- Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro (4346 Bonita Road in Bonita) shouldn't work: a little bit Spanish, a little bit Italian, a tiny bit Asian and alotabit Mexican. At first glance, chef Javier Plascencia's attempt to be all things to all people had all the marks of a doomed effort. First glance, it seems, was wrong.
I've written in this space that if Plascencia's flagship Tijuana restaurant, Misión 19, "isn't the best local restaurant, it's certainly a finalist." Romesco, though, is not Misión 19 North—not as cutting edge, elegant or fancy. In the place of cheffie touches and artsy flourishes is a simplicity of message and a refreshing directness.
Take, for example, Romesco's pulpo asado a las brasas—a delicious grilled octopus dish—and contrast it with Misión 19's version with puréed garlic, pistachios and habanero salsa. Instead of the Tijuana restaurant's dramatic presentation and interplay of multiple elements, the Romesco dish is presented simply with textural contrasts focused on the octopus itself—the supple interior juxtaposed with the crunch from the grill's sear. The only garnishes and external flavorings on the Romesco version were a sprinkle of minced herb and a wedge of lemon.
Another great seafood option is the orejas de mar tostada. These "ears of the sea" are close relatives of abalone, called king topshell—essentially a big sea snail—and have all the sweetness of abalone with a tender texture. Romesco serves them with crisp tortillas in a mild chimichurri habanero salsa that enhances the natural sweetness of the mollusk. The message is flavor, and it's immediately apparent.
Romesco offers a series of tacos that highlight the connection between tapas and Mexican street food. Is a San Sebastian tapeo really so different from a late-night trip down Tijuana's taco alley? Perhaps the best of these offerings are the beef cheek tacos. While it's the fat content and gelatinous connective tissue that makes beef cheeks so delicious, Romesco's version was earthy and deep beyond words, without being even a bit greasy. The tacos de fideo—fried spaghettini tacos spiked with Spanish chorizo, drizzled with fresh crema and served with a green salsa—is one of Romesco's most unusual offerings. Very unusual.
My favorite dish is a signature guilty pleasure: bone marrow. I'd be hard-pressed to identify a tastier fat. Romesco serves these on top of sopes—fried masa discs—with some kosher salt and two sauces (a habanero salsa and a demi-glace / red wine reduction). The idea is to lift the bone—perhaps aided by the conveniently provided spoon—encouraging the bone marrow to run onto the sopes, and then garnish it with a few grains of kosher salt and sauces. The dish is sinful, creative and utterly delicious.
Romesco works despite having every excuse not to. It features intensified versions of each of the components of BajaMed cuisine, offered together under one roof. It is, in essence, BajaMed deconstructed.