Here is Mexico

by Zach Mann on March 18, 2010 · 3 comments

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This story is sixth 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.

San Diego-Tijuana Border (Wikipedia)
It’s easy to forget that Mexico is right fucking there.

It’s especially easy when you’re enjoying omakase on Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa, a new-American sandwich at a cafe in Normal Heights or a bacon cheeseburger in Ocean Beach, entrenched in San Diego’s hyper-American culture. Then you drive south and realize that San Diego and TJ are really one town separated by a barbed wire fence in the sand.

Aqui es Texcoco - Chula Vista, CA
I would have thought otherwise a year ago, but in the realm of comida buena, proximity is key. In Los Angeles, when a Mexican restaurant becomes successful, maybe the owner opens a second location in a more hip neighborhood. In Tijuana, when a restaurant becomes successful, the owner opens a second location in a Mexican neighborhood in San Diego, and vice versa. As you can imagine, this happens a lot, and with all of these provenly yummy businesses spilling over the border, taste is most certainly optimized.

This isn’t like TGIF opening up a new location in Buenos Aires, administering a lethal injection into the local appetite, nor is it like Guatemala’s numerous Pollo Campero branches in LA, exporting watered-down culture in the form of fast food. The popular Tijuana food stops opening locations in San Diego aren’t necessarily chains. Sometimes they’re the extension of a family-owned restaurant, as with Paco Perez’s Aqui es Texcoco. And sometimes it’s fucking amazing, as with Paco Perez’s Aqui es Texcoco.

BBQ Lamb - Aqui es Texcoco - Chula Vista, CA
BBQ Lamb - Aqui es Texcoco - Chula Vista, CA Lamb Rolled Tacos - Aqui es Texcoco - Chula Vista, CA Lamb Broth and Cinnamon Coffee - Aqui es Texcoco - Chula Vista, CA
Paco Perez has come a long way from his father’s taco shop days in TJ. His new restaurant in Chula Vista is a fast-paced, gringo-less hot spot with high capacity. Fortunately, the menu hasn’t grown with the Perez family’s success. Paco sticks to what his father knew best and taught him in his youth: how to season lamb with chile, wrap it in cactus and barbecue it Texcoco style. That’s it, and it is most definitely enough.

Just this past weekend I spent forty-five dollars on a meal that included a lamb shank in Beverly Hills. That meal was almost worth the cost (once I factor in brushing shoulders with Shaun White), but even with two gold medals, that lamb shank could not compete with the barbacoa de borrego at Aqui es Texcoco. There’s just nothing negative to say about the lamb estilo estado de Mexico. Even Paco Perez’s lamb broth is good enough to make me wonder… is there such a thing as lamb ramen? Gingiskan Ramen, perhaps?

The drawback to Aqui es Texcoco is that everything besides its borrego is sub-par. The tortillas aren’t made fresh, the salsas are just okay, and the cilantro and onions are old and wilted. It definitely seems like barbacoa de borrego is all that Aqui es Texcoco cares about, and I guess I should be thankful for that. Also, the cinnamon coffee is addictive.

El Borrego - San Diego, CA Borrego Especial -
I’ve noticed that these Tijuana sequels tend to be better than San Diego’s local places. Conventional wisdom might underline the superior quality of Mexican restaurants as obvious, but I’m skeptical that ten miles make that big a difference. Some of these TJ extensions, like Aquis es Texcoco and Tacos El Gordo, are more impersonal than their homier and friendlier SD counterparts. La Fachada, for instance, is a much more welcoming place than El Gordo, and for all of Paco Perez’s strong family roots, Aqui es Texcoco is too clean and too uniform to resemble papa Perez’s casa.

Take El Borrego in City Heights, Aqui es Texcoco’s main competition for specialized lamb barbecue in San Diego. Walk into El Borrego and you’re welcomed with a smile by a lone waitress, not a collared-shirt host more interested in table turnover than your comfort. Still, Aqui es Texcoco’s borrego is just plain better, just as El Gordo’s tacos are better than La Fachada’s despite the atmosphere. If these American born restaurants are any indication, maybe crossing the border into San Diego does, in some way, take Mexico out of the Mexican. If so, at least by Aqui es Texcoco’s example, it doesn’t take Mexico out of the Mexican food.

Aqui es Texcoco
1043 Broadway Ste 108
Chula Vista, CA 91911
(619) 427-4045
El Borrego Restaurant
4280 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 281-1355

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


Rajan Dharni March 19, 2010 at 4:16 pm

yo zach,

i just met james in nyc, i am amit’s friend and was crashing on their couch for the past two weeks. i’m back in sd and checked out your guys’ blog. looks cool. not sure if you already hit up these spots, but i thought i’d give my two cents. apologies in advance if they are too trite: 1. luche libre, 2. ponce’s in kensington, 3. zarape’s in univ heights and normal heights, 4. el indio (i’m sure you’ve heard of this one).

as far as non-mexican food: zia’s pizza (fucking awesome), hamilton’s (the best bar food), lefty’s (chicago pizza).

when do you leave san diego?

hope this helped!


Zach Mann March 19, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Hey Rajan,

Thanks for the tips. El Zarape I know (and often visit), but believe it or not, I haven’t had Luche Libre or El Indio, even though I drive by them all the time. I’ve never heard of Ponce’s, but I’ll definitely be looking into all three before I move up (in one week).

Zia’s Pizza: haven’t tried. I like Pizzeria Luigi in North Park, but I’m not a pizza fan normally.
Hamilton’s: Been there, but never eaten there. Cool place, especially for beer.
Lefty’s: I’ve been, and it’s good, but I think Zachary’s Pizza in Oakland has it beat (for California Chicago Pizza).

JO March 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

my god. that lamb.

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