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Javier Plascencia Talks Michelin Stars & Caesar Salad’s 100th

The Baja-based chef joins executive chef Michael Vaughn of The Marine Room as we talk philosophy, process, and cooking histories
Caesar salad in Mexico
Photo Credit: Cole Novak

We’ve got a Happy Half Hour double-header today: chef Michael Vaughn, who is coming up on his first year at the helm of La Jolla’s iconic Marine Room, along with Baja-based superstar chef Javier Plascencia, whose under-a-200-year-old-oak tree restaurant Animalón just got a Michelin star. Both chat philosophy, process, and their cooking histories, and, as a special bonus, Plascencia drops the details on his festival for the 100th anniversary of the Caesar salad.

Marine Room chef Michael Vaughn (left) with Happy Half Hour host Troy Johnson (center) and co-host Jackie Bryant (right)

Both chefs represent two poles of San Diego fine dining: one leading the kitchen of an oceanfront mainstay of French-style cuisine, the other introduced legions of Americans to the modern tasting menu scene in Tijuana and Valle de Guadalupe.

Vaughn joined The Marine Room and the greater La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club/La Jolla Shores Hotel universe in 2023. The Chicago native is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, and has worked at Omni Hotels, Hilton Americas, Hilton San Francisco Union Square, and Waldorf Astoria Chicago. 

He tells us about his cooking philosophy using “common ingredients uniquely…I like surprises with uncommon flavors,” and how that shows up in dishes like his Spanish bluefin tuna sashimi bathed in aji amarillo. It’s one of the most beautiful dishes I’ve ever seen and it tastes just as good as it looks. We also chat about sustainable aquaculture and house music.

Part two of our episode double-header features Javier Plascencia, storied chef of Baja California, the name behind Animalón, Misión 19, Restaurante Caesar’s, Finca Altozano, Jazamango, and the well-loved groundbreaker Bracero. The latter garnered San Diego its first James Beard nomination for best restaurants which burned fast and bright (anyone remember the 2012 Big Bay Boom?) until closing not a couple of years after. 

Plascencia and Caesar’s, the restaurant his family bought in 2011, are throwing a week-long shindig in Tijuana in celebration of the Caesar salad’s 100th anniversary. The short version of the story goes like this: The restaurant, founded on Avenida Revolución in 1923 by Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini, was the spot in Prohibition-era Tijuana. It’s said that Cardini cobbled a quick salad together in 1924 when he ran out of other ingredients, accidentally creating one helluva famous salad. It’s 2024 now and the Caesar salad still reigns supreme.

Baja-based chef Javier Plascencia at San Diego Magazine
(Left to right): Yolanda Yolanda Selene Walther-Meade, Troy Johnson, Claire Johnson, Javier Plascencia, Jackie Bryant

To celebrate the milestone, festivities will include dinners with visiting chefs from all over the world, including José Andres and Dominique Crenn—though both are unfortunately already sold out. The street festival celebrating the salad in Tijuana on July 7, however, is still open to the public. Plascencia shares the details, and also talks about the evolution of dining in TJ, especially, and his own trials and tribulations with the ups and downs of his beloved home city. He also reminisces on being profiled by The New Yorker, as well as starring alongside Anthony Bourdain in his Baja episode.

Finally, we discuss the news: North Park Beer Company will open in Crown Point; Park Hyatt Aviara will re-open Richard Blais’ Ember & Rye on June 22; Salud closes in Barrio Logan; Zhengxin Chicken Steak will bring Chinese fried chicken to Convoy; SIP the City will be held at BRICK in Liberty Station on Friday, June 21; the California Wine Festival is coming to the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort June 28–29; Hillcrest’s Breakfast & Bubbles is out and XOXO Retro Neighborhood Diner is in; and You & Yours Distilling Company will take up residence for a summer dining series at The Loma Club in Liberty Station.

By Jackie Bryant

Jackie is San Diego Magazine's content strategist. Prior to that, she was its managing editor. Before her SDM career, she was a long-time freelance journalist covering cannabis, food/restaurants, travel, labor, wine, spirits, arts & culture, design, and other topics. Her work has been selected twice for Best American Travel Writing, and she has won a variety of national and local awards for her writing and reporting.

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