Grupo Plascencia: Roots Run Deep for Tijuana’s Famous Family of Restaurateurs
El Gringo paid his driver and stepped out of the cab and into the crisp November afternoon in the Zona Rio neighborhood of Tijuana. Shielding my eyes from the autumn sun, I looked up at the modern glass and concrete business tower that houses Chef Javier Plascencia’s Mision 19 restaurant. Mision 19 has become famous in the past few years – as has the chef himself – thanks to high profile articles in both the Los Angeles and New York Times newspapers, as well as burgeoning foodie interest in the city’s Baja Med cuisine.
But every tower begins with a cornerstone, and El Gringo was here to chat with Javier and his brothers Tana and Julian to uncover the foundation of the Plascencia family’s history, including their culinary influences and the story behind the Grupo Plascencia family of restaurants.
Stepping into the bright, open interior of Mision 19, I was seated at a small table behind the impressive wine wall where I met Javier and his brother Tana (the oldest of the four Plascencia siblings) to discuss Grupo Plascencia’s roots, and the evolution of the Tijuana culinary scene.
The Plascencia Roots: Nana Chela and Mexico’s First Pizzeria
The food tradition of the current family began in Tijuana with Javier and Tana’s paternal grandmother. Known as Nana Chela, she worked at the Agua Caliente casino in the 1930s and 40s and loved to cook for her family.
“I remember going to her house as a little boy for big feasts.” Javier recalled. “She would cook great empanadas – I still have never had them the way she made them. She cooked plantain tortitas, caldo de rez. She made all the tortillas by hand. Very good sauces, beans, rice. And she cooked it with a lot of love. That made a huge difference.”
Nana Chela was a “localvore” long before Javier was born. “She would buy all her food from the local market and the produce carts that would roam the colonias,” he said.
As Javier reminisced, a pianist played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the background, a fitting soundtrack for the story of his father, Juan José Plascencia, a Tijuana barman who started a restaurant empire in 1969 on a dream…a dream of having a good pizza in his hometown.
Influenced by frequent trips to drink and dine with friends at San Diego’s Filipe’s Pizzeria, Tijuana native Juan José Plascencia (also known as Don Tana) hosted a party for his coworkers one night, found some recipes, and baked a couple of pizzas. His coworkers loved the pies and urged him to open a restaurant of his own. Juan José and some friends got the money together and opened their first restaurant, with Nana Chela making the sauces and wife Martha (from San Diego) working the cash register. In just two hours after opening, they had sold out and the new Pizzeria – Giuseppi’s – was a huge success. It’s widely believed that Giuseppi’s is the FIRST true pizzeria in Baja, if not all of Mexico.
Giuseppi’s gave the Plascencia siblings (Tana, Javier, younger brother Julian and sister Margu) their first taste of the restaurant business. When they were small kids, Giuseppi’s was in full swing and was the only place they could see their hard-working father, who didn’t come in until midnight most weeknights and worked in the restaurant all weekend. “Those were good times,” Julian recalled later in the day. “We would sit at a table in the corner on a Sunday and play with our toys and coloring books.”
Tana smiled nostalgically, adding, “If we were bad at school as teenagers, our father would make us work the weekend. He would make us clean the walls, the windows — all in front of the staff and customers. And then we would get homework in the restaurant. We would work in the warehouse, with the distributors. But Javier, he liked to be up in front in the kitchen with the cooks.” When asked if Javier is indeed the best cook of all the siblings, Tana acquiesced, “Yes. We all cook, but Javier took to it very early on.”
Wanting them to be fluent English speakers, all of the Plascencia kids were educated in their mother’s hometown of San Diego with “resident alien” status. Javier attended the Army/Navy Academy in Carlsbad for a year, and all of the kids attended high school at Saint Augustine in San Diego. In the meantime, the Plascencia family empire just across the border in Tijuana continued to expand.
Branching Out: The Building of a Culinary Empire
Juan José hired a cook and a helper and began adding a bit more variety to the Italian menu, including lasagna, poultry, veal and meat dishes. Building on the success of the first Giuseppi’s, the family added more locations across Tijuana. There are currently five locations, with a sixth scheduled to open on Avenida Revolucion in 2014.
Juan José rented the room adjacent to the first Giussepi’s and set it up as a specialty dining room with a more “exclusive” Italian menu and called it Villa Saverio’s. Working with a business partner from Mexico City, the family created one of the first restaurants in Tijuana that combined both Baja and Mediterranean flavors…helping set the stage for the city’s current success with Baja Med cuisine. The restaurant just recognized its 25th anniversary, during which all the chefs from Grupo Plascencia contributed their culinary talents for a week of celebratory meals.
Following Saverios, the Plascencias then opened Casa Plasencia, the current flagship restaurant of the family business, displacing and moving Saverio’s for the third and final time to its current location. Serving “Mexiterranean” cuisine, the menu is eclectic and delicious. El Gringo had dinner there earlier this year, trying the broiled pulpo and trucha zarendeado, a fresh piece of trout butterflied, spiced and grilled in their exhibition kitchen. El Gringo’s señorita enjoyed a hearty seafood pasta and my hijo devoured their famous, savory beef cheek tacos.
Scattered Leaves: Exile, Return and Resurgence
In 2005, the Plascencia family went into self-exile from Tijuana to San Diego due to kidnapping threats made against one of the Plascencia brothers. Other middle and upper class Tijuanese moved north during this same time for similar reasons. Grupo Plascencia opened Romesco in Bonita, California (near San Diego) in 2006 so that they and their friends could enjoy a Mediterranean style meal with Baja flavors while they were away from home. Romesco is still in business today and has received many accolades for their imaginative menu.
Once the threat to the family was gone and the city began a return to normalcy, the Plascencias came back to Tijuana to continue growing the Grupo Plascencia family of restaurants. Tana was driving down Avenida Revolucion one afternoon in 2010 when he noticed that the current tenants at the famous Caesar’s Restaurant were being evicted. Tana explained, “I was in my car and noticed all their tables, chairs and furniture on the street. I stopped and went inside and talked to the landlord about the possibility of taking over the lease and the business, letting him know we would be in touch. After talking to my father, the next day I went back to the restaurant with a check in hand and signed the lease.”
The Plascencias have tastefully rehabilitated, renovated and resurrected the landmark, which dates back to 1927, when Caesar Cardini (an Italian immigrant) started the restaurant during the boom years of prohibition. At that time, Americans crossed the border in droves for the drinks they were no longer allowed to enjoy stateside. Cardini is popularly credited with the invention of the classic Caesar Salad, which is still served tableside today.
After our discussion at Mision 19, Tana drove me over to Caesar’s for a quick tour and to meet with his brother Julian. Caesar’s walls are adorned with hundreds of historic photos of the restaurant and hotel, and Tijuana from the 1920s to present day. The original bar is the only thing that remains from the 1927 Caesar’s, but the entire restaurant has been decorated in a way that recalls Tijuana’s classic era of wining, dining, and gambling — including black and white checkered tile floors and mahogany wainscoting and booths.
While chatting with Tana and Julian, El Gringo enjoyed a glass of the house Pale Ale (Caesar’s, brewed by a local cervezeria), the house red wine (Nostro, or “We” in Italian), Caesar salad, bone marrow sopes (“Sometimes I come here and just have these and some red wine,” Tana confided) and Caesar’s version of surf and turf, chateaubriand and bacon-wrapped Baja shrimp — inspired by the famous, long defunct Tijuana restaurant Costa Azul. Other dishes on the menu also pay homage to Tijuana’s culinary past.
They Don’t Fall Far from the Tree: Today and Tomorrow
In addition to the Grupo Plascencia interests, Javier independently manages several other industry-recognized restaurants, including Erizo Baja Fish House & Market, Caffé Saverios, Finca Altozano in the Valle de Guadalupe, and of course, Mision 19. Younger Sister Margu creates fantastic dulces and pastries at L’Artisan Reposteria Fina, which supplies tantalizing deserts to most of the Grupo Plascencia restaurants. And Tana and Julian are always on the lookout for the next opportunity, such as Mama Tequila, Julian’s new tequila bar just across the street from Caesar’s.
There are plans to develop new concepts and restaurants, both in Tijuana and possibly other locations in Baja California such as Rosarito, but all three brothers made it clear that for now, they are focusing on Tijuana and its continuing revitalization. “Because we are mostly in Tijuana, the family goes around to all the restaurants every day. We get to see our diners and they get a good feeling of personal service.” Julian emphasized.
When the family gets together for a holiday or celebration, they typically meet at one of their restaurants and leave the cooking to the capable staff, some of which have been with the Plascencias for 20-30 years. The Plascencia family beach house provides a great place for Juan José to gather his grandkids around him and for the family to take a break from their busy profession.
When I asked Tana what will happen when the three brothers retire, he laughed and replied, “My daughter is the chef at Romesco in Bonita. My son is in Las Vegas studying hospitality at UNLV. Sooner or later, we will retire, and how nice to have your kids around to help you.”
As we finished our interview, I asked Javier how he’d like to retire. Reflecting, he concluded, “I’d like to retire in Valle de Guadalupe on my ranch, maybe take on a couple of projects like building a new family house in the Valley. I want to spend more time there and retire drinking red wine under a huge tree.”
The roots of that tree will no doubt run deep.
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