VALLE DE GUADALUPE Forget the Javier Plascencia you think you know: the celebrity chef who appears on national network cooking shows; the restaurateur and heir to the family business who deals with the details of his high-profile Bracero Cocina de Raiz in San Diego; the auteur who tweezed his way to culinary fame with his modern Mexican Mision 19 in Tijuana.
On a warm October night in the Valle de Guadalupe, our region's most celebrated chef was sweating over a hot grill inside of a smoke-filled Airstream trailer, working his ass off as a short order cook. In tight quarters with Finca's chef de cuisine Pedro Peñuelos, Plascencia churned out order after order of one of Mexico's simplest, most honest lunchtime meals enjoyed by common people throughout the country. The torta.
Chefs Javier Plascencia and Pedro Peñuelos at LUPE. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
On October 27th, Javier and his daughter Lauren Plascencia introduced a soft opening crowd to the family's newest venture, the Finca Altazano-adjacent, casual eatery LUPE. Dozens of invited guests gathered at tables on the restaurant's recently completed deck, including several winemakers, restaurateurs, friends, family and members of the press. The chef looked casual and comfortable in shorts and a baseball cap bearing the restaurant's name.
LUPE at Finca Altazano. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Why tortas? "I have two or three sandwiches every week," the chef shared with A Gringo in Mexico through the Airstream-turned-food truck's service window. "Tortas are quick, they're filling, they're easy to prepare, and of course they're delicious. Tortas are great for lunch during a day of wine-tasting in the Valle," the chef concluded.
Indeed, the soft birote and telera buns baked fresh at Finca Altozano's bakery would do a more than adequate job of soaking up excess amounts of alcohol in a reveler's stomach. Both buns are regional variations on the original pan francés introduced by the French before they were repelled as a conquering army in the 1800s. Once adapted, Mexican chefs began filling the soft bolillos with meat and vegetables and sold them from street carts and fondas all over the country.
Other than a few side items and extras, such as a plate of local cheese, chicharron, and smoked ribs, LUPE's menu focuses on tortas. From simple sandwiches such as ham and cheese, to more complex concoctions like the El Jefe a torta filled with turkey breast and smoked pork topped with fried egg all of LUPE's menu items are served on a crusty-on-the-outside birote or the softer telera bun. For the cost-conscious, every torta on the menu is less than $5 US. With a craft beer or glass of wine and propina(tip), that's about $10 for a solid lonche.
The patio at LUPE. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
It goes without saying in the Valle that most of the ingredients used at LUPE are local and sustainable. "Our produce comes from Finca Altazano's organic garden," the chef emphasized. "For the meat, I've been getting pigs and chickens from a friend's farm in Tecate. We're also raising our own sheep now for borrego-based dishes." Javier indicated a nearby pen where twenty to thirty of the animals were grazing.
I tried several of the menu items that night, starting with the borrego chorreado (lamb served in its own juice) with seco chiles, onion, and avocado. I looked apologetically toward the sheep pen before devouring the perfectly cooked, moist, and savory sandwich.
Borrego chorreado torta. Photo: AGringoInMexico.
"Do you like pig's feet?" the chef inquired as I went in for a second round. Of course I do, and I did enjoy the lechón (suckling pig) cooked in Finca Altazano's caja china (roasting box) torta. Fried beans, olive oil, red onion, and mayonnaise finished this preparation.
Lechón en Caja China torta. Photo: AGringoInMexico.com
Returning to the trailer for my third and final torta of the night, Javier pointed out the hot and cold smoker he'd recently shipped in from Italy. He'll use this to cold smoke fish, and hot smoke beef for his brisket de res ahumado torta. "My Dad loves smoked meats," daughter Lauren confided during a recent online interview. "He says this is the Lambourghini of smokers.
In addition to food, LUPE also features Baja California craft beers and Valle de Guadalupe wines. "We're going to build a market, right over there," Javier waved toward a piece of open land on Finca's property. "We want to highlight all of the wines, beers, local cheeses, and more from the region."
At the end of service, chef Plascencia took off his apron and stepped out of the Airstream for a well-deserved shot of the excellent and aptly named Los Javis mezcal from Oaxaca. Smiling, you could tell he enjoyed playing the simpler yet equally demanding role of short order cook that evening. It was a night and another side of Javier Plascencia to remember.
LUPE is located on the property of Finca Altazano, KM 83 Carretera Federal 3, Tecate-Ensenada Ejido Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe 22750, Baja California, México. Phone: +52 (646) 156-8045. https://www.facebook.com/BajaLupe. Open Tue-Thurs, 1-9PM, Fri-Sat, 1-10PM, Sunday 2-8PM. Closed Monday.
The author was invited to LUPE's soft opening and received complementary food and beverage as a guest of the restaurant. No compensation was received for writing this article, and all opinions are those of the author who has spent and would spend his own peso at the chef's restaurants and projects.