Restaurant Elevates Rosarito Beach’s Dining Scene
By: W. Scott Koenig
“I saw chef Javier Plascencia cooking at an event in Ensenada in 2013,” chef Jesús Villacaña of the excellent Raíces Restaurante Baja Internacional Cuisine confided during a recent visit to his Rosarito eatery. “I watched him and thought, ‘I can do that.’” The young chef was working as a mechanic at the time but enrolled at The Institute of Gastronomy and Tourism (IGASTUR) in Baja California to begin his vision quest. He self-imposed a time limit of nine years to achieve his goal.
“I saw chef Javier Plascencia cooking and thought, ‘I could do that’. I gave myself nine years to achieve that goal.” – Jesús Villacaña
That was seven years ago, and he and his brother Antonio just opened Raíces in 2018. So, has young Villicaña reached the peak of Plascencia-ness? Given that his role model has a good twenty years on him and is one of Baja California’s most entrepreneurial and celebrated personalities, not as a restaurateur or celebrity chef. But if the meal we enjoyed at Raíces is any indication, he’s certainly on his way as a kitchen talent and several thousand feet above base camp.
Indeed, every dish the chef brought to the table during our visit was crafted of quality ingredients, thoughtfully prepared, artistically plated and — most importantly — delicious. The menu is largely Baja Mediterranean-influenced and wouldn’t be out of place in the Valle de Guadalupe. The star of the show is Villacaña’s octopus with black risotto. The octopus is slow cooked, bathed in parsley sauce, grilled to order and served over a bed of al dente, salty risotto blackened with squid ink. It’s accompanied by snappy, local vegetables and is as aesthetically pleasing as it is delectable.
Dishes are crafted of quality ingredients, thoughtfully prepared, artistically plated and — most importantly — delicious.
Bone Marrow is de rigeur in Baja California, and Raíces’ is among the best I’ve had. The tuetano is roasted, adorned with watermelon radish, dollops of avocado and onion and tortilla tatemado (ash). The dish is served with house-made tortillas and a piquant salsa of tomatillo, onion, serrano chiles and chile de arbol. Marrow is tricky. If it’s not roasted long enough, it can be globular and unappetizing. Too long and it hardens and adheres to the bone. Villacaña’s is pulled from the oven at the point of perfection.
Raíces also offers several very good tacos. Perhaps the best is the taco of savory borrego (mutton), slowly stewed for 7-8 hours. The shredded, savory meat is served atop a house-made tortilla, dressed in cilantro, onion, avocado and watermelon radish and finished with a drizzle of the borrego’s consommé, thickened with a light roux. The chef adds mesquite-smoked carbon to most of his brown sauces to give them a distinctive wood-smoked flavor.
Though the cooked entrees and tacos won our enthusiasm, the restaurant also offers several good raw dishes. A tiradito of jurel (yellowfin) is served topped with scallion, watermelon radish and watercress and lightly sprinkled with onion ash. It’s sauced tableside in a luxuriant bath of soy, citrus and garlic.
Desserts are also very good at Raíces. Our favorite was the vanilla bread with carrot sauce and goat cheese mousse. It’s a riff on a classic carrot cake with similar taste notes and elegantly plated. The basil lime ice cream also satisfies and makes for a happy ending to a hearty meal.
The restaurant is located at the entrance of the Puerto Nuevo lobster village and possibly overlooked by those in search of fried crustacean. Though the food is high-end, the rustic two-story structure is far from pretentious — finished in raw wood planks, stone and standard off-white tile. It’s comfortable and cozy and the upstairs dining room offers a view of the fishing village and the vast Pacific.
In January, Villacaña, along with eight other local chefs, formed the Rosarito Chefs Association (ACR) to promote the area’s restaurants. In the past, I had very few good eateries to recommend in Rosarito — to my embarrassment and the frustration of those who sought good dining options in the former gastronomic wasteland. However, with the beach city’s recent spate of culinary offerings, I now have at least a solid half dozen to share. And Raíces tops that list.
Prices: Inexpensive to Moderate. Raíces Restaurante Baja Internacional Cuisine is located on the Carretera Libre Tijuana-Ensenada at Km 44.5, Rosarito, Baja California on the roadside at the entrance to Puerto Nuevo. Mon-Sat 12-10PM, Sun 12-8PM, closed Tuesdays. Reservations not necessary. +52 661 850 9713, www.facebook.com/RaicesBaja.
Disclaimer: We were invited to Restaurante Raíces by the chef to sample his menu. Our meal was provided complements of the house and no other compensation was received by the restaurant or its affiliates for writing or publishing this review. We would gladly return on our own peso.
San Diego-based lifestyle writer W. Scott Koenig is founder of the blog AGringoInMexico.com, author of the book 7 Days in The Valle: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine and has written for Discover Baja Travel Club, Destino Los Cabos, DiningOut San Diego and SanDiegoRed. Scott organizes and conducts professional and private culinary tours of Baja California and has assisted with film and video productions in the region. He has worked with the Food Channel, the BBC, KPBS and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).