In North Park, San Diego, immigrant families have been forced to coexist with an alternative gringolandia. “100% Vegetable Oil” is painted on the windows of the roachiest taquerias and some restaurantes go so far as to include “Vegetarian Cuisine” as a subtitle. The tattooed herbivore population spreads from University to El Cajon, and every restaurant scrambles to accommodate its dietary eclecticism.
I delight in the menu of local taco shops like Ray’s Mexican Restaurant, I bask in the convenience of a burritos section that is one-third vegetarian and I am speechless in the face of potato tacos, but the cucina renaissance developing here goes further than mere accommodation. Central San Diego is witness to an outbreak of alternative restaurantes and I am beginning to wonder if places like Pokez, where tofu is added to the traditional list of ingredients, have overshot their niche. North Park, of course, takes it a step further, and midway into my second bite of a mole negro shitake mushroom and soy enchilada at Rancho’s, I couldn’t help but feel that Mexican Cuisine 2.0 is trying too hard.
I’m not saying that we should strip gringo taquerias of alternative menu items, and I’m not saying Rancho’s enticing-in-writing enchiladas aren’t tasty. I’m saying that when vegetarian Mexican food is uncomplicated, it isn’t any less delicious. No cocktail of sub-meat proteins can improve upon the marriage of fresh beans, tomatoes, chiles, avocados and cheese. North Park has a wide array of Mexican food for the hungry herbivore, and you don’t need to find the latest fusion restaurante advertising the V-word to satisfy your vegetarian taco tooth. When I’m in the mood for the other side of Mexican, I walk a little farther down 30th Street to where my favorite meatless meal awaits me in a green and yellow smoothie bar.
Stepping into Señor Mango’s is refreshing. Hand picked fruits form queues behind the glass counter like bakery delights or choice deli cuts, and the fruitful abattoir in back keeps the place reeking of produce aisles’ halls of fame, like the juice bar at a health food store without the venomously salubrious stench of wheatgrass and carrots. Pineapples, oranges, papayas, peaches and of course mangoes, because the mango is respected enough to be given the title Mister.
Ninety degree North Park days aside, it isn’t the smoothies that keep me returning to Señor Mango’s but the tiny corner of the menu that doesn’t involve fruit. Upon first bite of his vegetarian torta, I discovered that Mr. Mango is not only meticulous in his selection of the freshest and sweetest fruit for his salads and smoothies. He is equally as purposed when choosing the freshest, juiciest tomatoes, most perfect avocados and the crispest lettuce. The refreshing yet savory torta tastes like it could have been picked off a tree out back.
Combined with lightly toasted bread, squeezed chiles and two layers of amazing queso blanco – Mexico’s equivalent to Indian paneer – Señor Mango’s sandwich is a statement that the right combination of ingredients leaves no need for alternatives. If you’re looking for a rebirth in vegetarian food or a break from taco shops and family restaurants, find a place that doesn’t mess with a good recipe, but follows it better and with fresher ingredients. Either that or find your own torta tree.
4607 30th St
San Diego, CA 92116