local market.

PLASENCIA: We're going to make you avocado criollo soup with callos de hacha.

KAHN: Cool avocado soup with fresh raw scallops. By early evening, the restaurant is packed. A waiter serves the soup, then grilled octopus covered with elephant garlic jelly, garbanzos, potato wedges and a drizzle of pistachio oil. Next step, grilled duck, then dessert.

PLASENCIA: We have some bruleed bananas with strawberries and some salty marzipan and some oatmeal ice cream.

KAHN: Plasencia knows Tijuana's woes can't be fixed with oysters and cocktails, but he says he'll keep trying one palate at a time. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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