Vaya Con Diego: A Deep Dive into the Mexican cuisines of San Diego

by Zach Mann on January 10, 2016

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Cocina Roulette — Feb 11, 2010

Chile Colorado - Super Cocina - San Diego, CA
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. Who cares that San Diego is closer to Mexico? I’m from Los pinches Angeles. In other words, when I moved to San Diego, I felt entitled.

It only took one SD cocina to slap the gringo, angeleno arrogance right out of me.

Super Cocina - San Diego, CA
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.

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 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. 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. And that is a comforting fact to learn.

Then my teacher sold me a two-item combo of education for eight bucks.

Carnitas - Super Cocina - San Diego, CA
Chile Colorado - Super Cocina - San Diego, CA Chile Colorado - Super Cocina - San Diego, CA
Super Cocina Comida Casera Mexicana was actually the first thing I ever learned about San Diego Mexican food. Upon telling James that I was moving there from LA, he reacted with a question: “Have you been to Super Cocina yet?” By chance I ended up moving only a mile away from the Normal Heights restaurant, an uninspired cafeteria space full of fading festive colors.

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 was no master chef at work, it probably wasn’t going to surprise you with originality, but that was perhaps the restaurant’s greatest feature. Super Cocina was just a business that has done a great job of collecting great family recipes of popular Mexican dishes and adapting them for convenient, affordable, and speedy consumption. It was 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.

Dias de los ‘Bertos — Feb 18, 2010

Roberto's #10 - San Diego, CA
As a new San Diegan, I asked a few people I knew for restaurant recommendations, and more than one person responded in the exact same way: “Anywhere that ends in -berto’s.”

If you’ve even casually passed through San Diego, you probably know what they’re talking about. Taco shops throughout the city have a tendency to share the same suffix — El Roberto’s, Ramberto’s, Hamberto’s, etc. — and a very similar on-the-border menu. If you’ve tried a few, however, you’re probably aware that the quality is not as consistent as the nomenclature. There are plenty of ‘Bertos that are delicious, but there are an equal amount on the other side of the bell curve, leaving my benefactors’ advice little more than fallacious. Frijoles y Arroz by any other name would smell as sweet, not the other way around.

The true ‘Berto’s, of course, is Roberto’s, a chain of Mexican fast food meccas that has earned an immeasurable amount of imitators. Even the outliers of San Diego taco shop names, like Santana’s, owe their success to a food culture that Roberto’s has been defining for half a century, since the original ‘Berto’s found enough customers in 1970 to go forth and multiply into the San Diego taco gene pool. If there is a catch-all term for San Diego Mexican fast food, then the suffix -berto’s is the perfect morpheme for the job.

Roberto's - Mission Beach, San Diego, CA Roberto's - Mission Valley, San Diego, CA
Filiberto's - San Diego, CA Rolberto's - San Diego, CA Rigoberto's - San Diego, CA
That little taco shop in downtown seventies San Diego wasn’t the original either. The first Roberto was a child in Mexico with one hell of a story ahead of him. One American dream later, Roberto Robledo and his wife Dolores found profit in delivering tortillas and made a fortune with the burrito — the first of which, a ten cent burrito called the Poor Man, changed the culture of San Diego forever. Then Roberto’s came out with the carne asada burrito and the rest is California history.

Today’s San Diego is still carne asada crazy. Every college kid in the county has run to a ‘Berto’s in the middle of a drunken night for a California burrito. Every group of teenagers has pooled their cash together for one giant order of carne asada fries. Every surfer boy has enjoyed a carne asada tostada from a ‘Berto’s with extra guacamole and every passerby has stopped for the rolled tacos special at least once. This is Roberto Robledo’s legacy. His taco shops established what taqueria menus will serve in San Diego for decades, and few people know that it all started with a Poor Man.

California Burrito - Roberto's - San Diego, CA
Chimichanga - Rolberto's - San Diego, CA Carne Asada Fries - Roberto's - San Diego, CA
Unfortunately, you can’t taste the history. With over sixty in the country, even the real Roberto’s Taco Shops fluctuate in quality. Mr. Robledo himself, before dying in 1999, asked one of his relatives to remove the name Roberto’s from his business because it did not meet the old man’s standards. Over a decade later, the carne asada is no longer grilled to order, and the Roberto’s Taco Shops of San Diego have fallen into the sea of its own imitators, into the generic culture of San Diego Mexican fast food — not that I’m complaining. There will always be a place in the world for 24-hour drive-thrus that sell carne asada burritos.

That’s when the ‘Berto’s are great, at three in the morning after you’ve tried to drink all of a San Diego bar’s beer selection. When you’re sober in the sunlight, this city has much better Mexican food to offer. If you’re just visiting SD and you want to sample the city’s best, don’t listen to advice like, “Anywhere that ends in -berto’s.” If you want to experience some San Diego history, sure, go ahead, but remember: There are many ‘Berto’s, but there is only one Roberto Robledo.

Estilo San Diego — Feb 25, 2010

Specials - El Tio Alberto - San Diego, CA
In regard to the question of which California city has the best Mexican food, style must be a factor. Every taqueria has its own estilo, whether it’s up on the sign or not. Most taco shops in San Diego can be defaulted to estilo Baja or even estilo Tijuana, because essentially, that’s what San Diego Mexican food is: Baja border-style. Tortillas are grilled instead of steamed, there are always fish tacos on the menu, and everything is served with extra guacamole. Whether or not LA’s or SF’s style of Mexican food is better or worse falls into preference. I’ve met a person from the Bay Area who thought the idea of a burrito sans rice was disgusting. So be it.

I think the idea of a burrito con rice is akin to a Big Mac, or a club sandwich. I accept the existence of the extra carbohydrate in the middle, but I don’t see the point. That said, I think rice makes a whole lot more sense than San Diego’s potato anti-famine. Items like the California burrito (carne asada and potatoes), Texas burrito (chicken and potatoes), potato taquitos, and carne asada fries make little sense to me. It’s like you wanted to eat some delicious Mexican food, but right before you took a bite, some asshole shoved a bland baked potato in your mouth.

When I leave San Diego, I will miss the Mexican food, but I don’t think I will miss some of the taco shop menus. Read the specials above and tell me you don’t question the tastiness of Shrimp French Fries.

El Tio Alberto - San Diego, CA
It’s said that border cities bring out the worst in each country. I’m not sure if that extends to food, but it would go a long way in explaining why my favorite places to eat Mexican food in San Diego are not simply San Diego-style taco shops, and likewise, my favorite of the many ‘Berto’s restaurants separates itself from the fast food pack by serving food estilo Veracruz. At most ‘Bertos, ordering seafood is the opening line of a cautionary tale, but at El Tio Alberto, not ordering fish and rice is a pity. The menu offers all the usual taco shop staples, as if it were a requirement of using the -berto name, but not in the stead of great seafood served with salsa verde, whole limes, and no unwanted side effects.

Even Tio Alberto’s non-Veracruz items are above average, which is why I’ve recently made a habit of watching muted telenovelas in the colorfully decorated shop, a hole in the wall tucked invisibly into an unattractive corner between a liquor store and Roberto’s #10. Of course, it’s the estilo Veracruz that keeps me coming back.

Shrimp Burrito - El Tio Alberto - San Diego, CA
Pescado a la Veracruzana - El Tio Alberto - San Diego, CA Fish Torta - El Tio Alberto - San Diego, CA
Regarding the question of which California city has the best Mexican food, I think El Tio Alberto should be offered as evidence in San Diego’s case. It isn’t the greatest food in the world, or in SD. It’s just a run-of-the-mill, family-owned and operated taco shop that takes its cues from Roberto’s, throws in some Veracruz flare, never gets very busy, but always serves, without exception, good, fast and cheap Mexican food.

That this grungy little place can serve pedestrians at consistently high quality is the best proof that San Diego is a great place for food estilo Mexico. If the question was, “Which California city has the best Mexican food on average?”, my money would be on San Diego, and it’s because so-called average places like El Tio Alberto are so damn above average.

The Melting Molcajete — Mar 4, 2010

Free Samples - Ranas Mexico City Cuisine - San Diego
When I think of Mexico City, I picture Aztec sporting events, names of gods that are really hard to spell, and those framed photographs of a faded, sepia cathedral that you see hanging in the occasional restaurante. That’s the image that has been burned into me since my very first bowl of albondigas soup.

Modern Ciudad de México stretches my imagination, and so does the city’s storied cuisine. It’s the Rome of Latin North America; all roads lead there, even el camino real; and Mexico City cuisine is an intersection of all Mexican food from border to border and coast to coast. Add the influence of international cuisines like Italian and French to the melting pot. Consider the emergence of Nouveau Mexican and fine dining, and the street culture of one of the biggest cities on the planet. Put it together and you have to wonder: is Mexico City the greatest food city in the world?

I may never know the answer to that question, but living in San Diego, I do have the privilege of visiting Ranas Mexico City Cuisine, a small family-owned restaurant in Spring Valley. Maybe Ranas can’t stand in for the inherently diverse food culture of Ciudad de México, but at least it can introduce me to “Mexico City cuisine,” which, as it turns out, isn’t just a deli-sized tri-folding menu with hundreds of selections ranging from the ceviches of the Pacific coast and Caribbean flavors of the Yucatan to the moles of Oaxaca and flank meat of the northern countryside. Instead, Ranas imports Mexico’s national range of cuisine after it’s been thrown into the melting molcajete, mortared into the consistency of cornmeal and repackaged for a modern city.

According to Ranas Mexico City Cuisine, the result of this process is a bunch of really delicious sauces.

Cochinita Pibil - Ranas Mexico City Cuisine - San Diego Ranas Mexico City Cuisine - San Diego
Tucked into a large outdoor shopping center by a Fresh & Easy market in an East County suburb, Ranas Mexico City Cuisine is one of a kind, even in the diverse Mexican food haven of San Diego. Besides the cutesy logo, it was just your average mom and pop restaurant with around ten tables, a father running the kitchen, and his son running the front, chatting up newcomers. The service was friendly, the free samples were customary and taking pictures of your food in the small sit-down restaurant was extra uncomfortable.

The best way to order off the menu is via sauce samples. There were some more familiar flavors, like the classic chipotle and red mole. The peanut butter or almond sauces, creamy, almost dessert-like sauces that would go great with chicken, taste almost Thai. The Entomatado sauce, an earthy tomatillo- and cactus-based sauce with no lack of spice, won me over instantly, and the Yucatan-inspired Cochinita Pibil’s achiote and orange juice flavors tasted both tropical and pueblo.

Entomatado Pork - Ranas Mexico City Cuisine - San Diego
Unfortunately for Ranas Mexico City Cuisine, the dishes don’t live up to their dressings. This is a shortcoming that I’ve found multiple times in San Diego; highly regarded mole spots pour amazing sauces over criminally tasteless meat. Fortunately for Ranas, it costs a fraction of El Agave’s and Cantina Mayahuel’s prices to enjoy sauces just as delicious, and truthfully the faults of Ranas’s dishes are not that they are sub-par, but that the inspiring gravies are that good — if you can handle the spicy.

I don’t know if Ranas accurately reflects Mexico City cuisine, but I hope so. The possibility that somewhere out there, those sauces are being poured over tender, juicy cuts of meat is a dream worthy of the hard-to-spell gods.

Taco Terms of Endearment — Mar 11, 2010

Salsitas and Aguas Frescas - La Fachada - San Diego, CA
Like most Mexican food in San Diego, Tijuana-style tacos are more simple, more plain than their LA counterparts — and if you subscribe to the opinion, they are therefore more pure. Taco stands in Los Angeles usually make their business selling more than just tacos, but in SD, places like Tacos El Gordo sell nothing else, and even at taquerias with slightly more inclusive menus, like La Fachada, you won’t find anyone in line not anticipating a TJ taco. The workers at La Fachada make tortillas and prepare meat. They put one on top of the other, and they feel very comfortable with the idea that versatility is not necessarily a virtue.

Except for the versatility of carne cookery. The main attraction at taquerias such as La Fachada is the selection of pig and cow parts available as taco stuffers, from the TJ favorite of carne asada to the quintessential street meat of adobado to the brains, esophaguses and small intestines of your favorite animals. One thing I’ve learned as a San Diegan is that each taco shop tends to be better at making one or two kinds of meat, and you never know which (all the more reason to eat more).

Taco de Birria - La Fachada - San Diego, CA
La Fachada - San Diego, CA La Fachada - San Diego, CA
Functionally, La Fachada was a clone of many taco shops in San Diego and California. There was the La Fachada Restaurant, a building in the back of the parking lot that nobody goes into, and then there was the trailer where the tacos are made. By the trailer was an open grill with onions, peppers and a pot of self-serve beans, picnic tables under a tarp ceiling, the salsita bar, and a woman behind a portable cash register. In the back a young man grilled carne asada. In the trailer women assembled tacos. Under the canopy we awaited our food with a hot Styrofoam cup of beans in our hands.

Taco de Cabeza - La Fachada - San Diego, CA Taco de Adobado - La Fachada - San Diego, CA
Taco de Tripa - La Fachada - San Diego, CA Taco de Buche - La Fachada - San Diego, CA
I’m still too gringo not to wrinkle my nose at certain sections of animals, like buche (pig esophagus) and lengua (cow tongue) — both very common orders at La Fachada and many other taquerias but both a little too chewy and slimy for my tastes. I’ve tried them all, though, and fortunately so; La Fachada’s tacos de tripa (small intestines) became one of my favorite orders. The deep fried, crunchy tripe was heavily flavored and made for perfect taco fodder, especially paired with cabeza and carnitas.

As I continue to partake in more of the tacos de TJ in SD, it’s becoming increasingly clear that La Fachada did not serve the best in town. Even so, when I leave San Diego, I will mourn the many lunch hours spent under that canopy, appreciating the simple varieties of a single meal.

Here is Mexico — Mar 18, 2010

Aqui es Texcoco - Chula Vista, CA
It’s easy to forget that Mexico is right fucking there. It’s especially easy when you’re 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.

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 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 had come a long way from his father’s taco shop days in TJ. His new restaurant in Chula Vista was a fast-paced, gringo-less hot spot with high capacity. Fortunately, the menu hasn’t grown with the Perez family’s success. Paco stuck to what his father knew best: how to season lamb with chile, wrap it in cactus and barbecue it Texcoco style. That was it, and it was most definitely enough. Everything barbacoa de borrego-related, even the lamb broth, was delicious.

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.

Guacamole on Everything — Mar 25, 2010

La Playa Taco Shop - San Diego, CA
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, 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.

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.

Carne Asada Taco - La Playa Taco Shop - San Diego, CA
That isn’t to say that La Playa Taco Shop’s 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.

California Burrito - La Playa Taco Shop - San Diego, CA
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 SD 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.

La Playa Taco Shop - San Diego, CA
Whitewash is such a negative term, and truthfully it isn’t fair to places like La Playa Taco Shop in Mission Beach. As in 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 SD 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, middle-class couples like us 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. 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.

Burrito: A History — Apr 1, 2010

Pork Burrito - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
It wasn’t long before the burrito craze of the seventies spread throughout California, and it was a big enough deal that in imagining what a nostalgic “Cafe 70’s” must look like, I picture a taqueria.

The trend hit San Francisco first, and to this day hungry hippies believe their mission-style burritos of the sixties were the originators of today’s burrito kingdom. I won’t deny their claim, and I don’t see a point in arguing which California city deserves the burrito crown, because in the end it depends on your definition. SF, for instance, believes that a burrito is a completely portable meal. Good for them.

My definition is a bit different, and much simpler. As the wheat flour tortilla grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, it only became a matter of time before some hombre dropped meat in the middle and wrapped the tortilla all the way around. That’s just practical, and that’s a burrito, invented simultaneously wherever flour tortillas hit the scene.

El Porvenir Tortilla Factory - San Diego, CA
That meaningfully includes the Barrio Logan area of San Diego, an inner-city ghetto formed at the turn of the twentieth century by refugees of the Mexican Revolution. Barrio Logan rests in the shadow of downtown SD, tucked against the back of Petco Park like LA’s Echo Park is tucked against Chavez Ravine, and to call it a Mexican neighborhood would be an understatement. Even the pizza places only serve Mexican pizza and probably have carts outside selling aguas frescas, churros or deep-fried bananas. Down the street, Chicano Park has the largest collection of outdoor murals in the world, in hypercolorful splendor.

My guess is that the first burrito was folded in Northern Mexico somewhere, but if I were to conjecture at the location of the first burrito sold on this side of the line, I might point to that washed out cube pictured above. Sure, it looks like it offers 24-hour bail bonds, but it just might be the only Mexican food joint old enough to make the claim. At least, that’s one version of San Diego’s story, because that dilapidated box is El Porvenir Tortilla Factory, and it’s been feeding the barrio’s hungry since 1918 (but is currently closed).

The second oldest tortilleria in the area, which fortunately waits just around the corner, is Las Cuatro Milpas, representing Barrio Logan since 1933.

Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
I wanted to dislike this place. In the area of Barrio Logan, Logan Heights and Memorial, where La Fachada and El Paisa make up only a small portion of the ancient cucina culture, it’s Las Cuatro Milpas that has the line going halfway down the block. It’s this one restaurant that gets all the credit for authentic San Diego Mexican food in the most authentic of San Diego Mexican neighborhoods. SD food bloggers and chowhound chatterboxes have ladened Las Cuatro Milpas with the “overrated” tag, and as I stood in line with sunburnt out-of-towners in khaki shorts and Navy recruits panicking at the sight of a “cash only” sign, I was ready to believe it.

I was sure it was the taqueria equivalent of the tourist trap, a place where reputation perpetuates itself regardless of the food, either by the novelty of seeing tortillas made right if front of you, or by mongering nostalgia with old clippings and kitschy decorations like Los Angeles’s Philippe’s. Then the interior dampened my worry. Las Cuatro Milpas’ starkly undecorated walls and picnic tables let the food do all the talking, and the prices there would surprise even the most trusting of tourists.

And the food… well, this chorizo con huevo can melt even the proudest of palates.

Chorizo con Huevo - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
If you don’t believe that chorizo con huevo can ever be outstanding, then you haven’t seen an old ex-ranchero ordering the large bowl at Las Cuatro Milpas for his entire family to share, fresh flour tortillas in each hand and expectant grins on each face.

That’s why you go to Las Cuatro Milpas — the tortillas. Even though the chorizo is probably the best I’ve ever had, in the end it’s just another reason to consume Las Cuatro Milpas’s doughy wonders. I don’t care how hard the menu is to decipher: Don’t order the tacos. They are unexciting, deep-fried, reminiscient of and possibly less worthy than West LA’s overrated Tito’s Tacos. Order the chorizo, or even just the beans and rice, which are also spectacular, then cherish the side of flour tortillas that come with.

All tortillas as fresh-off-the-grill as Las Cuatro Milpas’s are wonders, and it’s sad to consider how many people in this world think that tortillas taste like the stuff sold in supermarkets. I love Las Cuatro Milpas’s tortillas even more than most, though, as they are pleasantly undercooked and therefore warm and soft all the way through. It’s like waking up at first light to eat the first freshly baked loaf of bread from that little bakery in that little provincial town in France, except you’re at a communal picnic table at lunchtime in innercity San Diego, with everything covered in chorizo con huevo. Or beans. Or carnitas.

Tortilleria - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA Pork Burrito - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA
Tortillerias turned taquerias were common occurrences in forties and fifties San Diego, where the meat — usually carnitas — was an afterthought, a necessary addition for full meals, and usually present to showcase the tortilla more than the other way around. This was the case for El Porvenir, and Las Cuatro Milpas is carrying El Porvenir’s torch, rallying burrito history into the present day, showing all of us who care what true barrio food was really like.

If you don’t think San Diego’s version qualifies as a burrito, then you can at least admit it’s a direct ancestor. I’ll accept that, and I’ll let LA and SF duke it out for burrito supremacy on their own terms. If you ask me, however, San Francisco won that battle a long time ago. The last two burritos I consumed in Los Angeles were distinctly Mission-inspired, complete with rice, veggies and the question, “Black or pinto beans?”

I’ve never once been asked that question in San Diego. Why would they, when they know the correct answer? Pinto, of course, but in their own bowl, with the tortillas on the side.

Chorizo con Huevo and Tacos - Las Cuatro Milpas - San Diego, CA

Taco on a Stick — Apr 8, 2010

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? 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
Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
Al pastor is synonymous with tacos in Southern California, where Mexican barbecue pork from an inverted cone reigns supreme, thanks to 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.

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.

Tacos de Adobada - Tacos El Paisa - San Diego, CA
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.

El Paisa’s tacos are worthy members of shawarma history. 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 were condiments, given to each table in a giant wheel regardless of how much is ordered. Multiple salsitas, chiles and guacamole made for a portable salsa bar that puts most normal salsa bars to shame.

Other tacos at El Paisa are a mixed bag. While their carnitas have 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. 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.

Sonoran by Car — Apr 22, 2010

Los Angeles can stake a claim as one of the greatest food cities in the world. A sprawling landscape of ethnic hotspots and economic diversity has truly made LA a place where, for dinner, anything is possible. That Los Angeles also has some of the worst transit in the world — an angeleno’s access to this smorgasbord, considering car congestion and indirect highways, is limited to a small sector of the city — is the ultimate tease. Even for someone like me, who on countless occasions has driven from Venice Beach to Cesar Chavez Blvd for a burrito, food culture becomes a casualty of traffic.

This isn’t any different in New York City or the Bay Area, where geography isolates gastronomy. Taking a trip into or out of the city for a meal requires at least an afternoon set aside. Big cities are great places to eat out, but living in big cities doesn’t mean all of it’s in reach, a fact of my life from the get-go of my career as a customer — until San Diego.

This isn’t to say that SD’s restaurant scene can compare to LA’s or NY’s. San Diego is a relatively small city with a very limited diversity in food culture (and culture in general). If you have a car, though, it’s even smaller. That’s the intrigue: An efficient highway system with no traffic puts all of the city at your fingertips, whether or not you care to go everywhere.

Tacos Yaqui - San Diego, CA
The ease of exploring SD’s lunch landscape changed the way this angeleno thinks about a quick bite, and I grasped the paradigm shift in one key moment; sitting in my apartment in North San Diego, wondering what I should have to eat, I suddenly realized that in less than thirty minutes, I could be biting into a carne asada taco in Tijuana, Mexico.

Even though this city’s food culture is hardly all-encompassing, there’s plenty diversity within comida Mexicana. I can cruise to Chula Vista for tacos and back with plenty of time to spare in my lunch hour. It also means that the San Ysidro gateway is less than twenty minutes away, and that isn’t a bad trek to reach the end of a country, especially when the next country over has such readily tasty snacks.

Or I can save an extra five minutes and settle with the place across the street from Mexico, where Tacos Yaqui enjoys a clear view of the waving green, red and white flag. That trip is doubly worth it, considering Tacos Yaqui — named after a native tribe from the area — serves Sonoran cuisine, a meal that would have otherwise required a much longer drive through deserts and vacationing Arizonans.

Refried Beans - Tacos Yaqui - San Diego, CA Taco de Adobada - Tacos Yaqui - San Diego, CA
Tacos Yaqui wasn’t the kind of Sonoran food that New Mexico, Texas and the rest of the chimichanga belt consider comfort Tex-Mex, nor was it unfamiliar to Californians. Tacos Yaqui was no different than a zillion other taco shops in San Diego — except for a couple of ingredients — and all the usual tacos were on the menu, even if some of them looked a little different, like the adobada taco pictured above.

Maybe it’s a little weird to have beans and tortilla disks as an appetizer instead of pickled peppers and salsa, but that’s where the estilo Sonora comes in. If the northern state of Mexico does one thing culinarily better than anywhere else in the country, it’s refried beans, and that boast is on full display in Tacos Yaqui’s complimentary bowl of rich, meaty and fatty frijoles.

Tacos Perrones - Tacos Yaqui - San Diego, CA Tacos de Chicharrones de Pescado - Tacos Yaqui - San Diego, CA
The most unique thing about Tacos Yaqui, in my Californian opinion, were the flour tortillas, the base for Sonoran tacos, a snack food both similar to and different from most tacos I’m familiar with. That’s because these tortillas were so paper-thin that the taste and feel was foreign to me, and so were the tacos. Take Tacos Yaqui’s flagship dish, tacos perrones, which, no, doesn’t mean “dog.” Perron is slang for “the shit” or the like, and Tacos Yaqui’s “the shit” tacos lived up to their slang. A cross between carne asada and machaca added a stewy weight to the lightweight tortilla, and a wealth of familiar toppings turned each bite into a full meal.

Then there were the chicharron tacos, which again probably don’t mean what you immediately think. Chicharron, which can mean “deep-fried” in most taco shops, can refer to any kind of meat, and in many cuisines south of the border, chicharrones de pescado are common. In Sonora, these handily bite-sized, crispy fish cubes are also served on the classic flour tortilla and offer alternatives to carne, though I doubt I’d ever give up a taco perron for one.

Maybe Tacos Yaqui wasn’t amazing enough to warrant a drive to the edge of the country for lunch, but then again, time and space work oddly in San Diego, where eating at your convenience means something entirely different. All roads lead to Sonoran fast food when there’s no traffic to slow you down.

Tacos El Mejor — Apr 29, 2010

Taco de Buche - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA
Ranking restaurants is a pretty futile practice, and crowning the king of tacos in San Diego is that much more difficult. Each shop does some types of carne better than others, and all of them suffer from the invariable variable of inconsistency. In other words, you probably shouldn’t listen to me when I emphatically insist that the best tacos in San Diego can be found at Tacos El Gordo.

I’m telling no secrets. Tacos El Gordo was already the talk of taco town. There, functionality came first. Tacos El Gordo optimizes. You order your tacos at stations; one person mans the stews, another mans the al pastor, and another the grill. They efficiently hand over your tacos, which you gather on a tray to bring to the cashier. Sure, it’s an impersonal process and the interiors of these taquerias look like they were converted from McDonald’s, but the tacos themselves don’t suffer, and neither does your tummy.

Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA
Taco de Adobada - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA Taco de Adobada - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA Taco de Asada - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA
Taco de Tripa - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA Taco de Suadero - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA Taco de Cabeza - Tacos El Gordo - Chula Vista, CA
My favorite was probably the suadero. Soft, flaky beef shoulder, just like the offal, is stewed for hours. That isn’t to say that Tacos El Gordo’s suadero taco is the best taco in San Diego. I’d never visit Chula Vista or National City without ordering at least one adobada taco, and I can’t imagine myself walking into a taco shop without cabeza on my mind. Tacos El Gordo serves the best tacos in San Diego because an order of tacos rarely involves a number less than three, and variety is the picante of life. The taco de suadero is just one more quality choice, and Tacos El Gordo has more kinds of carne-based amazing than anywhere else.

El Viejo y el Marlin — May 6, 2010

Bar happy hour menus have taught me two things:
1. Being half-priced doesn’t mean it’s cheap, and
2. The term “fish taco” is far too vague.

Imagine ordering a “bird taco” when you want some pollo asada. I’ve seen mahi-mahi, snapper, wahoo, halibut, shark, swordfish and cod between two sleeves of tortilla, and the only thing I’ve learned is that it’s all just called “fish taco” and tastes like chicken-of-the-sea anyway. If it’s fresh, it tastes good. If it isn’t fresh, I hope you only paid 99 cents.

Taco de Pescado - Mariscos German - San Diego, CA
I love fish tacos, and I eat a lot of them these days, but the dollar variety doesn’t do a lot of whelming when served as a side dish to scallop tacos at El Zarape or a mixta tostada at La Playita Cocteleria. That’s the perpetual pox on tacos de pescado in the cheap corners of San Diego’s fish taco economy. They make up the dollar menu of SD’s fast food truck nation, and the deep-fried, sub-par pescado covered in cole slaw rates somewhere between a Filet-O-Fish and a McDonald’s cheeseburger on the tasty scale.

In those other corners of SD, “fish tacos” look and taste a bit different, sell at some high number known as “market price,” and are served at a bar table somewhere by the Pacific Ocean. Sure, you might have to spend ten dollars on a couple tacos, but at least you can hear waves between each bite and you know the mysterious white fish is mahi-mahi, or some other Hawaiian-sounding name — and that probably means it’s delicious. These tacos served at places like South Beach Bar & Grille, Brigantine Seafood Restaurant and World Famous along the SD coast aren’t side dishes or a teenager’s discount lunch, and well, they are delicious. I just hope you got there in time for Happy Hour.

San Diego’s rule of thumb for seafood is to stick to the markets, which is why Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill in Mission Hills serves some of the finer taco fare in the city. Those tortilla-held, grilled fish delights may have taken Mexico out of the taco, but they’re plenty San Diegan and worthy contestants in the “best fish taco” discussion. They are definitely better than those of the dollar variety, and I’m sure freshness has something to do with that.

Marlyn Taco - Mariscos El Pescador - Chula Vista, CA
I wonder how many eat-geeks would include the marlyn taco in a “fish taco” food tour, or consider Mariscos German’s or Mariscos El Pescador’s marlyn taco in a best fish taco discussion. The joke on the marlin is its pink flesh, which will forever keep it apart from “fish tacos” and stuck with its own label, celery, cheese and four-dollar price tag.

Fortunately, for eat-economists the marlyn taco is at least four times as delicious as the fish taco from the same menus. The potency of taste is exponentially stronger, the heartiness of the meat is downright beastlike and the taco lacks the almost insultingly flavorless slaw that blankets most tacos de pescado. In other words, it deserves its own place on the menu and a spot in the “best fish taco” discussion. I don’t think freshness has anything to do with that.

Mariscos El Pescador - Chula Vista, CA
I’m not saying that the Mariscos El Pescador taco truck’s fish wasn’t fresh, but it probably wasn’t as fresh as the mahi-mahi from Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill. That’s the compromise for Mexican fast food mariscos, and that’s the difference between fish tacos from a beachside restaurant-bar and fish tacos from a truck parked along side a freeway in Chula Vista, in the far corner of a Toys-R-Us parking lot.

The joke on those beachside restaurants is that they still might be on the losing end of the fish taco discussion, despite their proximity to the fish’s last spark of life. That marlin might have taken a day longer to reach Mariscos El Pescador, but the flavor wasn’t lacking. There probably wasn’t a busty blonde or yuppie hunk at the other end of the bar to look at, but at least you had a complimentary seafood consomé to sip on while you waited for you marlyn or gobernador taco.

Gobernador Taco - Mariscos El Pescador - Chula Vista, CA
At Mariscos El Pescador that meal takes the mariscos truck crown from even the heralded Mariscos German. The flavor of El Pescador’s seafood was lively, not allowing grease to hide the true taste of individual ingredients. That goes for the gobernador taco (grilled shrimp, onions, celery and cheese), too, and any other casualties under the tyranny of the term “fish taco.”

“Gobernador” isn’t a buzz word on bar menus, but maybe it would be if more people drove out to a Toys-R-Us parking lot more often for lunch. Or for a snack. Or dinner. With tacos this good, you don’t have to be told when it’s time for a happy hour.

El Largo Adiós — May 13, 2010

Carnitas Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA
I will miss San Diego, mostly because of the tacos part.

Those edible plates of carne are everywhere in this state, but to me, saying goodbye to San Diego feels a lot like saying goodbye to tacos. In the case of taco-dedicated taqueria quantity, I don’t think I’m too far off. On this side of the border, what city can make it rain chopped cilantro quite like SD?

It only seemed fitting that the last thing I ate in San Diego should be street-style taquitos, so we took one last exit off the Interstate 5 before leaving the city for good.

Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA
Rudy’s Taco Shop is another reason this taco town deserves the taco crown. This unassuming-yet-heralded convenience store and taco shop hybrid is not found in Barrio Logan, or between downtown and Mexico, or even out East where low rent can lead to good cheap eats. Rudy’s Taco Shop can be found by Del Mar, a beachside town north of La Jolla more famous for classic Americana than Mexicano.

When it comes to lunch time, West LA clearly isn’t East LA, but San Diego knows tacos, and that includes surfer bros and G.I. Joes from Pacific Beach all the way to Oceanside. Beach neighborhoods like Solana and Carlsbad may surf solo as cities, but they are very San Diegan, full of shrimp burritos and tiny taquerias, and proof that surfers and tacos aren’t mutually exclusive.

Pollo Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA Cabeza Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA
Al Pastor Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA Carnitas Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA Carne Asada Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA
Unlike La Playa in Mission Beach, Rudy’s Taco Shop was not tailored to its populace. I could imagine Rudy’s more easily in Logan Heights than by a North County beach despite the Italian deli across the minimart and the blondes at the next table. Rudy’s wasn’t just delicious; it kept the guise of authenticity despite its surroundings, leaving me to wonder how many of those blondes thought that “taquitos” meant rolled tacos instead of street-style.

Lengua Taco - Rudy's Taco Shop - Solana Beach, CA
Rudy’s was every bit worthy of its accolades. In regards to the various carnes, all of the crucial ratios of grease-to-substance and fat-to-texture were right on point, even if some of the flavor came off as a little subdued. Though I’m generally not a fan of tongue meat, Rudy’s taco de lengua alone was enough to elevate its cause into the best taco discussion, albeit as an underdog.

That Rudy’s is in the discussion at all is a testament to a city without strict regional boundaries or an overabundance of debilitating food media. Now that I’m stuck in West Los Angeles, forced to abide the presence of a gringo-operated Border Grill catering truck down the street, I can truly reflect on what I’ve left behind. It’s going to take me a long time to get over you, San Diego — one hundred tacos long.

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