Soft-as-a-cloud Pork Buns
Avenida Revolución 926, (between 3rd and 4th), Tijuana, BC
A couple of years ago I stopped by the soft opening of La Justina to check out San Diego–based Bajaphile chef Chad White’s south-of-the-border debut. I was not disappointed. A creamy sea snail and almond dish and a selection of locally topped flatbreads hinted at the direction the joint was headed. Having plenty of time to grow into their huaraches, I returned to see how they’ve come along. This time, I was downright impressed.
Co-owner Javier Caro and pairing advisor Juan Pablo Vazquez pontificated on bringing Baja cuisine back to its roots as several dishes arrived at the repurposed wood table. First, tempura oysters. Served in-shell with whole mustard and what tasted like a smattering of horseradish paste on the bottom, the bivalve was electrifying to the bite. Disclaimer: I love oysters and delight in them pretty much every way imaginable, but the zing of these mollusks is something I will not soon forget.
Primed for more, I was quick to devour pink cuts of mackerel topped with a medley of greens, seaweed, and peppers. The word fresh continually came to mind while I searched for a descriptor of the dish.
The pork buns brought a welcome saltiness and substance to the meal. Served on buns that were like oven-warmed summer clouds, the tender pork and fried onion offered a pleasant contradictory texture to the soft snap of pickled radishes. I would have been happy to sate myself on several orders of these, but I’m glad I didn’t because beef in-bone marrow was already glistening at me from a fresh dish.
What do you say about marrow? It’s so overtly savage and indulgent — sucking the very life from a bone! The halved bones were served with buttery, homemade biscuits, and a palate-cleansing selection of heirloom carrots.
The final dish of the evening was pulpo with baby greens. I’ll preface this by admitting that I normally don’t get much out of octopus. The fact that one has famously predicted the World Cup with unparalleled accuracy probably has something to do with it. But that was far from my mind when the generous plate of octo-arms arrived. Covered in a slightly gritty vegetable ash, the prevailing impression was a burnt taste that fused with the fatty pulpo meat, a unique preparation that I may go back for.
Near the turn of the year, Chad White moved back to his home state of Washington, but Javier says he’s still closely in contact with La Justina.
The restaurant’s new coffee cart, Faustine, makes a delicious café de olla with fired orange zest. Look for Faustine in Colonia Cacho soon.