This story is seventh 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.
One thing that Los Angeles taught me about Mexican cuisine when I was growing up is that guacamole is not real Mexican food. It couldn’t be, since every time guacamole was added to something on the menu, the item’s name started with the word gringo. Regular nachos just had chips, cheese, meat and beans, but gringo nachos had sour cream and guacamole, too. Regular burritos just had beans, cheese and meat, but the gringo burrito had pico de gallo and guacamole, too. Menu semantics cornered me into this belief, which is, of course, completely wrong. Guacamole, which was invented by the Aztecs, is about as Mexican as Mexican food gets.
As a white boy raised in predominantly Mexican L.A. neighborhoods, I developed an overly defensive reaction to the gringo label, especially when I deserved it. Then I moved to San Diego and found out that taquerias from all neighborhoods put guacamole on everything. I couldn’t help but conclude that all of my original assumptions of San Diego were true – that it’s a city run by surfer bros wearing polo shirts and plaid shorts in cantinas with margarita happy hours and sawdust on the floor. Hey, awesome burrito, brah!
Well, there’s plenty of that in this city, but there’s plenty of real Mexican food here, too – guacamole included. San Diego has taught me that obsessing over the authenticity of Mexican cuisine is a futile engagement, and that guacamole goes with carne asada like beans go with rice.
For me, good carne asada hinges on that fresh-off-the-grill aftertaste and charbroiled finish, when the surface area of the steak is almost oversaturated with heat and flavor. That’s why you always wait for the fresh batch of asada to come in before you order your taco at La Fachada or El Paisa, and that’s why La Playa Taco Shop’s asada taco is the genuine article. That isn’t to say that La Playa serves traditional Mexican cuisine, because the menu is more of a hodgepodge of Baja beach fare, gringo-inspired burritos and the post-surf taco culture of Mission Beach.
San Diego might be the birthplace of the carne asada burrito craze, but like all Mexican food invented north of the border, the asada burrito is too often written off as another imitation in gringolandia. History laughs at those of us who forget that the U.S.-Mexico border is not that old, that California was once Spanish territory, and that it was the Spaniards who brought the wheat flour tortilla to the Americas.
Mexican cuisine is older than that line in the sand. Yet, we keep accepting that arbitrary line as grounds to snub the poor gringo who thinks that his carne asada burrito is the real deal.
Don’t feel bad about your lunch, gringo, and don’t feel bad that your breakfast burrito was invented in New Mexico, or that chimichangas were invented in Arizona, or that mission burritos were invented in San Francisco. Each is an authentic part of a regional cuisine regardless of that region’s latitude.
I don’t want to admit it, but even San Diego’s “California Burrito” deserves its own chapter in the Mexican food almanac.
I appreciate that San Diego burritos have grilled tortillas. When it’s good, it’s fresh, doughy and grilled until the outside is freckled with smokey blisters of crispy flavor. I appreciate that S.D. burritos have no rice or vegetables, and I love it when my burrito is filled with meat, some queso fresco and little to nothing else. I don’t understand why all of these ex-San Diegans keep spreading the absurd myth that the “San Diego Burrito” is best represented by the monstrosity known everywhere as the California Burrito, this culinary anomaly in a town that prides its Mexican food as simple and pure, this late night snack that drunk college kids must reckon with as a choice over Taco Bell.
Of course, when something is served in the majority of taco shops throughout a city, it can hardly be called an anomaly. The cali burrito is a San Diego phenomenon thanks to gringos like me and a dominant beach culture, because when you’re starving after three hours in the ocean, which would you rather have: some meaty stew with corn tortillas, or a handheld half-pound of beef and potatoes that you can pour hot sauce all over? When you’re tired and have the munchies, which would you rather have: homemade pozole or carne asada and guacamole?
It’s part of the culinary whitewash that makes waves over Mexican food north of downtown San Diego, where people add potatoes and avocados to neutralize those strong and delicious Mexican spices. Even La Playa’s cali burrito, despite its tasty carne, needs an inordinate amount of hot sauce.
Whitewash is such a negative term, and truthfully it isn’t fair to places like La Playa Taco Shop in Mission Beach. As is San Francisco’s mission burrito and East LA’s oversized burrito, San Diego’s beachy taqueria tradition represents a legitimate subculture of California mexican food, with its own history of shrimp burritos, fish tacos and lots and lots of carne asada.
The S.D. coast mixes Baja and Sonora cuisine with the appetites of salty and sandy dudes and dudettes, and while it doesn’t have my favorite menu selection, and while you might never see a Mexican eating there, La Playa is a great taco shop. White teenagers swing by on their skateboards, suntanned families grab quick lunches on the patio, white, middle-class couples like Mele and me feel welcomed by the hostess’ endearing Spanish phrases, and the food is delicious.
La Playa Taco Shop brings credibility to things like cali burritos and surfer specials, because in the end all that matters is that the tortillas and asada are freshly grilled and the guacamole and salsa are plentiful (or the carnitas tacos are simply available). That’s how this unapologetically gringo taqueria competes with the best Mexican food in a city of great Mexican food – even when it’s full of surfer bros, La Playa Taco Shop is wholly, authentically San Diegan.
La Playa Taco Shop
3973 Mission Blvd
San Diego, CA 92109
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