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Miami Welcomes the Taste of Baja Cuisine at Pez

The restaurant combines local ingredients like seafood with Mediterranean flavors

When he was 17 years old, Miguel Angel Gomez Navarro was given the daunting task of cleaning 40 kilograms, or more than 88 pounds, of calamari. It was part of a series of punishments imposed on him by his restaurant-owning family for showing little interest in school. What it did instead was spark a culinary career that led him to become the executive chef at Pez, the buzzy Mexican restaurant that opened December 2018 in Downtown Miami.

Pez is part of a growing food movement inspired by the Western coast of Mexico’s Baja California, helmed by its primary culinary foot soldier, chef Javier Plascencia. Called “Baja cuisine,” it focuses heartily on the abundant produce and seafood found in the region, with products like sea urchin and bluefin tuna so coveted they are shipped within the U.S. and to Japan. The cuisine’s flavors are a fusion of Mexican, Asian, and Mediterranean styles, where wood-fire cooking and high-end seafood are the norm.

Plascencia began cooking in his hometown of Tijuana, where he was born into a family deep in the restaurant business. His father was behind the Italian restaurant Giuseppis, which recently celebrated its 50th year in business. Following in his family’s footsteps, Plascencia opened his first restaurant in Tijuana in 1989 and emphasized his commitment to the city as a culinary hot spot with the opening of his upscale eatery, Mision19, in 2011. Today, he owns multiple restaurants in locations such as Todos Santos, Los Cabos, and Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country.

Navarro, better known as “Fish,” has worked alongside him for five years and helms the Miami kitchen.

“This culture is a very Latin culture, but a bit more Caribbean, not so much Mexican. There’s a lot of Venezuelan and Colombian places here,” says Navarro, adding that the affinity for seafood in the culinary traditions of these countries has created a clientele excited about a Mexican restaurant revolving around seafood. Restaurants that use Fair Trade items and sustainable practices are also appealing to Miami audiences.

Pez is an unpretentious spot without bells and whistles or beautiful views. Instead, it has what Navarro refers to as “a combination of casual dining and country,” a vibe he has embraced throughout his long work history with Plascencia.

Pulpo altozano
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Dishes reflect the diverse community of Tijuana. The blending of traditions is evident with offerings like pulpo altozano, a dish that originated in Plascencia’s Finca Altozano restaurant in Valle de Guadalupe. It features mesquite-grilled charred octopus with citrus soy and sake sauce, chile de arbol, and roasted peanuts. Another popular starter, which marries Mexican and Asian culinary traditions, is the ostiones con machaca, where charcoal-grilled oysters are topped with dried shredded beef and ponzu butter.

Pez is a 4,800-square-foot restaurant, but despite its large size (it seats 150), it feels intimate. Diners can start with botanas frias (cold appetizers) like aguachile tradicional de camarón, Mexican wild shrimp, generally served in Sinaloa, with lime juice, red onion, and chiltepin pepper, or tlayuda Oaxacalifornia. Pez makes its own tlayudas, a popular street food typically found in the Oaxaca region, 1,500 miles southeast of Baja California, by combining it with a black bean spread, house-cured wahoo, sea urchin, and watercress. Other dishes, such as arrachera, grilled skirt steak from Sonora, signal the restaurant’s willingness to offer items from other regions.

The grill takes center stage at Pez. Starters like the aforementioned oysters and octopus are prime examples. There’s also tuetano con camarón, charcoal-grilled bone marrow topped with spicy za’atar shrimp, and salsa macha, a thick, slightly spicy sauce that goes well with practically anything. All dishes are inspired by the healthy, casual style of eating both chefs grew up with.

Ostiones con machaca
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Diners are taking notice. Paula Faisal, a long-time Miami Beach resident, born and raised in Mexico, dipped an evenly charred octopus in a tangy mole made from green olives. “Their take on mole, incorporating olives, served over octopus is fantastic,” she said. “Who knew machaca, a dry, salted meat traditionally from Nuevo Leon, would [pair so well] with oysters?”

Colleagues are on board as well. Chef Pablo Salas rose to fame as one of Mexico’s most prominent chefs with his restaurant, Amaranta, based in Toluca, a 90-minute drive west of Mexico City. In early 2018, he opened Lona Cocina & Tequileria in Ft. Lauderdale. He views the arrival and success of Pez as a bonus for everyone.

“I think it is interesting and motivating for us Mexican cooks that nowadays the knowledge of Mexican cuisine is spreading fast and wide,” he says. “Ten years ago, maybe the perception [in Miami] was that Mexican food was only about nachos, cheese, guacamole, and hard-shell tacos, but now more complex and real Mexican dishes are well known.”

Salas adds that cuisines vary widely between Mexican states: foods from Yucatan and Veracruz, two coastal areas close in proximity, are completely distinct. Between Baja’s climate, products, and diverse population, its culinary footprint is one of a kind.

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“Baja cuisine is a very rich, complex, and multicultural cuisine,” Salas says. “I’m very proud of my great friend Javi for being the messenger and ambassador of Baja food, not only across the northern border here in the U.S., but across the U.S. in the eastern side.”

Navarro speaks humbly of his role as ambassador. “The food from Baja California has always been there, but we are starting to give it a little more love, we are starting to feel a little more pride,” he says.

As for the drinks, the wine list includes lesser-known vintages and wines from Mexico’s Baja California region, setting it apart from those at other restaurants in Miami.

Mexico winemaking has a long history, with the first vineyards planted by Jesuits to make the sacramental wine, a practice that was forbidden by the Spaniards in 1595 (with almost all vineyards eradicated) in order to preserve Spanish winemaking. Baja California was far from colonial authorities and therefore able to quietly continue to produce wines, albeit nothing of noteworthy quality. In the late ’80s, Monte Xanic was founded as the first boutique winery in Mexico, aspiring to garner international attention. Pez features this wine along with lesser known ones, like Vena Cava, Bodegas F. Rubio, Espuma de Piedra, and Paralelo.

“Mexico is making incredible wines,” says Antonio Morales, beverage director for Pez. “A lot of people have no idea that we even produce wine. The great thing about them is that they’re being produced exactly where our cuisine was created. These wines pair like no other with the food we are serving at Pez. It feels amazing when a lot of customers walking into the restaurant for the first time are learning about a new type of cuisine and also great wines.”

The response has been so positive that non-Mexican restaurants have reached out to Pez inquiring about some of the wines with the intent of offering them in their eateries, helping to launch the movement Pez calls (and proudly displays in neon lights) #tomavinomexicano, or “drink Mexican wine.”

Cocktails, like Zonkey, a blend of tequila, cucumber, lime, culantro, and serrano pepper; La Guera, made with tequila, green apple, dragonfruit, berries, and lime; and Xolo, comprising mezcal, cucumber, mint, and worm salt, serve as inventive accompaniments to the seafood-focused cuisine. Mexican beers and non-alcoholic juices, aguas frescas, in flavors like tamarind and hibiscus flower, are offered as well.

Taco de elote dulce
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Pastry chef Sofia Muñoz honed her skills at Maximo Bistrot, a compact French eatery in Mexico City’s trendy La Roma neighborhood, setting new standards for farm-to-table dining. A majority of the ingredients hail from local farms, including the floating gardens of nearby Xochimilco. The restaurant’s creativity garnered it a spot in the coveted LATAM 50 Best Restaurants, something apparent in Muñoz’s skill set at Pez, where she whips up desserts like taco de elote dulce filled with charred corn ice cream, caramel popcorn, beer reduction, and corn ash; and pay de guayaba, guava cheesecake with walnut crumble and candied lemon.

Among the steady influx of trendy restaurants that flutter (and often die) in the culinary glow of Miami, Pez is basking in its unique spotlight, featuring the foods and wines of Baja California. By the look of the crowds packing into the downtown location, it seems that its approach resonates with Miami audiences. Plascencia is pleased with the response.

“I’m thrilled to be able to contribute to the culinary landscape in Miami,” he says.

PEZ

20 West Flagler Street, , FL 33130 (305) 570-3440 Visit Website