Taco on a Stick

by Zach Mann on April 8, 2010 · 2 comments

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This story is ninth 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.

Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
There are few things I miss more about Moscow than the city’s shawarma fare, drunkenly inhaling the lavash-wrapped doner meat and julienned vegetables – covered in dill, of course – standing at the side of the road at three in the morning by the Belorusskaya metro station and talking about the muscled governor of California with jolly southerners.

Sure, health is suspect when you’re eating meat that has been rotisserie-ing out on a Russian street all day, shaved into the lavash by hairy man without sanitized equipment, but shawarma’s combination of convenience and taste is, in my opinion, unmatched for the international pedestrian. Shave some meat into a pita or starchy equivalent, add fixings and sauce, and is there a more perfect street food not wrapped in bacon? Fortunately, Moscow’s brand of shaurma is just another example of one of the world’s most well-traveled fast foods. Middle Eastern emigrants have shown no hesitation in spreading their meat-on-a-stick lifestyle to, well, every other region on Earth, whether it’s on the streets of New York or off the coast of Spain, and I’ve enjoyed each that I’ve been fortunate enough to come across.

Taco de Adobada - Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
Oh, wasn’t that just a match made in hungry heaven?

Al pastor is synonymous with tacos in Southern California, where Mexican barbecue pork from an inverted cone reigns supreme, thanks to the melting molcajete and a century-long history of Lebanese and Turkish immigrants in Mexico City. Even though al pastor tacos in California are an imported cuisine twice-removed, authenticity just doesn’t seem to matter, because pork-on-a-stick’s popularity is as dependable as death and taxes.

Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
Al Pastor is cooked in much the same way as the Lebanese or Turkish cook their lamb, using vertical spits to slow cook ground meat continuously, except al pastor uses pineapple as the acidic “X” factor and more potent marinades, and it’s most commonly served on corn tortillas with cilantro and onions. At least that’s the version of tacos arabes that has found its way to Southern California and injected our street food culture with the sweet and peppery annato.

In San Diego, the story of al pastor, of course, begins and ends in Barrio Logan. Around the corner from La Fachada, across the street from Churros Le Tigre, down the street from its second location, Tacos El Paisa is a Logan Heights taco mainstay in a neighborhood with more street food culture than the rest of San Diego’s neighborhoods combined. Unlike many taco shops in Southern California, where the al pastor is imitated without the vertical spit, El Paisa prides itself on the pork-on-a-stick preparation done in their taco-producing trailers.

Tacos de Adobada - Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
Tender pork tastes singed with sweet and spice. Measly maize tortillas are inundated with delicious meat. El Paisa’s al pastor tacos as a whole are worthy members of shawarma history. Ever since I discovered La Taquiza in Los Angeles, the BBQ pork taco from a spit has been part of a select group of my favorite foods ever, and El Paisa’s version is only further evidence to support its claim.

San Diego’s al pastor tacos, which generally go by a different name (tacos de adobada) range in color from reddish-brown to hellish red, and boast a bolder level of spice, are a sub-culture of their own. El Paisa’s adobada tacos are of the more mild sort, but in my opinion, they are some of the best – if not the best – al pastor tacos in the city.

Taco de Pollo Asada - Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA Taco de Carne Asada - Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
Also worthy at El Paisa are condiments, given to each table in a giant wheel regardless of how much is ordered. Multiple salsitas, chiles and guacamole make for a portable salsa bar that puts most normal salsa bars to shame and lets me munch on marinated carrots while I wait two long minutes for my tacos to be ready.

Other tacos at El Paisa are a mixed bag. While their carnitas has earned high praise from some, and the pollo and carne asada can be quite tasty when fresh off the outdoor grill, most of the tacos I’ve tried here have been a step or two behind La Fachada down the street, and overall I would consider El Paisa a little overrated in most best-tacos-in-San-Diego discussions. Day-to-day operations, in my opinion, are too dependent on the employment of lazy teens, and when the legacy of a once-unrivaled taco shop is left in the hands of unprofessionals, the usual result is all manner of just-above-mediocrity fare.

Thankfully, this sad truth doesn’t apply to El Paisa’s tacos de adobada. Those are as dependable as death, taxes and pork-on-a-stick.

Tacos El Paisa
840 S 47th St
San Diego, CA 92113
(619) 262-5128

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


Kenturion January 28, 2011 at 2:31 am

It’s interesting that you have the picture of Tacos El Paisa at 47th and the Tacos El Paisa on 31st and National.
I’m curious if this review considered tacos from both locations. I’ve been told by their staff that they’re actually independent and separate taco joints. Indeed, despite their similar menu and style of service, each shop has their own set of strengths and weaknesses.

Zach January 28, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Thanks for letting me know, Kenturion. My research had me to believe that they were more closely related, but I believe your firsthand experience.

I ate at the 31st and National location more often due to convenience, and I only tried the 47th street one once, just to make sure the quality wasn’t drastically different. Both locations serve the wheel of condiments and both are pretty tasty, but you make a good point. I make a lot of generalizations that might not be the case for both locations.

Do you have a favorite between the two?

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