“I was frying cabrito [baby goat] when I was 13 years old,” Javier tells me when I ask him how he got started in the restaurant business. Javier Gonzalez, the owner of Costa Brava Spanish Restaurant and Tapas Bar in San Diego, is truly a blend of Northern Spain and Southern California. With his thick brown hair pulled back in a pony tail and an extreme passion for his homeland and restaurant, Javier and I set out on a two and a half hour journey that would take us from Santander to San Diego and back again. I was happy to sit back and enjoy the ride – the incredibly enjoyable ride.
Santander is the seaside capital of the autonomous region of Cantabria on the northern coast of Spain situated between Asturias (to the west) and the Basque Country (to the east). It was the summer favorite of King Alfonso XIII as well as other Spanish royalty. Fresh seafood, as is so important to Spaniards, abounds here as does a strong work ethic. This is what Javier left when he came to the states in 1986 for his senior year of high school. I asked him, “What do you miss most about Spain?” His reply? “Well, after my mom, the smell. I miss the smells of home.” If you have ever lived on the ocean or in the mountains you can empathize with his plight. There is nothing like walking along the shore and inhaling a huge whiff of sea air or hiking in the mountains when a cool breeze blows across your face. These are the experiences of Javier’s youth; and this is what he brings to Costa Brava – the “experience” of Spain and its food.
OK, but enough about Javier. We all know that he can be a great guy but if his restaurant is below par then it all is for naught. Well, you will be happy to know that is not the case. Javier’s Spanish heritage and passion for Spain and its food combine to create an incredible experience. Void of flashing signs and hurried pedestrians, Costa Brava (which opened in July 2001) is situated in Pacific Beach – away from the hustle and bustle of downtown San Diego. Many would think this a problem for a new restaurant. “You have to be right in the middle of the action for people to find you,” many would say. Nothing could be further from the truth. Costa Brava is a destination. When you decide to come here be prepared to relax, unwind, and enjoy yourself. No one is going to rush you out because others are waiting. When was the last time you experienced this at a restaurant in the U.S.? Once your wine and first tasty morsels are brought to the table you won’t want to get up. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Sit back and enjoy the experience of Spain.
So, the atmosphere is great, but what about the food? It is obvious by talking with Javier that Chef Jose María is vital to the restaurant’s success. He told me, “He’s got to be the most important exponent of the cuisine of Spain in the history of the United States of America.” High praise indeed. Jose María, born and raised in Bilbao (in the Basque Country), was recruited to come to the U.S. in 1963 right out of culinary school to start a restaurant in Lake Tahoe, California. He has a rich history of cooking and teaching since he stepped foot on American soil. Costa Brava seeks out only the best and freshest ingredients for its dishes. As much as possible is procured from local farmers markets; embutidos (sausages), olives, and olive oil are imported from Spain (morcilla and chistorra are made domestically because they have not received FDA approval); sea salt finds it’s way from the shores of Mexico; and fresh seafood and meats (including oxtail and rabbit) come from Los Angeles. Javier’s goal for the restaurant is that quality and freshness are never compromised. Jose María makes sure of that as well. After a walk through the kitchen it was obvious to see how much care Chef takes in the preparation and presentation of his food. “Chef doesn’t use olive oil and salt; he abuses olive oil and salt. That is music to Spanish food-lovers ears!
The menu at Costa Brava is as varied as the people of Spain are passionate about the food of their homeland. I would suggest, however, venturing a bit out of your comfort zone to truly experience a New Spain. On the tapas menu give the following a try: Gambas a la Plancha (grilled whole shrimp), Pinchitos Morunos (grilled lamb skewers), Pulpo a la Gallega (octopus with olive oil and spicy paprika), and Croquetas de Bacalao (dry cod fish croquettes). If you are still feeling adventurous then head to the entrees menu: Rabo de Toro (oxtail cooked in Rioja red wine sauce) or Lubina al Cava (fresh sea bass cooked in Cava with dates and figs, served on a bed of spinach sautéed with bacon) will not disappoint. My mouth is watering as I type this!
As fantastic as the food is here I would exercise caution on a couple of items. The restaurant tends to be a bit obscure and hard to find (from the outside); once inside you will feel like you have been transported to Spain. I would also highly recommend reservations. Finally, I would not expect the wait staff to be overly accommodating. They are not rude, but this is just the way things are. Have you ever been to Spain? This is normally how you are treated in a restaurante or cervecería that you happen upon. So, kick your shoes off and don’t let the little things bother you.
I asked Javier what makes Costa Brava different from other Spanish restaurants. “This place is not a show and we do not do anything that is not natural or normal for us. It’s just more real. He’s right. I have eaten here on a number of occasions and have never been disappointed – and never expect to be. Ultimately, you have to create your own food experience, and I cannot think of a better place to start. Â¡Buen provecho!
1653 Garnet Ave
San Diego, CA 92109
Hours Open: 11:00 AM to Midnight, Daily