El Jardin, located at 2885 Perry Road in Liberty Station was the most anticipated restaurant opening in San Diego in 2018. Forget that is is in a touristy mixed-use development spot, on the site of the formal naval training center of San Diego, or that airplanes continually take off next door from the San Diego international airport, disrupting the serene atmosphere. This restaurant is serving up some serious Mexican food and propelling it to the next level.
Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, was a former Top Chef contestant, and a James Beard semi-finalist. She was born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico, going back and forth between the two, and her cooking is an extension of that. Her aunt owned a restaurant there, and it helped pave the way for her eventual career. For generations of Mexican women, recipes and techniques combining heirloom ingredients from all regions of Mexico have been passed down from mothers to daughters. Chef Wilkins has honed these skills into an incredible dining experience. Her cuisine takes the spotlight in this modern restaurant also inspired by Japanese and Chinese immigrants who left their mark on Northern Mexico. She adds these new flavours to her food and is breaking boundaries with these new interpretations. By focusing on ancient recipes that utilize indigenous ingredients and giving them a modern twist, she is serving up some of the best Mexican food I have ever had.
The chef’s passion also extends to the decor, with fabrics, tableware and accessories she has curated from her travels and stays in Mexico. The restaurant has a live wall, an open bustling kitchen, and beaded skull heads on the wall. There is a 2,00 square foot garden providing herbs and vegetables for the restaurant. The covered patio has a bar, different seating areas and a lovely fire pit.
The menu is divided into snacks, salads, small plates and entrees.
Every dish we tried was outstanding. Her tostadas served with trio of house salsas – matcha, roasted tomato, and tomatillo are all excellent, and the tostadas made fresh to order, are the best I’ve ever had. You could actually taste the roasted corn. The house guacamole is addictive and large enough for 4 people to share. The octopus is tender and flavorful, sitting on top of a garbanzo bean purée, a cilantro yogurt, and some diced pineapple. The raw sea bass tostada is served with a smokey chili XO sauce, black beans, avocado leaf mayo, pickled red onion, and nasturtium. We followed with a half roasted chicken with squash and a corn purée. The chef uses the best meat from the top farms, like Snake River Farms, or Pasture Bird Ranch. For herbs and vegetables, she either grows on site in her organic garden or gets her produce from farmers markets. She really has set a new standard for Mexican food in San Diego, and for the rest of America for that matter. Her food is innovative, with the freshest of flavours and delicious details.
There were extensive tequila and mezcal offerings, as well as a small thoughtful wine list, but I chose an excellent Mexican inspired craft cocktail, that was the favourite of my vacation.
Her desserts are no slouch either, composed with the same care as her savoury dishes. I’ve tried a lot of churros in my time, but the one at El Jardin will remain my most memorable. They are served fresh, crispy and hot, yet creamy on the inside, with a warm caramel sauce. It’s what dreams are made of.
El Jardin is definitely worth a visit to try Chef Wilkins high-end, refined, yet approachable Mexican cooking. She is breaking some boundaries when it comes to Mexican food, and I couldn’t be more delighted.