The welcome as you climb the stairs to Bracero Cocina de Raiz
It’s Winona! Winona Ryder! You would swear. Straight out of The Age of Innocence. Those eyes, that quizzical smile.
Okay, Winona turns out to be Amy. She’s helping run the bar of this terrazza in the sky. I’ve arrived on the second level of Bracero Cocina. It’s a new (like, one year old) place in the super-luxe Ariel apartment building at Beech and Kettner.
I wandered in here because I saw it was happy hour, and I hoofed it upstairs because, well, they had these iron horse heads snorting out at you from the landing. Plus a wall full of Mexican hats and the sound of Los Tucanes de Tijuana (remember “Mis Tres Animales”?) blasting away from above.
When I come up, Amy is standing in the afternoon sunshine behind this solid white-marble bar. And now she’s waiting for me to choose from this list of happy-hour possibles. She brings out the main menu, too, but most of those dishes are ten, twenty, thirty, forty dollars. Like, a short-rib entrée will set you back $44. Tacos are $6 each.
“People say, ‘How come your tacos are so expensive?’” says Amy. “Well, Mexican food’s like any food: it can be cheap or incredibly sophisticated, with expensive ingredients. Even tacos.”
I grab a bar chair. This space is all concrete/tile/wood/glass moderne, but they’ve made it interesting by creating hanging gardens, walls filled with ancient Mexican farm tools (like gnarly wooden oxen yokes and machetes and scythes), and by storing working jars of like ancho chilies, nutmeg, pinto beans, and lentils beside the open kitchen. And beside them, a library of books: Larousse Gastronomique, La Cocina Peruana, Flying Pans, Notes From the Larder, and Braceros.
Oh, yeah. Bracero. That is what this place’s name is praising: Mexican farm-workers and the program that worked well, so they say, back in the ’40s and ’50s. And “Cocina de Raiz” means “kitchen of roots.” Cultural, culinary roots?
Winona’s waiting. The HH deals start with two bucks off cocktails and wines, $1 off all beers (and they have a couple from Baja, like Tiniebla, from Insurgente brewery. Also, they have a whole bunch of wines from Baja. About $8 in HH).
Happy-hour food deals include ceviche and chips with avo for $7, a “house guacamole” with crispy lentils, chickpeas, black-bean hummus and chips, also $7.
But the main deal seems to be tacos. Two for $10, three for $14. And not your papa’s tacos. There’s a “cauliflower tortita” taco with avo and pickled red onion, a lamb neck barbacoa taco with a kombucha pasilla salsa, a beef-tongue confit taco with chile morita verde and pickled onion, a “Mexiterranean” taco, basically gyro-style beef and lamb adobada. This last one comes with “olla beans” and pineapple, and in a flour tortilla. The others are in corn tortillas.
The “Niman Ranch” carnitas taco has chicharron, habanero, and avocado salsa.
“Mexiterranean” taco, with beans, lamb, beef, jalapeño-tzatziki sauce, and a grilled slice of pineapple
First off, with the cerveza, I stick to a $4 Krombacher non-alcohol beer. Working tonight, dammit. Then I go for the lamb neck and the Mexiterranean tacos.
And then I flip the page and see a “Border Wait Pasta Chicharron” for $3.
“They’re pasta, not actual pork rinds,” Amy warns. But, three bucks, so I get them anyway.
And then she starts telling me about their most popular small-plate dish: “Albacore Two Ways.” It’s seared up top and raw, tartare, down below. Costs $16.95; I get tempted when she tells me I can have a happy-hour size for 8 bucks. I can’t resist.
What $3 buys: plate of surprisingly satisfying faux chicharrones
Soon the dishes start hauling up from down below. First, a rack of four salsas, from green (tame) to white (hot). Great for dipping the pasta chicharron, which tastes just like the real chitlin thing. Makes a great stomach liner.
The lamb-neck barbacoa taco is basically shredded lamb with a kind of mole, looks like. But no contest with the big flour-tortilla Mexiterranean taco. This has a delicious jalapeño-flavored tzatziki, beans from the olla, cilantro, and the carved-off meat below. And then a slab of grilled pineapple fires up the whole package with carbonized sweetness.
Also, a nice pile of flavorful rice and frijoles at the end of the long plate.
Albacore Two Ways: seared (the white, on top), the tartare (below), and crispy fried eggplant between.
Amy’s recommendation comes last. Albacore Two Ways. It’s art you don’t wanna wreck: spidery greenery on top, slice of pink-and-white watermelon radish, slices of white-but-seared albacore, golden layer of crispy fried eggplant, then the clump of raw tuna tartare with green onions.
’Course, a visually artistic $16.95 albacore concoction’s fine, but me, I’m just as happy at, say, 25th and Imperial, watching beans bubbling in the olla on the fire outside, onions roasting, carne asada sizzling, tortillas searing and flavor flooding your jowls — for five bucks.
But this is when I learn that, actually, we’re in the presence of greatness.
“We’ve been going a year,” says Amy. “It was serious training. Javier took us down to Baja, his restaurant in the Guadalupe Valley. We had so much to learn about the traditions and Javier’s original takes on everything. Like combining shrimp and bone marrow.”
“Javier Plascencia. He’s the chef-partner here.”
So, we’re talking one of the great Baja Med pioneers. He and Miguel Angel Guerrero have led the charge to create Baja’s own world-famous approach to food.
And now it’s here in Little Italy. When you think about it, this is a kinda new statement. It’s saying, We’re not just taco stands anymore. Baja Med’s a new cuisine.
What price, originality? I guess a Baja beer and a Mexiterranean taco won’t break the bank.
1490 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego
Kitchen Hours: 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Sunday, Monday; till 10 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; till 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday
Happy Hour Prices: Fish ceviche and chips with avocado, $7; house guacamole, crispy lentils, chickpeas, blac-bean hummus, chips, $7; tacos @ 2 for $10 include cauliflower tortita, avo, pickled red onion; lamb-neck barbacoa taco, kombucha with pasilla salsa; beef tongue confit taco with chile morita verde, pickled onion; “Mexiterranean” taco (gyro-style beef and lamb adobada) with olla beans, pineapple, flour tortilla; carnitas taco, chicharron, habanero, avocado salsa
Nearest bus stop: India between Cedar and Date (northbound); Kettner at Grape (southbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy (at Cedar and California, two blocks from India)