In recent years, a largely unrecognized shift in the dining scene has taken place in Tijuana, Mexico. A culinary renaissance led by chefs like Chad White, Javier Plascencia, and Drew Deckman have been elevating Baja cuisine to new heights. There, among this changing landscape just twenty minutes south of the United States border, lies La Justina.
I recently traveled across the border from San Diego into Tijuana to experience La Justina and met with a young and talented chef by the name of Iker Castillo, who has been Chef de Cuisine since its inception. La Justina was spearheaded by Chef Chad White, owner of Comun in downtown San Diego, as well as Craft Pizza Company in La Jolla.
After my initial meeting with Chef Castillo, we traveled together to the local market to gather ingredients for the day’s special. Mercado Hidalgo, much to my surprise, was more abundant than anything I’ve seen across the border in San Diego. The market showcased several different types of tunas (the edible fruit portions of a cactus plant) not easily sourced in the US, a vast assortment of mole, the so-called Mexican “truffle”, huitlacoche, and a spectrum of seasonal produce. We purchased dried pasilla and fresh guajillo peppers, as well as a selection of local vegetables.
Afterwards, several dishes and signature cocktails were created upon our return to the restaurant. Drinks crafted by La Justina’s house mixologist included the “Labios Rojos”, a combination of fresh watermelon, mezcal, and guajillo chili. The drink, which was torched before serving, was a balanced blend of sweetness, heat and salt.
Meanwhile, Chef Castillo prepared a piece of local yellowtail cured in mesquite, basted and seared with a garlic butter sauce. Finally, the fish was finished in a wood fire brick oven, leaving a slightly smoky taste on the back end of the palate. The finished yellowtail composition featured a cauliflower purée and the local heirloom vegetables we had selected earlier at the Mercado.
I’ve cooked and eaten around the world, and in tasting La Justina’s food, it wouldn’t be difficult to close my eyes and imagine that I were dining in a high-end restaurant in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chef Castillo, along with the team at La Justina, is creating dishes that transform the interpretation of Mexican cuisine, and Baja should be proud of the food coming from Tijuana.
The short trip across the border is one that I will soon make again, and I’d encourage anyone to take this journey south to explore the evolving scene, to expand their palates, and to dine without borders.
Av Revolución, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, Baja California, México