This story is first in a series. Zach will be posting a new story on Mexican food in San Diego every Thursday until he leaves Southern California for the San Francisco Bay, where he will continue to write and edit for The Eaten Path.
Stupidly adorable Yun Zi aside, I hope none of these actually happen, but I do have one item left on my San Diego To-Do list that I have every intention of fulfilling – stuffing my face with tacos et al.
Using word-of-mouth, the internet and happenstance, I’ve put together an inevitably flawed list of reputationally notable Mexican food meccas in the San Diego area. Instead of biweekly Friday posts, I’ll share my experiences with abridged posts every Thursday until I run out of said delicioso list. The culmination will be a grateful gringo’s top-ten list of SD Mexican food and a very deep food coma.
The praises of San Diego’s Mexican food, when shared with me, have always fallen on deaf ears. I’m from LA, after all. Taco trucks saturated the mise en scène of my childhood, family restaurantes set the scene for most special occasions, and there have been enough neighborhood gatherings in my life for me to truly appreciate the phrase hecho en casa. I’ve been to East Los and back many times, and I’ve been known to feel pretty damn entitled because of it. Who cares that San Diego is closer to Mexico? I’m from Los pinches Angeles. In other words, when I moved here I knew a thing or two about how Mexican food was supposed to taste, gringo or not, and I didn’t expect to be impressed by America’s Finest cocinas.
It only took one San Diego cocina to slap the angeleno arrogance right out of me.
I walked into Super Cocina for lunch a couple months ago, and as I browsed the extensive steam table for the day’s options, the man behind the counter smiled smugly at me and said, “Have you been here before?” I lied, saying no, and the man proceeded to hand me free sample after free sample in such rapid succession that I couldn’t finish the first before the third was handed to me. Each sample was a significantly sized morsel of meat, and in the span of thirty seconds, I’d eaten a sampling of ten dishes, or the caloric equivalent of a hefty lunch. I was taken on a ride, and each bite was so injected with flavor that I had no idea which dish I liked the best – only that everything I knew about Mexican food before that brief moment cowered in the presence of some godly eats, eradicated by a blow from Thor’s hammer… if Thor’s hammer were wrought from marinated and slow-cooked carne.
As I stuffed my face – literally eating stewed meat from a paper cup in each hand without utensils – the man said, “This is comida casera, home-style Mexican food. You haven’t had this before,” and closely watched my reactions to each bite, assuming completely that I’d only ever tried burritos before that day, that he was single-handedly changing my life and teaching me the meaning of Mexico. In truth, everything he had me sample I’d had before, and in some cases I’d had better, but he was still right. He did change my life, if only to remind me that, when it came to Mexican food, I didn’t know shit, that out there in San Diego and beyond, there were levels of delicioso that I’d yet to experience. That is a comforting fact to learn.
Then my teacher sold me a two-item combo of education for eight bucks.
Thanks to James, Super Cocina Comida Casera Mexicana is actually the first thing I ever learned about San Diego Mexican food. Upon telling him that I was moving there from LA, James reacted with a question: “Have you been to Super Cocina yet?” By chance Mele and I ended up moving only a mile away from the Normal Heights restaurant, an uninspired cafeteria space full of fading festive colors, and we visited Super Cocina despite our diet at the time, learning to our dismay that the best items on the steam table were clearly once legged.
Super Cocina’s highlights are its meaty stews. The chicken dishes lack luster in comparison to the beef or pork, and the rice and beans are almost average by San Diego standards, but I’ve never had chile colorado burst with such rich flavor – or color – as Super Cocina’s, and the carnitas… Both hearty and tender without being dry or slimey, the carnitas are like eating pork fat with the consistency of pulled pork. Good enough to eat alone without being too salty, Super Cocina’s carnitas are flat out the best carnitas I have had to date.
Despite some inevitable inconsistencies due to keeping food on steam tables, Super Cocina might be the standard de oro of home-style Mexican food in San Diego. Because there is no master chef at work, it probably isn’t going to surprise you with originality, but that’s perhaps the restaurant’s greatest feature. Super Cocina is just a business that has done a great job of collecting some great family recipes of popular Mexican dishes and adapting them for convenient, affordable and speedy consumption. It’s country Mexican food to the lowest common denominator without being lowly or common. By those terms, I’m skeptical of any equal competitor.
Actually, scratch that. Thanks to Super Cocina, I’m done being skeptical.
3627 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92104
Zach’s San Diego Countdown
Week 1 – Super Cocina
Week 2 – Los ‘Bertos
Week 3 – El Tio Alberto
Week 4 – Ranas Mexico City Cuisine
Week 5 – La Fachada
Week 6 – Aqui es Texcoco
Week 7 – La Playa Taco Shop
Week 8 – Las Cuatros Milpas
Week 9 – Tacos El Paisa
Week 10 – Tacos Yaqui
Week 11 – Tacos El Gordo
Week 12 – Mariscos El Pescador
Week 13 – Rudy’s Taco Shop