SAN DIEGO – Baja California cuisine hasn’t really made the leap across the border to San Diego. Even though its epicenter – Baja’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe – is only ninety minutes south and counts thousands of north of-the-border food enthusiasts who visit frequently to enjoy the region’s acclaimed gastronomy and a good glass of Baja California wine.
It’s not for a lack of trying by Valle chefs. Javier Plascencia, of restaurant Finca Altozano, tried when he opened Bracero in Little Italy in 2015. That experiment lasted two years before going “pork belly up”, as it were. Drew Deckman, of Deckman’s en El Mogor, has plotted several projects in San Diego, but nothing’s materialized. Roberto Alcocer from restaurant Malva is opening at the Hyatt’s new Mission Pacific Hotel in Oceanside this Summer. Hopefully his venture fares better than Plascencia’s.
So, when Border X Brewing owner David Favela – promising “Valle-like” food – invited us to visit their new rustic, campestre-style restaurant, La Familia Cocina de Campo, I marked my calendar and counted the days in anticipation. Border X, located in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, was recognized by the James Beard Foundation last year for their Mexican-inspired beers. But until now, they’ve only offered tacos, , on their spacious back patio.
En Familia at Border X Brewing. Photo by W. Scott Koenig.
The taco counter has been replaced with a gargantuan wood fired grill that wouldn’t be out of place in the Valle. “Most of our menu items will be from the grill, cooked over oak and almond wood,” according to chef David Fuerte. “I designed it as a cross between a Santa Maria and an Argentinian grill. The winch allows me to lower or raise the food above the fire for better control and even cooking.”
Woodfired grill. Photo by W. Scott Koenig.
Fuerte designed El Familia’s menu and is consulting on staff training. The LA-based chef’s resume is impressive. He’s partnered with Los Angeles Food and Wine and several restaurants at buzzy coastal Mexican resorts. He’s CEO and founder of Made for Chefs, a company that creates quality chef products and has multiple concepts in Southern California. His most successful is his eatery Masataco, which features imaginative modern tacos on house made tortillas of heirloom blue corn from Oaxaca.
Those flavorful tortillas are grilled until crisped as tostadas and served alongside the yellowtail crudo, drizzled in tajin watermelon aguachile sauce, topped with avocado, tomato, cilantro and cucumber, and served with a side of wood fired Meyor lemon — to be squeezed over the generous morsels of raw fish. The yellowtail – sourced from the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur – is fresh, meaty, toothsome and as delectable as anything I’ve enjoyed in Ensenada, the seafood capitol of Baja California.
Yellowtail crudo. Photo by W. Scott Koenig.
Fuerte wins awards for his vegan tacos. En Familia offers a flight of three, all served on warm, supple blue corn tortillas: jackfruit birria, where fleshy stewed jaca is substituted for the protein; cauliflower zarandeado in a salsa of rich ancho and smoky chipotle; and my favorite, oyster mushroom “carnitas”. For the carnivorous, ribeye, grilled bone marrow, Mexican octopus, bacon wrapped shrimp and other tacos are also on offer.
Jackfruit birria taco. Photo by W. Scott Koenig.
Where there’s an Argentinian grill, there’s sure to be plenty of cooked meat. En Familia’s 28-ounce tomahawk is a stunner, simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled medium-rare to medium. The beef is savory, buttery and redolent of woodfire. The dish is finished tableside by the chef with a kitchen torch to melt butter atop the succulent slab. Equally triumphant are the grilled tomahawk pork chops garnished with a piquant, house-made chimichurri.
Tomahawk steak. Photo by W. Scott Koenig.
The most Instagrammable plate of the night was the red snapper zarandeado. The fish, also sourced from Baja’s coastal waters, is prepared two ways. The filets, bathed in luxuriant zarandeado sauce, are served on either side of the fried, upright snapper. I reveled in peeling back the crispy skin to get at the tender chunks of cheek meat.
Red snapper zarandeado. Photo by W. Scott Koenig.
What would a “Valle-like” meal be like without Baja California wine? LMA Wines, based in San Diego and Ensenada, have partnered with Border X to offer a selection of Baja California varietals and blends. The pork pairs well with Los Nubes’, Seleccion de Barricas, a red blend with notes of ripe red fruit, cherry, raspberry, herbs, and white pepper. Other wines available include Santo Tomas, Emevé, and Paolini.
Given the quality of the ingredients at En Familia and their commitment to using only local and Baja California sourced meat, seafood and produce, prices aren’t what you’d expect in San Diego and probably closer to what you’d pay in Mexico. Favela shares, “The people who live in Barrio Logan don’t go to Baja to eat. I want to offer the locals a similar experience at a decent price. I call it ‘affordable luxury’.”
As we haven’t traveled to Baja California since the start of COVID, En Familia felt like a return of sorts, without having to cross the border to eat so well. The menu and atmosphere evoke languid evenings in the Valle de Guadalupe and should appeal to all who love Baja California cuisine.
En Familia is offering a fixed preview menu for $25 through March 26 as they put finishing touches on menu items and operations. Available times are 6 and 8 PM for groups of 2-6. The full menu is also available at cost.
En Familia Cocina de Campo is located on the back patio of Border X Brewing, 2181 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113. Hours: Tue-Thur 3-10 PM, Fri – Sat 12-11 PM, Sunday 12-8 PM. Reservations are required. (619) 501-0503, , www.borderxbrewing.com
Disclaimer: We were invited to a staff training session at Border X Brewing by the owners and were not charged for our food or beverage. As always, my recommendations are driven by the quality of the experience, never by influence. I received no financial compensation for this review and would return to En Familia with my credit card and without hesitation.
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