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La Querencia, La Espandana & Mision 19 in Tijuana (Very long review)

The Significant Other and I went to Tijuana for an early birthday weekend. (Providence, here in L.A. will be my birthday dinner this week.)

Dinner the first night was at La Querencia. It was great. We hadn’t been before, the place is comfortable, kind of nice casual and the service was excellent. There were almost too many fantastic sounding dishes to choose from but we did our best. We started with the soup of the day: ejote, squash blossoms, chile cascabel, goat cheese and crema topped off with crisp fried shallots & garlic. The main ingredients were blended together into a creamy broth and the shallots and garlic set it off perfectly. The soup was incredible. We originally shared one bowl figuring that would allow us to order more dishes, but we ended up getting a second bowl for dessert. One of the greatest soups that either of us has ever had. We then had two carpaccios – the fresh marlin and the Baja scallops, both were superb. They tasted so fresh you could almost imagine the thin slices had been carved off the still live fish. The toppings complemented them almost perfectly, although the marlin did get slightly lost in the tomato based topping that was on it. The scallops were incredible, the capers, bits of olive, olive oil, sea salt and a couple of other things I can’t recall serving to enhance their flavor. Then the marinated duck taco. I can never remember the name of the particularly bitter Mexican herb that is sometimes used, but there was some of it in the taco and neither the SO or I like it very much. Once we removed the few shreds of it from the meat and squirted a little lime over it, we were much happier and it was very good. We also had two stuffed chile Gueros – hers with crab, mine with smoked marlin. Hers wasn’t quite crabby enough. There was one bite in which she got a large chunk of crab and loved it, other than that though the crab got kind of lost in everything else. The smoked marlin, however, stood up very well to the chile and the other stuffing and I loved it. I also had a roasted duck tostada that was excellent, somewhat gamy, tasting almost more like wild than farm raised duck. We washed it all down with a very good, slightly tart La Cetto Privada Reserva Chardonnay, 2009. At the beginning of the evening an array of salsas was put on the table – a habanero, a rojo, a verde with tomatillo and a crema with tuna – they were all superb and nicely complemented much of what we had, though as much as I love well-made salsas the dishes stood up very well on their own without them. The bill came in somewhere in the neighborhood of US$60 for the two of us, which seemed more than reasonable with the bottle of wine.

Breakfast the next morning was at the highly touted La Espadaña. We were a bit disappointed. The place is fun – big, nicely decorated, filled with families enjoying a weekend breakfast, but the food was merely ok. I had machaca ranchero and it was too dry without a whole lot of flavor. I had to ladle a lot of salsa onto it to get much out of it. The SO had chilaquilles verdes that were far too light on the sauce and too heavy on the cheese. (I make much better myself.) There was nothing all that special about the beans that came with everything. The tortillas were fresh, the orange juice not so much. We both wish that they had café con leche or espresso rather than simply a fairly dull regular coffee.

But then we walked around all day enjoying Mercado Hidalgo – great place; and the Centro Cultural – another great place.

That night was Mision 19 – the primary mission of our foray down to Tijuana. It more than lived up to its billing. The place is beautiful. Elegant, simple, very comfortable, just festive enough seeming without all the clamor and conversation killing decibels of too many nice restaurants in Los Angeles these days. The service was perfect, not at all too formal, but also not aggressively friendly. We even had a star sighting – Robert Redford was sitting at a table near ours. He seemed to be enjoying himself with three friends. As for the food, we had the six course tasting menu with drink pairings – all wines and everything else were local, the wines all from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. There wasn’t a wrong note to be found. Each course built on the last and seemed like a very logical progression, but with some elements of surprise built in.

We started with special cocktails – which we seldom do but we figured we’d give it a try. I had a “Mescalero.” Not being a mixed drink sort of guy I can’t quite recall what was in it other than mezcal but it was delicious, if sweeter than the sort of thing I usually drink. The SO had something I can’t remember the name of but involved vodka and cucumber and mint and some sort of chile and it was fantastic – utterly refreshing, a perfect summer drink. While we sipped our drinks they brought us an amuse bouche of mini sliders that had a huge burst of flavor in their one bite. They tasted like the very best street hamburgesa you could possibly imagine having from a cart in Tijuana. It was fun and delicious.

Then to the food. (I’ll copy and paste the translated menu listings.) The first course was "PARFAIT" OF SCALLOPS, Merengue avocado / meyer lemon Candy / Persian Cucumber citrus / spicy Buttermilk corn and chile Arena chiltepin. - Holy shit! This was amazing, a truly spectacular blend of flavors that you could taste individually but at the same time worked to bring out the flavor of the scallops. One thing that isn’t listed in the description, near as we could tell, are little gelatinized beads of soy sauce that we at first thought might be some sort of small black bean or fungus that added a bit of salt to everything. It was wonderful. It came with a La Cetto Chenin Blanc that was one of the great Chenin Blancs either of us has ever tasted and perfectly complemented the course.

Then came GRILLED OCTOPUS, Black garlic jelly / Pistachio / Garbanzo fresh / burnt habanero sauce. The SO doesn’t normally like octopus, she sure loved this one. As did I. Again, it was perfect, surprising, a great mix of flavors that both stood on their own and at the same time created a blend of flavors that was something else. This came with a La Cetto Chardonnay – also perfect.

Next was ROAST SUCKLING [pork shoulder] Cornmeal crepes for taquear / Cilantro / Sauces street. It almost tasted like a truly great Peking Duck, but pork. The salsas were a habanero with tomatillo that was like nothing I’ve ever had and was sharp and citrusy without being overwhelming, an arbol rojo that was perfect and a bit earthy, and a sweet soy (like an Indonesian kecap manis.) It was the closest we came to what most of us think of as Mexican food, but playfully so and in a very interesting way that fit perfectly into the rest of the meal. It was served with a light but flavorful – ale, I think – from a small brewery in Tijuana that I think the waiter said only produces beer for the Plascencia family’s restaurants.

Next was RISOTTO ARBORIO [although in our case it was made with faro rather than Arborio], Italian and Mexican truffle / Epazote / heirloom bean / Wild Mushrooms [actually huitlacoche – corn fungus]. Another astounding dish. Funky and powerful with the truffle and huitlacoche, the perfect complementary grainy flavor from the faro and beans. It was almost good enough to simply hold it up to your nose and inhale the scent, but then eating it was even better. It came with a Tres Tintos – a blend of three red wines that was just light enough to provide a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the dish.

Then – I can’t find it on the menu to copy and paste – was a NY steak – two thick but small slices each – from a ranch in Sonora, served with a cauliflower puree, crispy lentils and thin sliced small crispy potatoes. It was perfectly seared and cooked with extremely beefy flavor, almost like a really great waygu steak but not so fatty. It was one of the best steaks either of us has ever had and the accompaniments did a great job of helping to highlight the flavors. It came with a La Cetto Malbec that tasted almost like it had been raised alongside the cows especially to accompany them.

Neither of us are very big on desserts, but the two types of chocolate and the crema and the panna cotta with banana and strawberry were excellent. As was the Muscat de Vallejon that came with it. Still, looking at our neighbor’s table we did wish we had requested the assortment of Baja cheeses instead.

The whole works with a good tip came out to about US$150. For the sort of meal it was, with the drinks and everything else, we’re pretty sure it would be at least that per person here in Los Angeles. And it would still have been more than worth it at that price. It was one of the great meals of my life and I can hardly wait to go back for more.

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  1. :-) glad you like it and thanks for posting.

    1. Great review. Thank you. I've been dying to go to Mision 19 since Dining Diva began raving about it. I've been to La Querencia with friends and loved it-- but I can't get my husband to brave TJ. (I'm still working on him.) Yesterday evening NPR's All Things Considered did a great segment on Plascencia. http://www.northcountrypublicradio.or...

      3 Replies
      1. re: pickypicky

        Picky, start small with your husband.

        The Mercado Hidalgo is less than a 5 minute cab ride from the border, or just a good, long walk if you're fit. Stroll around looking at the chiles, produce, sample some cheese, most chefs get inspired by seeing all the raw ingredients. On the south corner of the same street the mercado is on is an outpost of Tacos el Gordo. Ya'll can grab a couple of tacos and then head back to the border. Probably a 2 - 21/2 hour foray at the most.

        I have been going back to Tijuana a lot more regularly over the last 18 months. To be honest, I was a bit nervous at first, but the more time I spend there the more I realize that as a day-tripper or tourist, I am actually pretty safe. I promise you, he will not see gun battles in the street, he will not see narcotrafficantes openly conducting business, he won't be a target. Yes, he might possibly get pick-pocketed in the market, yes, if he's adventurous he might eat something that doesn't quite agree with him, but most likely, he'll relax and simply have a good time. If he relaxes enough he might realize TJ is a pretty interesting place these days and worth some exploration. Use Bill Esparza's blog StreetfoodLA or the Food and Life blog as the starting point for exploring Tijuana's culinary scene, neither will steer you wrong.

        The food press is mostly deserved. Not everything is to the moon and back successfully delicious and tasty, but most of it is pretty darn good. I wish SD had what TJ has. I like the food sensibilities the chefs in Tijuana have developed, it makes sense for our climate and resources, it tastes good, it's interesting and it's a good value for the money.

        Do you know Chef Jenn? She wants to go down to TJ as well. If you and the hubs want to go down, I'll see if Chef Jenn wants to go and I'll take all 3 of you down.

        1. re: DiningDiva

          Thanks for the great reply. I visited the market on my own (!) when I first moved to SD in 2000. My daughter and I walked there and back from Revolucion. Then my SD friends started warning me about the dangers, even then. The trips I have made to TJ to eat were with friends who do business there, who took us to La Querencia a few years ago. And we visited Valle Guadalupe in 2007. I really don't know what my husband's problem is. He speaks fluent Spanish, BUT TJ (and Mexico) require a willingness to suspend a sense of control and expect the unexpected. Sometimes harder for men. :-)

          Summer is husband's busiest season. But I may take you up on your offer, even if it's just for myself. Will you keep me posted on any plans to go down? My email is violadace@gmail.com

          1. re: pickypicky

            IMHO, I think your crazy for putting your e-mail address with your full name for all the world to see...maybe it's a nom de plume but please be careful.

        1. re: pickypicky

          We stayed at Hotel Lucerna. It's a very nice hotel, comfortable, clean and the staff is incredibly friendly and helpful. It's a shortish, US$5 taxi ride from the border. It is about a five minute walk from Mision 19, about 10 minutes from La Querencia and maybe a leisurely 15 minutes from Mercado Hidalgo and the Centro Cultural. Through Expedia I got a room for US$79 per night plus tax. We took the trolley from downtown San Diego (and the train to the trolley from L.A.) and walked across the border. That made coming back, especially on a Sunday, a whole lot easier than waiting in the horrific car lanes for hours on end. Other than our eardrums - which felt as if they'd been brutally assaulted when we made the mistake of walking down Avenida Revolucion on Saturday night - we felt as safe, if not even safer, than we do in many parts of Los Angeles.

          Forgot to mention that the wine store across the atrium from Mision 19 - same building - is great. The woman working there was very knowledgeable about wines from the Valle de Guadalupe and helped us pick out a couple to buy and bring home. I only wish we were allowed to bring more than one bottle each back across the border.

          1. re: estone888

            Thanks! You couldn't have made it sound easier. And you got Robert Redford to boot!

            1. re: pickypicky

              It was a good star sighting and even I recognized him. That is nothing short of miraculous as I would be the world's worst papparazzi - I just don't recognize anyone unless they are painfully obvious, ie. Dolly Parton or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

            2. re: estone888

              That wine store is called Contra—and yes, it's outstanding. Buy a bottle of Valle de Guadalupe grappa if you can.

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    Not yet. I´d ask Greyhound before trying.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Me too. Having crossed via bus before I think the logistics of trying to do that in Tijuana might be kind of difficult. You get off the bus and you have to take all your belongings with you, including any luggage or packages. If someone was bringing, say, 5 cases of wine back from the Valle de Guadalupe I'm wondering how easy it would be to wrestle those 5 cases off the bus, through the doors, through the line, through the immigration station, onto the x-ray machine and then out the door and then hike back to the bus with those 5 cases. You'd have to bring a hand truck with you and somehow I suspect that those Customs agents are going to be mighty suspicious of anyone rolling through Immigration & Customs with 5 cases of wine ;-)

                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        I agree. It is a royal PITA to take a bus across the border, even assuming they'd let you board with five cases of wine. It's not like you put them through the X-ray and then stroll outside to a waiting bus. All the buses have to wait behind the McDonalds, so you are then walking a quarter mile, and then across some trolley tracks, with cases of wine that weigh about 40 pounds each (bottle of wine is ~3.2 lbs. x 12 + weight of box).

                        Of course, if you're truly dedicated, there is absolutely nothing requiring you to get back on the bus in San Ysidro. You could wheel your wine to your own car located in the UEFA or Border Station parking lot, or have a cohort pick you up... but it's still hard to do.

                        In any case, it doesn't matter. "It should be noted that 'common carriers' do not include taxicabs or sightseeing buses crossing the international border."

                        Ask the wineries... they'll know if it's even possible and will be able to give you advice.

                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                          And, according to the folks at Monte Xanic this past Saturday (6/30/12), their wines will be available at Costco in the very near future.

                          The bus crossing IS a royal PITA. I bailed the last time and took the trolley back to Old Town and a cab home. All totaled, it took 5 hours to get home after my plane landed in TJ. I could have flown round trip to Guadalajara or Morelia in that time frame. The bulk of the time was on the bus waiting to get up to the door to clear immigration and customs. Will not do that again at San Ysidro

                          1. re: DiningDiva

                            I tasted L.A. Cetto wines in Tijuana recently and was told they are being sold currently at Costco in Chula Vista (San Diego) as well as a few other locations in San Diego. They are also sold in Los Angeles at San Antonio Winery; I just bought several bottles at very reasonable prices; it is a limited selection. Vinedos Malagon (which has wines that I believe are far better than Monte Xanic or L.A. Cetto) are sold at a few California locations including at least two in Orange County. (The owners live in San Clemente, California).

                            1. re: Ringo Gato

                              Malagón also makes an excellent limoncello, far better than Ventura Limoncello.

                        2. re: DiningDiva

                          Taking five cases seems impractical, but a case or half-case is no big deal. I often bring that much as checked baggage on air flights and have to get it through customs.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I suppose one does, however, have to pay the duty on those five cases. Only 1 liter every 31 days is allowed duty free. Any idea how much the duty is?

                            1. re: estone888

                              Under 20 cents a liter:

                              http://www.usitc.gov/publications/doc...

                              They've always waved me through rather than calculate the few bucks duty.

                        3. re: Robert Lauriston

                          A bus or taxi could work as passengers on so-called common carriers are allowed to bring something on the order of 150 liters per year. Only some taxis are able to cross the border. Considering the time it takes to cross, the taxi fee could be terribly expensive.

                          Greyhound, however, has a no alcohol policy on all buses in North America, whether in carry-on or checked luggage. If you have alcohol, Greyhound can seize it. I know there are other bus services but I have yet to get a straight answer from any other than the "No alcohol," from Greyhound.

                          1. re: Ringo Gato

                            There are a few problems with this. The common carrier has to have an alcohol transport permit, and no taxi company would have this.

                            The problem with any bus (Crucero, Intercalifornias, etc.) is that none of them actually cross the border with people in them. You get off the bus at the bus pullout and get in the line (at San Y, it's actually the SENTRI line) so you are technically crossing on foot.

                            The only way around this I can see is to cross in a private car with a non-California resident. They can bring 60 L across, but technically US CBP could seal your trunk shut and require you to drive out of the state. How they'd enforce the trunk seal, I have no idea, but it's still annoying hassle.

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              I went round-and-round with Border agents regarding whether there was a way to bring more than one liter every 30 days. The San Ysidro and Otay Mesa agents said “No.” They even enforced the rule on my daughter’s boyfriend who has a UK passport. 1 liter for him as well.

                              Finally, I got a letter from the Trade Enforcement Unit of the California Alcohol Beverage Control who referred to Rule 8 of the California Code or Regulations, Title 4, which defines “common carrier.” I had asked about buses and the scheduled (if infrequent) train service to and from Campo, CA and Tecate, BC. His response follows: “In particular, subsection (a) should address your issue. I assume that the train in question (from Tecate, Mexico to San Diego County, California) falls under this definition. If so, then you can bring in up to five cases (approximately 60 liters) of alcoholic beverages with you aboard this train. Keep in mind that the alcohol must be for personal use and not for any commercial purpose (such as trade samples or for sale). A commercial bus line that travels between Mexico and the United States is also a “common carrier” if it falls within the definition in Rule 8.

                              I have also been told by winemaker, Pau Pijoan of Vinedos Pijoan, that there are indeed taxis that can cross the border and are licensed to take alcohol. He claims he has done it himself when taking wine to events in San Diego.

                              That being said, it is still too much of a pain. Maybe a cruise ship from Ensenada to LA is the way to go, except for the cruise.

                              1. re: Ringo Gato

                                How about if you crossed the border at Arizona?

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  If you're truly desperate—but that adds 6+ hours to your drive.