The very idea of me coming up with a top ten list of Mexican food in San Diego is ludicrous. Besides the condemning detail that I’m about as gringo as they get, my San Diego Mexican food eating experience totals to about one year, and half of that was spent in the purgatory that is vegetarianism.
Then there’s the fact that I’ve completely neglected to partake in the city’s selection of pozoles and menudos, that I never once brought home some pre-marinated grill fodder from a local carniceria or pastel de tres leches from a local panederia, and that I’ve never even stopped on the way out for some tamales de push cart.
Then there’s the fallacy of lists in general, of boiling down a city’s virtue to ten easy steps when most of the greatness of San Diego’s Mexican food can be found in what’s stocking the shelves at your corner market, or what’s open within walking distance at eleven p.m., or simply that crappy little taqueria down the street that really wasn’t very good, but which in hindsight was only a crappy joint relative to the rest of the city – meaning it was actually damn good, and you’re really starting to miss it already.
To further prove my point, here are my ten favorite establishments for Mexican food in San Diego.
10. Mariscos El Pescador
If I were declaring ties, this one would be pretty obvious, as the differences between Tacos El Pescador and Mariscos German only amount to a hill of frijoles in this crazy world of San Diego mariscos. Even though I only tried El Pescador once, the marlyn taco trumped my previous visits to Mariscos German. Maybe I was the victim of a very good day, but I’d sooner wager that Mariscos El Pescador deserves to serve as standard bearer of Ensenada-style mariscos trucks everywhere.
What to order: Marlyn Taco or Gobernador Taco, because why would you order a shrimp or fish taco when you can have the next generation? Plus, the consome is free.
9. Tacos El Paisa
Speaking of standard bearers, this classic purveyor of adobada tacos in Logan Heights must have some pretty weary arms by now. Without a renaissance in quality, Tacos El Paisa will soon look as out-of-place on top ten lists as its namesakes look in American cities. Still, legacies fade slowly when the gettin’s still good, and I think it’ll be a long time before El Paisa is forgotten.
What to order: Others may swear by El Paisa’s menu as a whole, but I’d be wary of anything beyond the dependable adobada tacos.
8. Rudy’s Taco Shop
I’m placing Rudy’s in the number eight spot on a leap of faith, because one whirlwind taco buffet on a hungover drive out of town is hardly enough food for thoughtful judgment. Something about the place really won me over, from the attached convenience mart to the inviting menu to the wise-cracking women behind the counter. Most of all, Rudy’s boasts the kind of prideful presence that comes from trailblazing against the grain, and it has deservedly cornered the corner market on tacos in North County.
What to order: In regards to street tacos, carnitas and lengua impressed me mucho. When I return, however, I’ll be venturing into the great unknown.
7. Cocteleria La Playita
When it comes to affordable mariscos in San Diego, La Playita is probably a dark-horse candidate for Most Valuable Pescado behind such fast food dynamos as Mariscos El Pescador, Mariscos German and even El Zarape. In my mind, it’s a clear winner, something that you would instantly doubt if you ever took a step into the grungy hole-in-the-minimart-wall. If you like seafood, however, take the plunge, and don’t be afraid to challenge your tolerance of gooey and rubbery textures while you’re at it.
What to order: Anything that combines as many items of seafood that you enjoy, culminating in mixed cocktails, ceviches and tostadas. Viva Vuelve a la Vida!
6. Senor Mango’s
This should not be on this list. It’s just bread, cheese, avocado, lettuce and tomato. Even though that cheese is called queso fresco and the tortas are served with chiles, Senor Mango’s is hardly more then a sandwich-smoothie place with a Senor placed in front. But it’s on my list, because it’s that good. At this moment, the vegetarian torta at Senor Mango’s is the item I miss most about eating in San Diego.
What to order: The lomo torta is also delicious, but nothing compares to vegetarian torta, whether you’re vegetarian or not.
5. Tacos El Gordo
If you want tacos in a hurry, even at the speed of drive-thru, San Diego gives you plenty options, from ‘Bertos to generic taco shops to not-so-generic taco shops like the Tijuana-famous Tacos El Gordo. While Tacos El Gordo isn’t the only Tijuana taco chain to hop over the dotted the line, visibility and uniformity has turned The Fat One’s taco assembly lines into a successful formula. It’s the #1 reason why Taco Bell should not exist in San Diego.
What to order: The advantage of Tacos El Gordo, besides speed, is the good-to-phenomenal caliber of all its tacos, so order what you like. My favorites are de suadero and de adobada.
4. Super Cocina
This place is difficult to rank, because (1) steam table entrees suffer from a lack of consistency, (2) Super Cocina serves the kind of traditional comida Mexicana for which most Southern Californians have already developed life-long preferences, and (3) I haven’t tried even half of what the musical fare de steamtable has to offer. I have, however, tried enough to know that if you want outstanding country Mex cuisine, Super Cocina will not let you down, and it will not let you down more than anywhere else.
What to order: Combine the carnitas with whatever else is freshest into a combo meal to remember. Or go by the free samples, or the owner’s recommendations, or a lucky spin of the cocina roulette wheel, because it always lands on delicious.
3. Aqui es Texcoco
As with Tacos El Gordo, setting doesn’t come into consideration, because Aquis es Texcoco’s ill-decorated cafeteria in a Chula Vista minimart won’t win any atmospheric accolades. The service is all business, but so is the barbacoa, and if you’re beelining to taste, you won’t be disappointed. Even if some of the other items on the table are lacking, you’re just not going to find better barbacoa de lamb on this side of the border – at least, not any sold to the public – and I wouldn’t be surprised if that statement stretches beyond San Diego.
What to order: If you don’t like lamb, don’t go here. If you like lamb, go here and order lamb. If you’re a lamb fanatic like I am and you have access to Aqui es Texcoco, congratulations: you have discovered pure happiness.
2. La Fachada
Stepping away from Aqui Es Texcoco, I cannot discuss the virtues of La Fachada without talking about the entire experience. Maybe La Fachada doesn’t have the best tacos in town, but they’re definitely on the list, and when it comes to quick bites like taquitos, location, location and ubicación matter. A meal at La Fachada can include a fried banana at the churro stand next door, an adobada taco at El Paisa across the street, or anything at all from the market on the corner. That’s the glory that is lunch in Logan Heights, and La Fachada deserves to be its focal point; the laid-back outdoor setting, welcoming service and streetside convenience approach quick bite perfection.
What to order: Tacos de cabeza, carnitas, birria and tripa are my personal favorites, in that order. Don’t forget the free frijoles while waiting.
1. Las Cuatro Milpas
How dare I place this overrated tourist trap in first place!
I could go on about historical and regional significance, how Las Cuatro Milpas is not Tijuana or Baja or Sonoran cuisine, but truly estilo San Diego, but in the end I would be a blustering gringo with few facts to stand on. Really, words no longer seem to matter once those fresh tortillas and chorizo con huevo beckon my senses. More than any other Mexican restaurant, truck or stand in San Diego, a meal at Las Cuatros Milpas transports me to that magical place where flavor and texture are the only things in the world that matter for the duration of the moment. At that point in time, context is no contest.
What to order: Chorizo con huevo, which comes with fresh tortillas and, when combined, cures all ailments of morale and overthrows all forms of tyranny. If you really don’t like chorizo, then the beans and rice are a worthy consolation prize – but I’ll never forgive you.
It goes without saying that there have been many S.D. destinations de comida Mexicana that I have failed to visit, either by my own shortcomings, circumstances or vehement biases against recommenders and neighborhoods. Classic S.D. mainstays like Old Town Mexican Cafe, Cafe Coyote, Santana’s, El Indio, El Porvenir Tortilla Factory, Lucha Libre, Torta Factory and Tacos El Poblano never had a chance to sway my hunger pangs, and many others never even made it onto my limited radar.
In other words, if you want to argue with me on my rankings of your favorite food stops, I’m sorry, because I’ll be too ready to defer to your expert opinion. That said, I would love to hear your expert opinion, or even your I-went-there-once-and-it-was-awful or I-went-there-twice-and-it-was-amazing opinion, because I will be back to visit San Diego one day, and I will be visiting with an appetite to rival any Tritons, Aztecs, Padres, or Chargers.
If I ever find that brand of tequila I tried at El Agave, that shot will go out to you, San Diego. Thank you. You gave me a reason to eat out and a series of lunches and dinners against which I will measure all future meals.