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Oct 23, 2006 09:33 PM

Imperial Ave. and University Mexican Food Scene Report (SD)

I spent early Sunday doing a little chow recon of the areas just south and east of downtown. From what I have gathered, this a pretty vibrant little corner if you want some good eats Mexican style.

What sparked my initial interest in the area was that a google maps search for 'tamales San Diego' turned up two locations in the general area; Chipeaneco [25 & Market] and Los Unicos [Imperial].

First stop was the Farmers Market or Plaza del Sol. This is an indoor tianguis or bazzar of sorts. Upon sight of it, my memory recalled a posting fairly long ago on Kirk's world class blog.

There was a tamale lady and her cart ("Juanita's") out front with the usual suspects and champurrado. Inside the grocery store portion, the only thing of real worthwhile note was the fact that they had a sign in the produce section advertising Papalo: the elusive secret ingredient to Cemitas poblanas. Yet this green was no where to be found. Perhaps it shows up only once and a while. There was no Mamey to be found either.

The primary reason why this tanguis is a chowhound treasure is the Mexican food stalls located inside.

The following is a list -to my best recollection- of the food and food-related vendors inside.

- A Pecaderia (fishmarket
)- Guadalajara Tortas Ahogadas stand
- Aguas Frescas, Raspados bar
- Mariscos Restaurant
- Taqueria 'El Guero' (see Kirk's blog)
- Panaderia
- Carnitas Estilo Michoacan Branch (2 other locations incl. adjacent to Super Cocina.)
- Two Restaurants specializing in Guisados

At about 10am on a Sunday morning this place was bustling.

The torta stand also advertised a "Torta Gemma" which I found out from the girl working there to be a torta with carnitas. Any info on this dish? (DiningDiva?)

The most popular stalls looked to be the two rival guisado neighbors with the friendly women pressing out tortillas (old style wooden press) and of course the Carnitas booth (that musky & heavenly scent's allure cannot be broken!).

Regarding the gusiados booths: these -upon observation- looked to rival the holy grail of comida casera in SD: Super Cocina. Devotees of the aforementioned place (JS) should definitely give these two a shot. Especially the one directly across from the Carnitas vendor. What's nice is they even illuminate the stews with little lights, that you can drool over behind the glass. (Its a little dark in there).

I didnt think the panaderia (really like an oven in there) was anything special and the al pastor from the taqueria looked pretty good.

Imperial Ave.
I headed in the direction E. an came across a few mexi-tessens, mini marisco restaurants as well as two restaurants of note:

1. A Guerrenese Restaurant: offers the the tricolore of posoles: blanco, rojo, & the rare verde!

2. The first actual 'Birreria' i've came across in SD (Plentiful in LA proper). I believe called "La Nortena"

I stopped into the the El Salvordeno restaurant next to the Guerrero Restaurant. Why? Because it was PACKED. Only one waiter and helper running around with the ladies on view patting out papusas. Had to order a tamal de Gallina for comparison purposes (WBP in Escon.) to go. $1.75. Creamy, potatoes present but no chipilin herb. Overall: Just good.

The tamale joint Los Unicos had a BBQ going out front with chickens. I entered and talked with the ladies but the only banna leaf wrapped tamal they had (Puerco en salsa roja) was not ready.

I returned back to the car then headed north to 25 and Market for Tamales Chiapaneco. There was a very friendly young guy working in there with excellent english. I inquired about the name and indeed - they are from Chiapas. But they havent put any Chiapas food on the menu, however the will to do so in the near future is there! hurray! In the meantime he told me that his mother works at the cocina of a mexitessen that I passed on imperial (which had a Tamale Chiapaneco cart out front), where his mother works and sometimes prepares dishes from chiapas (the grocery store start with a 'P').

Unfortunately the tamales I want Pollo en mole negro wouldnt be ready till late afternoon. Emptyhanded yet again. Will be back though.

Next stop: University Ave: Super Cocina Pilgrimage

I shouldnt have eaten that tamal because man do those things fill you up, but I couldnt resist my favorite restaurant. So I just indulged in just a taco of what I took to be the special of the day, Puerco en mole verde. Wonderfully dreamy dish. Bright green and rich (always have had chicken moles).

However in full disclosure; I must say although this dish was so very good, it wasnt more complex than what I have prepared previously using a Dona Maria Mole verde, which is one of my favorite supermarket shelf products. I was just expecting a little bit more complexity as I know everything is made from scratch there.

Final note: there is a Mariscos Nayarit place down the street that looks like it would be a winner. You can hear the place down the street, live band, tables jam packed with families.

well, there you have it. Congratulations if you made it to the end...haha/

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  1. LOL - you and Gayla REALLY should get together and compare notes on the foods of Baja. You're both so knowledgable!

    1 Reply
    1. re: phee

      Thank you phee....I'm only an amateur with a great interest in the cuisine, culture and people of mexico.

      Not many people (anyone really) I know share similar interests, so exchangining notes with anyone with similar passions is a pleasure/

    2. You can find papalo at Northgate along with mamey. I'm surprised you didn't make it there, you were so close. Take the 43rd St. exit off the 805 and you're there. 43rd is the exit just past Imperial.

      Torta's Gemma? That's a new one for me, sounds like I need to check it out.

      Marsicos Nayarit is supposed to be pretty decent, though I can't speak from personal experience. It's one of those places that's on the list to try, but I never quite manage to get there. I drove by it on Saturday and actually remarked to my passenger that I wished he like seafood because I wanted to try the place. Frutilandia a block or two west of Mariscos Nayarit is also supposed to be worth a visit.

      The El Salvador restaurant on University just West of the I-15 is the original store of the people that run the Salvadoreño restaurant in Escondido. I've had the pupusas at the University Ave. store and they were pretty good. It's next to a Gilbertos market and both of them looked pretty divey on Saturday. Two of the windows on El Salvador had been boarded up.

      And,per your request in the Michoacan thread, there is a new post at on making enchiladas. It even comes with pictures ;-)

      9 Replies
      1. re: DiningDiva

        I really regret not making it to Northgate, especially after reading your great post. I am not too familiar with the area, and I thought it may have been much further south. Have you been to El Tigre? How does it compare.

        Is Fruitilandia a paleteria? I've heard of a Oaxacan smoked leche nieve, that Ive been meaning to try.

        Maybe one day we can organize a SD chow dinner at Nayarit?

        I also saw the blue El Salvador restaurant with the boarded up windows, wanted to go in but I had already been to the one on Imperial. Have you tried the 'loroco' papusa? It seems kind of unique.

        Are you a fan of Birria de Chivo? It is -hands down- my favorite mexican dish. Do you have any SD reccomendations?
        And I just read your latest wonderful post on your blog DiningDiva. I wish they had people like you writing for the newspapers, their writing more often than no have no substance and soul as yours clearly exhibits.

        I looked up Atole de Grano after reading it on your post. I am a sucker for anything anise, seems delicious. Have you ever made it?

        1. re: kare_raisu

          I like cabrito and I like goat birria. Cristina and her friend Darryl spoiled me for birria when I visited her in Guadalajara 3 or 4 years ago. They took me to a restaurant called El Chololo, which is south of the GDL airport on the road to Ajijic.

          El Cholol is an enormous barn of a place, capable of holding probably 1,000 patrons. The restaurant does one thing, and one thing only, birria. And that birria is goat. The (goat) consume comes first and with it the usual plate of chopped onion, cilantro and lime wedges so that you can doctor it up how ever you like.

          Then comes the goat. The goats are roasted, then glazed (as in glazed with the meat juices) and finished in very hot ovens to produce meat that is soft and tender underneath a thin, crunchy exterior. Wrapped in a corn tortilla with some of the table salsa, it's a fine taco. There are dueling mariachi's, the liquor bottles come to the table with a line marking the level of the liquor and you pay for what you drink. There is playground equipment for the kids, making this a typical destination for a family Sunday. I'm almost afraid to try anything else because I always think it will pale by comparison no matter how good it is.

          But goat is not my favorite meat. That designation goes to the pig. Emeril is right, pork fat rules. And Mexicans know a thing or three about doing pork. There is something very satisfying about pork for me that I find lacking in goat, or lamb for that matter. The word unctous comes to mind to describe pork for me.

          El Tigre is even further from me than Northgate. There's the one in Escondido/Vista and one just about the last exit before the border. I live by SDSU, either location is a mini-road trip, or at least a serious schlep. Someone else will have to fill you in on the differences. I've got an employee who has shopped at both and much prefers Northgate. I actually perfer the meat counter at Pancho Villa market (El Cajon Blvd. where it crosses the 805) to Northgate's meat counter.

          I believe Frutilandia is more than a nieves place. If I recall, it's actually more of a smoothie/licuado type of establishment.

          Leche Quemada is only one of many wild and unusual ice cream flavors. It translates literally as burned milk, and I think it has more to do with the caramelization of the milk sugars than smoking the milk ;-). The famous nieveria in Oaxaca is El Chiguita, made famous in season I of Rick Bayless' One Plate at a Time. It's in the 20th de Noviembre market and is refreshing. All their nieves are made with purified water. Now, they do smoke pasilla chiles in Oaxaca and these really are special.

          As for the atole de grano, Cristina has been trying to wheedle the recipe out of the ladies in Patzcuaro that serve it. So far, no dice. Nor has a search of a large number of cookbooks, some common, some obscure, or the Conaculta series turned up a recipe. Compared to a lot of traditional Mexican foods, it is very light and subtle. Fennel is not common in Mexican cooking and for the atole de grano uses only the delicate fronds.

          Thanks for your comments about the blog, I appreciate the feedback and am glad you find the posts helpful. Take some time to read "Cuisines of Mexico"or "The Art of Mexican Cooking" by Diana Kennedy, or Rick Bayless' "Authentic Mexican", which was his first book. Both of these authors really know their stuff and their early books, written before they were famous, are a wealth of information, containing almost as much prose as recipe. Both of them are literate, with a style that is easy and approachable. "Cuisines of Mexico" is currently out of print, but not that hard to find; it should be available at your local library.

          1. re: DiningDiva

            I'm in search of a good goat Birria. Prepared as described at El Cholol. Any in San Diego county that you have run across?

            1. re: koreansoup

              Super Cocina makes an excellent birria de chivo. They have it daily.

              1. re: Josh

                Josh, I'm not sure Super Cocina does it the way Koreasoup wants it. El Chololo is a massive birria restaurant just south of the Guadalajara airport and their birria de chivo is very distinctive. It's more of a long slow roast then finished with a secret blend of seasonings so that the exterior has a slight crunch to it but the interior is incredibly soft and tender. The consume that comes with it has tremendous depth of flavor. A lot of the birria served in SD is soupy/stewy which doesn't describe the version served at El Chololo which truly is out of this world. Served with those fragrant, hot off the comal corn tortillas, you put some goat in them along with the ubitquitous chopped onion and cilantro, roll it up, dip it in the consume and you're in hog heaven...uh, make that goat heaven.

                I have not found anything in SD that remotely resembles the El Chololo birria de chivo. I'm hungry for it.

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    Hey guys,
                    Thanks for the reply....
                    True... it might not be exactly what I'm looking for.. Though, it might give me the temporary fix I need.

                    I knew super cocina served Birria (or so I heard), but I didn't know it was everyday. I didn't remember seeing it last time I was there.....

                    1. re: koreansoup

                      It'll depend on the time of day you get there, it sells pretty fast.

                      1. re: koreansoup

                        It's a daily item. It's delicious, IMO.

          2. That Salvadoran Restaurant is good, isn't it? It used to occupy the space next door, and the new digs are pretty nice. The waiter most of the time is(or used to be), a really nice Guy named Erasmo.
            I've had the Birreria on my list to check out, but haven't made it yet.
            My wife really enjoyed the Tamales from Juanita's cart, the older gentleman minding the cart on our two visits didn't speak any English, and tho' I knew what we wanted (de res, etc...), when He told me the price I couldn't understand, which I thought was pretty funny...I can order food, but can't count! So we just handed Him some money, and he gave us change!

            Imperial Ave, is really interesting....I'm surprised you didn't run into any Little Old Ladies selling Tamales on street corners.

            El Salvador Pupuseria Y Restaurante, was once voted by PBHomey to be the ugliest restaurant in San Diego, but I enjoy the food there....also it's nice to note that all the loud video games that once occupied an entire wall are gone.

            4 Replies
            1. re: KirkK

              Well, I'd vote with PBHomey on this one, El Salvador Pupersia is pretty darned ugly, especially now that it's got 2 windows boarded up. But, hey, what can you do, really, with an old Pizza Hut ;-D. I thought it looked a little dicier than usual this past Saturday. Have you ever stuck your head in the market next door to it. I haven't, and I'm curious.

              I've also tried their chicken soup, which comes with a really good chicken leg quarter that is served separately. The chicken has been cooked until the meat is very tender and the skin crackling crisp. If we had many gray and dreary days, this would be a sure bet to warm you up inside. Not likely when it's 80* for Halloween.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                The way you describe the chicken soup Dining Diva sounds very enticing. Contrast in textures - as you describe the chicken leg - is always someting I am on the look for. Do you know how it was cooked? Is it a tomato, chile or just chicken base?

                1. re: DiningDiva

                  I teach in the area 4 nights a week and your right DiningDiva, the place got uglier...if that was possible! The place lost a couple of windows, not sure how. But in that area, anything could have happened. I eat there about twice a month and the food is always good. It’s kind of funny, when I mention “pupusa” to my Mexican students, they just laugh like I said a naughty word.

                2. re: KirkK

                  I agree with you kirk --the restaurant is very attractive. The space formerly occupied must be the Guerrenese restaurant. I wonder how their posole verde is?

                  By all means, please do check out the birreria! Id love to read a post on your site from there. There is nothing more I love than restaurants that specialize in one dish, and one dish only. Paves the way for excellence.

                3. Did a little recon sweep today to the Farmers market. Man, is that place busy than ever! All the suspects above are still operating busily.

                  Regarding the Tortas "Gemma" - a year later with much more courage and better spanish I was able to ask what the difference was from an Ahogada. Apparently the chile in the bathing sauce is the only variable changed. Ahogada is in the typical tomato based arbol sauce - where it gets its spiciness, while chipotle is used instead for a Gemma - the lesser known jaliscan cousin.

                  The lady who makes the best handmade tortillas that I have tasted in SD is still at her station at one of the guisaderias.

                  The Carnitas Estilo Michoachan vedor still had some "variety" meats at 1pm.

                  We watched the impressive cocktel operation at the Mariscos place. Kind of interesting how there is a definite process to doing it. A man who was wating for his Sinaloan aguachile - explained this dish to us.

                  A chowdown will be great here -- if we can snatch a table!!

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: kare_raisu

                    Based on this thread, the last time I was in town I stopped in the Imperial Ave Farmers market to check it out. If I remember correctly, it was a pretty fantastic collection or primarily cooked food and random clothing and stuff (rather than fresh produce, etc). I think it was mid-afternoon. Is my recollection correct that there isn't a true farmer's market or was I there too late in the day? I'll be back in town in a few weeks and one thing I'm hoping to do is stock up on bulk dried chiles. Other activities on the list will be sampling carnitas and heading back to Super Cocina -- I'd like to give a big nod to this board for pointing me there -- I grew up in SD, but there was nothing like that (that I knew of) at the time; now I have proudly recommended it to friends who head out to SD and ask where to go. Thanks SD 'hounds for keeping me updated.

                    1. re: chilibaby

                      The Imperial Ave Farmers Market is exactly as you recollect - food stalls and sundries. If you want chiles, you can find what you want at virtually any Mexican market in town. If you're inclined, the Northgate Market will have what you need. I typically head to Tijuana for my dried chiles, however, you can find virtually any chile you need from anchos to piquins at the Escondido swap meet. Do a search on the swap meet or the Northgate, they've both been featured often here.

                      1. re: deckape

                        Thanks for confirming. The leads are good to know, especially Northgate which sounds great. I like to make it to Mexico but will be short on time this time, thus likely will forego the trip.

                        1. re: deckape

                          where do you buy your chiles in Tijuana....Mercado Hidalgo?

                          1. re: kare_raisu

                            Yes, directly after I pig out at Tacos el Gordo...leaving room for either carnitas or the birria from the mercado. Lots of good stuff in that little market, too bad the crossing has turned into such a nightmare...even walking through has turned into a two hour slog.

                            Dried beans, too, lots of dried beans for the larder.