In the land of California burritos and carne asada fries, it was my mission to scour my home city of San Diego, California in hopes of finding authentic Latin food without having to cross the border. San Diego is directly adjacent to the Mexican border, and Tijuana, a hotbed of foodie activity lurks just on the other side. Exploring the vibrant, rich culture and cuisine that radiates between the two is an experience all on its own. The Pacific Ocean contributes to an abundance of fresh seafood options, that results in mariscos, taco, and burrito carts/establishments on both sides.
With Mexican heritage being prominent here in San Diego, a number of local food spots carry on the tradition of their beloved cuisine. Mexican ingredients and flavors are widely found throughout San Diego, and more often than not they are adapted into a Southern California style dish. There are some excellent little joints that are dishing up everything from Texcoco lamb style barbecue, to Pambazos, and refreshing Raspados. So the next time you find yourself in San Diego craving a meal, perhaps something that you grew up eating, or tasted while on vacation in Mexico, these are my most frequented spots.
Tacos El Poblano
885 E. H St Ste. C Chula Vista, CA 91910. (619) 216-0155
The smell of the charcoal grills, which fills the air at this taqueria, will have you bolting to get in line to order. It's rare to find taco places in San Diego that actually grill their meat on charcoal grills, rather than a flat top. It's for that reason, that this is my go-to spot for Carne Asada tacos. Once you've tasted that satisfying smokiness in the meat, nothing else compares. Also try their Adobada (adobo-seasoned pork) tacos. El Poblano's tacos are smaller in size, so be prepared to polish off four of them in the blink of an eye.
1852 National Ave San Diego, CA 92113 (Stand located outside of Rancho Fresco Market)
It doesn't have to be the holiday season to enjoy some great tamales. Tamales Chiapanecos is little food cart, located right outside of the Rancho Fresco Market in Barrio Logan that the owners, hailing from the state of Chiapas, have run for over ten years. They offer both banana leaf and corn husk wrapped tamales for the same price of $1.50 per piece. If your heart is set on the banana leaf wrapped tamal, I recommend that you pay them an early visit. Once they sell out, which can be as early as 2 PM, they close up shop. And though it's hard to choose favorites, for me it is definitely between their Rajas con Queso (cheese with green chiles), and the pork filled banana leaf wrapped tamal. Don't forget drinks: they have some of the best Champurrado in town!
Posoleria Doña Maria
1660 Broadway Ave Chula Vista, CA 91911 (619) 425-8820
Located in a strip mall, Posoleria Doña Maria is serving up Guerrero-style Pozole. This white broth, pork and hominy stew is filled with the warmth and flavors of a home cooked meal. In addition to the pozole, be sure to try their Requeson stuffed rolled tacos, and pickled pig’s feet tostadas.
1008 Industrial Blvd Chula Vista, CA 91911 (619) 488-7524
Sunny San Diego days and slightly higher temperatures only heighten a yearning for seafood. Fish tacos are one of my usual seafood cravings, and just thinking about the crispy battered fried fish makes my mouth water. El Pescador makes one of my favorite fish tacos in the South Bay area, and for $1.25 a taco, they are quite a deal. A drizzle of their chipotle cream sauce over a cabbage topped golden piece of fish is a must. Corn tortillas let the ingredients shine without overpowering the whole taco, as there's nothing worse than taking a bite of a taco, and only tasting the tortilla.
3355 Main St. Chula Vista, CA 91911 (619) 476-8005
I specifically stop at El Ranchero for their raspados, or shaved ice. All of their flavored syrups are made from natural ingredients, and consist of mostly fruit based flavors. You can choose to have just one flavor, but it's a lot more fun to make a mixture with a couple of them. My suggestions? Try Jamaica (hibiscus flower) with lime or mango with chamoy.
Mariscos Nine Seas Food Truck
3030 Grape Street San Diego, CA 92102
The prepared Clamatos and fish ceviche from Nine Seas Food Truck, keep me coming back for more. Both items are served in rather large portions. The colorful fish ceviche is light, and chock full of bright flavors, and served with the two tostadas, perfect for scooping up the last bits of the plate. Their Clamato, a clam and tomato based drink, can be a meal on its own with added shrimp or clams. Each sip has the ideal amount of acidity from fresh lime juice, hot sauce, and tomato-clam juice, and never misses the mark.
Fernandez Restaurant & Catering
2265 Flower Ave. San Diego, CA 92154 (619) 818-2277
The exterior of this little eatery boasts a big blue sign that reads "TJ Style Birria" (Mexican beef stew) . Whether you see that sign first, or the long lines out the door, you'll know that you have come to the right place, and once you have tasted their food, the lines won't bother you! You can order the birria inside of an already prepared taco or quesataco. If you would rather build your own tacos, just order the half or full size of the birria meat, which will come with a cup of the broth and lightly fried tortillas. This slowly stewed beef, will just melt in your mouth. Wash it all down with one of their refreshing, made daily aguas frescas.
Tacos El Compita
2172 Ocean View Blvd San Diego, CA 92113 (619) 696-1299
The owners of Tacos El Compita hail from the state of Hidalgo, Mexico. The restaurant began as a small corner taco stand, and then flourished into its larger current location. The massive menu offers burritos and tacos, but I come for their pambazos (salsa-dipped sandwiches), and huaraches. Unlike the "drowned" torta ahogada, the pambazo sandwiches are dipped into a guajillo pepper-based sauce. Made with a soft white bread, and filled with chorizo and potatoes, this is a big portion, and could easily be shared. The fried sandal-shaped masa (corn) base of the huarache has refried beans cooked inside of it, and is topped with meat, green salsa, onions, sour cream, and onions. Save room for this beauty, it is incredibly hard to put down that fork once you have started.
Aqui Es Texcoco
1043 Broadway Ste 108 Chula Vista, CA 91911 (619) 427-4045
Certified by the government of Mexico as "Authentic Mexican", Aqui Es Texcoco is a gem of a restaurant. Across the border, the Tijuana location has been serving for over 20 years, but it wasn't until almost 5 years ago that San Diego residents got to enjoy all that this Tijuana spot had to offer. Traditionally in Texcoco, Mexico, lamb is covered in the leaves of the maguey plant, and slow roasted to mouth watering bliss in an underground fire pit. The owner prides himself on replicating that unique and memorable flavor for each and every person that visits his restaurant.
A great spot for a large group of friends and family, you can choose which part of the lamb you would like to have for your plate of barbecue, which comes with broth and tortillas. And then, it becomes taco making time! Feeling adventurous? Go for the grilled brain tacos, which have a slight bit of heat to their intense flavor. Something less adventurous? Their grilled quail and squash blossom quesadillas are also delightful.
1008 Industrial Blvd Chula Vista, CA 91911
In the same parking lot as the El Pescador food truck, you will find the El Gallito food truck. The tortas ahogadas (drowned sandwiches) here are the closest you will come to replicating this Guadalajara staple. You have the choice of ordering the Classic or Gemma version of the sandwich. You can't go wrong with either one, but the classic remains my favorite. Just make sure to state how mild or spicy you would like the sauce on your sandwich to be, as there is quite a bit of heat with the spicy version. The crusty bread holds up to the chile de arbol based sauce, and filled with well seasoned juicy chopped pork. Don't forget to get some of those pickled onions for extra tang. This little beauty tends to get messy, so I wouldn't recommend wearing your best duds to dinner!