Romesco - Restaurant Review
Review by Travis Baker
The Right Touch of Elegance
What is Baja-Mediterranean cuisine? I sure didn’t know the true definition of this type of hybrid cuisine. So when I found out that my next review would introduce me to a mix of both Baja and Mediterranean cuisine I felt like a Spanish conquistador traveling to uncharted territory, ecstatic to learn from what I’d discover. I knew Mediterranean and Baja cuisine separately, but never experienced them working together in harmony until I explored Romesco Baja Med Bistro. Romesco Baja Med Bistro skillfully combines both Baja and Mediterranean spices and ingredients that gracefully create entrees with incredible flavors, textures, and presentation.
Tucked just a few miles away from the 805 freeway, Romesco Baja Med Bistro is located in Bonita, California, 12 miles away from the US/Mexican border in a shopping district surrounded by a quiet neighborhood that’s been developed since the late 1980’s. Neighboring local shops, small boutiques, and a grocery store, Romesco has ample parking for dining patrons. Also located across the street is the Chula Vista Municipal Golf Course, allowing golf lovers to hit the fairway before or after enjoying a late Sunday lunch at Romesco.
We arrive at Romesco and are quickly greeted by Alfredo, our server for the evening. Taking a look around, Romesco has multiple areas for guests to dine: the main dining hall, bar, and tapas bar. Walking into the main dining hall, I notice the seemingly effortless elegance that the establishment projects in its layout and presentation, nothing too grandiose or gaudy but just right like a small sampling of something divine. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling in well-placed, calculated areas, giving off soft lighting that illuminates even the darkest corners of the restaurant. The white walls contrast with the decorative, embossed dark wood molding and paneling, producing a duality that’s subtle and complex. Their choice of using dark wood chairs, tables, and trim on their pictures is reminiscent of an Italian Trattoria; Old World Italy has always influenced the cuisine of the Mediterranean region. So just like the history of Mediterranean cuisine, Romesco is highly influenced by Italian style. They creatively combine their decor like their Baja-Mediterranean cuisine and still keep with their Italian heritage.
Offering a semi-casual atmosphere for families and adults, the environment at Romesco is full of energy. The staff functions like a well oiled machine, working together to create constant, seamless fluidity. Servers are a blur in the corner of my eye when they travel to and fro from their tables to the kitchen, leaving a light trail of white and black that omits from their clean, crisp uniforms. Guests enjoy the spectacles from the open kitchen located to the left of the entrance. The restaurant’s spirited environment works cohesively with medium to large parties for events like a dinner with just the girls or a special birthday celebration. However, the space is not limited to only that. Their corner tables can also accommodate romantic, candlelit dinners for two.
Also located in the dining hall, Romesco’s bar complements the main hall with its dark wood bar and fixtures. The bar is fully stocked to offer many traditional and popular cocktails. Beyond their fine selection of cocktails, Romesco is known for their wines. Their wine list features local wineries from the Baja, Temecula, and Napa regions, awaiting the right guest to pick them out of their docile state amongst the rest of the 40 wines guests have to choose from. They offer 20 wines by the glass from their vast wine selection that is based in predominantly red wines over whites. Our server, Alfredo, suggests we try their hand crafted Sangria. With their house red as their base, Romesco’s Sangria is infused with fresh fruits like oranges and limes, giving light fruit notes at the end of every sip. Each serving is garnished with a lime to add more flavor to the already delicious libation. To go along with their vast wine selection and their Sangria, Romesco offers beers from local breweries in San Diego and Tijuana.
Behind the dining hall is the Tapas Bar. The Romesco Tapas Bar is decorated with Spanish art depicting matadors in fighting positions ready to strike their opponents. Large flat screen TV’s play soothing live concert ballads that fit in perfectly with the bar’s vibe. More casual than the dining area, their Tapas Bar gives off a different vibe, yet still retains the same intensity and spirit. With self seating accommodations, the Tapas Bar is for those patrons that want to get a quick bite to eat, soak in soothing tunes, and unwind for the night.
For large parties, the Tapas Bar can easily be transformed into your party destination for the night. Large sections of the bar may be reconfigured to accommodate large parties of up to 70 guests, giving you and your guests ample space to mingle in Romesco’s charming environment. To spice up the night even more, Romesco can provide live entertainment like their Flamenco band and/or dancers to get the party started alongside their tasty entrees, wines, and tapas.
Amongst all dishes, they are especially known for their tapas. Their tapas, which means “to cover” in Spanish, consist of traditional selections like Aceitunas Surtidas, a variety of olives filled with anchovies. However, Romesco is not only known for their traditional tapas selections, but also for their contemporary tapas dishes like their Seard Seared Yellowfin Tuna Sashimi served with jalapeno and ponzu sauce. Romesco stays true to traditional ingredients, yet adds a twist with their protein choice and sauces to bring a brand new outlook on how tapas can be served.
On the hunt for a proper explanation of Baja-Mediterranean cuisine, I ask Luis Daniel Pena, General Manager of Romesco and brother-in-law to Head Chef Javier Planscenia, what does Baja-Mediterranean cuisine consist of and what does it mean to his family and establishment. The family’s culinary journey started with Javier’s father when he opened their first pizzeria, Giuseppi’s. “42 years ago, that’s where he started combining Mexican ingredients with Mediterranean, creating the Mexican Pizza.” Pena explains how Southern California and Mexico’s climate mimics that of the Mediterranean region in Europe, making it easy for primary ingredients that are used in Mediterranean cuisine to thrive away from their native land, allowing Javier’s father and other Mexican chefs to create new combinations.
Learning from his father and other great chefs, Javier wanted to expand his father’s style of cuisine to a new, contemporary level. In Tijuana, he opened the famous Mision 19 to offer Baja-Mediterranean cuisine. Next, Javier wanted to open a restaurant north of the border to attract a new clientele and please those that moved from Mexico to the States. So in 2006, Romesco Baja Med Bistro opened their doors to the public in Bonita, California, offering Baja-Mediterranean cuisine stateside in a casual atmosphere.
After the introduction and brief history course of Baja-Mediterranean cuisine, Pena leaves for a brief moment to allow us to enjoy the first course of our dinner: the tapas. All of their tapas are samples of entrees, offering a taste of a dish without forcing guests to be fully committed to a single entree. Great for sharing, you can order an arrangement of tapas so everyone can taste and experience each plate. First, we ask Alfredo to point us in the right direction to start off the night. After he places our freshly made Sangria onto our table accompanied by fresh bread to dip into olive oil and vinegar, he suggests we order the Pulp Asado a Las Brasas and Gambas Al Romesco which pairs well with our Sangria. In addition, he suggests that we taste the Roadside Ahi Tuna Tostada, a crowd favorite amongst the tapas list, and the Ajos Blancos Curtidos.
The Ajos Blancos Curtidos is a cluster of garlic cloves brined multiple times to filter out the sometimes overbearing garlic taste. What is left is a lingering garlic sample with a clean finish from the brining process. Each clove has a healthy crunch to every bite and is a great starting plate for the night.
Next to our table is the Roadside Ahi Tuna Tostada, a house favorite among the staff and the guests. Each tostada is dressed up finely with guacamole, fresh cream, mixed greens, and ponzo sauce to accompany the ahi tuna sashimi. The colorful presentation from the mixed greens, tomatoes, and red onion makes a fine piece of art on the plate, competing with the art work on the Romesco walls. The different shades of greens and reds pop out from the fresh vegetation as they lay on top a crispy corn tostada, which acts like a canvas. The textures of the Roadside Ahi Tuna are playful. Each flavor jumps out in a subtle way, without being overpowering or complex. Adding to that, the crunch of the crispy tostada presents another texture complexity that combines magically with the others. I can see why with the mixing of colors, textures, and taste, that the Roadside Ahi Tuna is crowd favorite.
The Pulp Asado a Las Brasas is a spicy choice, raising my internal temperature a few degrees with each bite. The Pulp Asado a Las Brasas is grilled octopus marinated in lemon and chilies, presented in an iron skillet .Its texture is chewy and spicy at first, and then the acidity of the lime and lemon trails the initial bite.
Like the Pulp Asado a Las Brasas, the Gambas Al Romesco is a great choice for the guest that likes a little heat in their dish. The Gambas Al Romesco is a handful of seared shrimp slathered with bright red-orange garlic and habanera sauce, served on a bed of shoe string fries called fritti. The Gambas Al Romesco has a little bit of heat in every bite, tantalizing your taste buds. Yet what separates the two dishes is that the heat spike lingers a bit longer and ends with a hint of garlic in my mouth, giving it a different ending than with the Pulp Asado.
Luis approaches our table to check up on our status. He then suggests a few more tapas for us to sample. Obliging to his request, we sample the Tacos de Cachete de Res, beef cheek that is slow cooked for four hours then topped with cilantro, onions, and fresh salsa wrapped in a warm tortilla. The beef cheek is moist and tender, giving more and more flavor after every bite. The dish is simple, satisfying, and straight to the point. Served in this fashion, you’re able to enjoy the beef cheek’s texture and flavor.
Next is the Orejas De Mar, mollusks from the abalone family mixed with a mild chimichurri habanera sauce. This dish is a great choice for the guest that likes spicy food but sometimes can’t handle the heat. The Orejas De Mar sauce is skillfully blended to give the habanera taste, but not the spice. The fried tostadas that accompany the dish give a new texture to the chewy mollusks, offering a juxtaposed experience in your mouth.
Already satisfied with our first course, Luis and Alfredo guide us through the main course of the night. We start with their Tijuana original Caesar Salad. The Plascencia family bought the Caesars Restaurante Bar in Tijuana, the location where the Caesar Salad was created. Within these walls, the Plascencia family revived the recipe, allowing guests to taste a true Caesar salad. The salad is presented in the minimalist fashion with romaine lettuce and Caesar dressing. However, what it lacks in complexity it makes up for it in taste. Romesco’s Caesar dressing is made in-house and unlike others, theirs is frothy and light, not overbearing or too powerful. Combined with the romaine lettuce, their Original Caesar Salad is light and stands alone as a great choice to start of your main course.
Alongside their tapas, Romesco offers pasta dishes to further represent their Mediterranean cuisine. These dishes are influenced by Plascencia’s Italian Restaurant Saverio’s and his father’s pizzeria, allowing them to have a rightful place on the Romesco menu. Romesco ties in Latin ingredients to create dishes that fit seamlessly with the others and truly embrace their Baja-Mediterranean concept. My guest orders the Baja California Lobster Ravioli: large ravioli stuffed with lobster meat, covered in lemon-madeira crab sauce, and topped with pine nuts. Its generous portion is a great size for sharing along with other dishes. Biting into the ravioli, the lobster meat and tender texture mingle together among the lemon-Madeira crab sauce. While taking another bite, the pine nuts add another texture and taste to the mix. This play with texture and taste makes the Baja California Lobster Ravioli a great pasta choice.
After I delve into my guest’s dish, I attend to mine, the Paella. The entrée is a mix of seven different meats: Shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, chicken, pork short ribs, and Spanish chorizo combined together with rice seasoned with 100% saffron and vegetables. This massive plate is a perfect choice to share with the whole table. As I take my first bite of the award-winning entree, I notice that what stands out the most is not the seven different meats, but the rice. The rice is flavorful from the saffron seasoning. At first, it seems unusual to have an initial attraction to the rice rather than the protein choices, but the saffron rice is incredibly delicious and a must try. Yet don’t count out the seven different meats in this dish. The shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, chicken, pork short ribs, and Spanish chorizo are prepared with light seasoning and are expertly cooked to trap all the juices. Add that with the saffron rice and the Paella is a joyous dish that carnivores will enjoy.
Lastly, we end with coffee and a Dessert Sampler. The plate has a crepe drizzled with caramel and topped with almonds, freshly made churros (dough deep fried then covered with cinnamon), a cup of hot chocolate, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a side of caramel. This dessert sampler is a playful arrangement that promotes the experimentation of different flavors. You can go the traditional route in dipping the churro in the hot chocolate and add caramel to the ice cream, or mix and match with all the features to create new tastes and flavors. Want to try your churro dipped in caramel; go for it. Want ice cream with your crepe; that’s all you. The possibilities of flavors this dish holds are vast, creative, and ideal for sharing with others.
As the night winds down, I too slow down my tempo and observe my surroundings. A group of chic women laugh cheerfully together, each bearing a half full wine glass. An elderly couple playfully banters back and forth. From their outfits, it seems that they enjoyed a day at the golf course and are probably debating who had the best score of the night. Just like everyone in the room, I settle my night with laughs and conversations with my guest. Luis arrives at our table offering to give us one more run through the restaurant and we happily accept. Luis charms us with stories about Romesco and answers questions I throw at him. We bid farewell to Luis and Alfredo, thanking them for their service. Both men humbly smile and swiftly walk back to the dining room to continue entertaining tonight’s guests. This gesture is comparable to what Romesco Baja Med Bistro provides. Their dishes are not overpowering, forceful, or push guests with complex flavors. What they do provide are dishes that create light and satisfying flavors while utilizing both Baja and Mediterranean styles and ingredients.
Insider's Tip: Romesco has amazing specials on most of the days of the week. On Tuesday nights its half-off tapas and drinks in the Tapas Bar. Every flavorful small plate they offer is half-price, including alcohol beverages. Every last Friday of the month, Romesco transforms their Tapas Bar to accommodate a Flamenco band, adding to the already lively atmosphere of the Tapas Bar. Also, Flamenco dancers perform alongside the live band, providing a live show for guests that are enjoying their stay at Romesco Baja Med Bistro. Lastly, The Tapas Bar isn’t the only area to visit for special deals. Every Wednesday in the dining room and Tapas Bar, Romesco has Pasta Night, serving all their pasta dishes for a fraction of their original price.
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