A shallow ceramic bowl holding what appears to be a pile of multicolored marshmallow snowballs also, in a way, holds the ethos of El Jardín, the new restaurant that celebrates the food heritage of Mexico’s seven regional cuisines—and doesn’t discriminate against snack culture.
Called Sobre el Arcoiris (“over the rainbow” in Spanish), executive chef and partner Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins’ dessert is a play on one of her childhood favorites. “You have the Arcoiris snack cookies that every kid eats where I grew up, with these pink and white marshmallow circles on top of shortbread. We’d eat the marshmallows and throw away the cookie. Every time a Mexican family comes in here, they’re like, ‘The cookies!’ because they directly invoke this shared memory.” You’re not likely to dispose of the brown butter cookie that holds her version, whose coconut and berry marshmallows sit atop a coconut dacquoise base and hide a vanilla Bavarian cream and strawberry panna cotta. It’s a fine dining version, of course, but the memories are there.
She pulls out the same whimsy in No Mameys, a sophisticated dessert that uses the pit of the mamey fruit—pixtli, a staple of several Oaxacan beverages—to make a delicate almondlike ice cream and frangipani cake surrounded by a crumble made from the restaurant’s own heirloom corn. “Pinole, a traditional Aztec beverage, is made from a roasted corn flour sweetened with cinnamon and sugar, and is something we drink all our lives.” That hit of nostalgia and deeply rooted food history can’t be disguised, even by its sophisticated modern plating.
El Jardín’s menu is a map of food memories—drawn from Zepeda-Wilkins’ own experience growing up in San Diego, Tijuana and Guadalajara, and from her travels all over Mexico.
She began her career working in her aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara and bounced around both sides of the border, working as Javier Plascencia’s chef de cuisine in Little Italy’s celebrated Bracero before partnering with Rise & Shine Restaurant Group owner Johan Engman to open El Jardín. And while it’s tempting to be drawn to the restaurant for her cool-girl persona as a competitor on Top Chef and Top Chef Mexico, the sum of the parts of her restaurant is far more complex than hours of edited television chefery.
Take the Oaxacan mole that she uses in her tamale con mole poblano, sourced from a woman she met in Puebla. “I knew I needed that mole, so I asked her for the chiles because that’s the secret. They’re Nahuatl, so they’re pre-Colombian, and I was basically asking her for her family’s heritage, so I understood why she said no.” She finally convinced the woman to sell her the mole base, which she picks up in Tijuana.
“I’m honoring tradition and also helping people with their businesses,” she says, an operating philosophy that likely springs from her own hard-won experience. “I haven’t had an easy career, but it has been [partly] built by these wonderful characters [who] have come into my life, and many of them happen to be women.”
Sourcing from artisans extends from the cuisine to the decor of the tiny restaurant, most of whose 130 seats are scattered outside around a fire pit and close to the garden that supplies the restaurant with ingredients like corn from its freakishly giant stalks, chamomile, baby butternut squash and tomatillos.
Zepeda-Wilkins and Engman collaborated on the design, hiring local artist Gloria Muriel to create an otherworldly “Harvest Goddess” mural that presides over the patio; sourcing naturally dyed ceramic dishes from Tonala and Oaxaca to recall the mismatched plates of Zepeda-Wilkins’ youth; and adorning a full wall with bull skulls branded with colorful Huichol-beaded art. In the chilly night air, diners wrap themselves in colorful blankets handmade by women in Chiapas.
Zepeda-Wilkins doesn’t shy away from the fact that not everyone will share the same food memories—or even understand them. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to show people how we really eat all over Mexico,” she says. Have SoCal diners gotten past equating Mexican food with fish tacos? “Only just barely,” she says. To that end, you’ll find what she jokes is “chic grandma food,” like a deeply satisfying Jalisco-style pozole rojo of slow-cooked pork and heirloom blue corn (a staple); wine-braised short rib taquitos and a Sinaloa-style cazuela of pork shoulder. And she won’t apologize for keeping the menu real, with a surf-and-turf tostada whose “turf” element comes not only from crispy carne seca but also from toasted grasshoppers that she imports.
And though some of the ancient flavors might be new to diners on this side of the border, they’re delicious enough not to have to stand on nostalgia. “What I’ve found in my travels is that I’ve been able to delve deeper and deeper into Mexican traditions and my own family traditions,” she says. “And many strong women are still the heroes in every story.” Including her own. Sun.-Mon., 5-9pm; Tues.-Sat., 5-10pm; 2885 Perry Road, San Diego, 619.795.2322