2885 Perry Road, Liberty Station
Whether you’ve read about it in the New York Times, or in the new Michelin Guide California, it’s impossible to walk into El Jardin without high expectations. Its chef, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, has appeared on Top Chef television shows, after all, and cooked with beloved borderland chefs Javier Plascencia and Drew Deckman before that. Thus while many, including out of town voices, were quick to recognize it as one of the best, most creative Mexican dining experiences in town, yokels like me reserved judgment. Maybe I was too busy exploring our world of cheap taco shops.
It only took a bite of vegetarian tamal to regret it. Made from heirloom blue corn, it’s a dark vessel for delectable masa and braised vegetables from the namesake garden growing behind the restaurant’s kitchen, with an adobo spiced interpretation of birria, usually a chili-laden stew of beef or goat. Like all dishes on the menu, the vegetable birria tamal includes citation identifying the regional inspiration behind its recipe: in this case, it’s Xochimilco, an old neighborhood in Mexico City built along Aztecan canals.
I consider tamales among the most under-appreciated dishes on the planet, perhaps because good ones are so often plumbed from the bellies of rickety street carts, and likely because they’re not exactly beautiful to behold. Yet on this point as well the El Jardin tamal overachieves, laid in a pool of black bean puree, zigzagged with a drizzle of crema, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and garnished bright green cilantro leaves to set off the blackish loaf. It’s not precisely Instagram bait, but it’s pretty and special enough to warrant a $12 price tag for a meat dish I usually eat for less than three bucks.
If you followed the news, eight San Diego restaurants had been recognized in that new Michelin Guide with Bib Gourmand accolades, you’ll know El Jardin was among them. The designation is meant to refer to a restaurant that provides upscale dining at a value price, considered to be two courses and dessert or a glass of wine for 40 dollars or less. Now, if you stick to this tamal, maybe the excellent $17 crab stuffed and fried squash blossoms (credited to Oaxaca), and the bar’s cheapest, 10 dollar glass of wine, you can technically accomplish this at El Jardin. You can do it by starting with a taco, such as the terrifically hot Taco de Fideo Chino I found for $7, which takes inspiration from the historic Chinese restaurants of Mexicali, combining smoked, ground pork with Szechuan spiced, dan dan style sesame sauce. The grilled taco had just enough burn to hurt without incinerating my palate; it’s worth fawning.
But even these “value” prices blow away what we’re accustomed to. And yet, to stick below that 40 dollar figure is to miss out on the main events here, whether the $60 wood grilled ribeye (a nod to Valle de Guadalupe), a whole roasted fish a la Nayarit ($50, serving two), or El Jardin’s signature, barbacoa lamb shank ($36). In the Mexico geography lesson given by these dishes, the lamb points to Pachuca, capital city of the central state of Hidalgo. That’s about 40 miles from Texcoco, and like Chula Vista’s beloved barbacoa restaurant, Aqui Es Texcoco, maguey plant is used in the cooking of this lamb. The blue agave relative, also known as a source for mezcal, takes part in the wood-burning grill lending smoky aromas to El Jardin’s spacious, Baja-inspired dining patio, subtly flavoring the lamb during a slow enough cook that the succulent meat separates easily from the bone.
Lamb shank is another not-that-pretty dish, but dressed here with edible flowers, in a brothy mixture of rice and two-toned calypso beans, and a bright yellow burst of pineapple, it certainly looks good enough to eat. One might argue Aqui Es Texcoco barbacoa compares favorably at a lower price, but I’d counter the refined nuances here are only half the point. Between its playful cocktails, inventive turns, and dazzling interior (which features one living wall covered in a patchwork of mosses, and a dead wall adorned with colorfully macraméed steer skulls), El Jardin delivers something San Diego needed. And that’s a feature restaurant delivering an upscale experience around contemporary Mexican fare to hang our city’s culinary reputation on. I didn’t want to take any out of towner’s word for it. Michelin Shmichelin, I thought. But if the world is watching to see what chef Claudette is doing, thank goodness she’s doing it here.