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Aug 31, 2007 11:43 AM

San Diego - Hillcrest area?

My girlfriend and I are heading down to San Diego for a night. We're staying at a B&B in the Hillcrest area (I think it's called)... so where do we want to eat?

What are the suggestions for a great, fun place for lunch & a nice dinner in the area? We're pretty adventurous and like most ethnic foods. What's in the "casual but shouldn't miss" category?


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  1. terra is a great spot for a nice dinner
    mama testa for a great taco lunch.

    19 Replies
      1. re: Josh

        I'm from LA-- just tried mama testa for lunch yesterday. Ordered the carnitas taco plate, the beef tortilla soup and guacamole along with 2 drinks. Total was somewhere around $20.

        Tacos were alright, tasty but not mind blowing, although the soup was quite good, spicy and rich with generous chili oil, queso and avocado. However the bowl was narrow and shallow, and with tax/tip came to $6+. The plate of 3 carnitas was $7.00+.

        As far as taco stands which cater to gringos go (i.e. lovely decor, on an upper middle class downtown strip, "A" health code proudly displayed in the window) it is quite good. In a place like St. Louis this food would be hailed as masterful, and a bargain at that (I should know-- I lived in Missouri for 5 years for school, before I came to Los Angeles. In that time, my palate has developed considerably!)

        However compared with the multitude of real mexican food found in places like Super Cocina and in taquerias, taco trucks and taco tables all over East LA, (where the food is twice as good at half the price (or less), I'd rate Mama Testa's distinctly below par.

        (By the way, I've been really trying to find the cheap, authentic ethnic food of San Diego, and failing miserably at that:

        and aside from the Asian corridor of Convoy/Linda Vista, I have been having a very difficult time of it.... there *must* be more authentic, ethnic eatiers in the vein of Super Cocina, right?


        Mr Taster
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        1. re: Mr Taster

          Mama Testa's uses higher quality meats and other ingredients than most traditional ethnic restaurants - hence the higher prices. The carnitas tacos are also considered pretty mediocre - that has been mentioned in other posts about the restaurant on this site. It's too bad you didn't try the tacos in broth or one of their other more unusual specialties - you can get better carnitas at several places in town - maybe try El Por Venir Las Cuatros Milpas in Barrio Logan (no carnitas, but they do serve pork) or Carnitas Uruapan in Lemon Grove. (Caveat - I actually tried Carnitas Uruapan on the basis of recommendations on here and I was disappointed, but many respectable people on here like it.)

          I'd also maybe recommend Dao Son and Mama's Lebanese in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego.

          1. re: Mr Taster

            "and aside from the Asian corridor of Convoy/Linda Vista, I have been having a very difficult time of it.... there *must* be more authentic, ethnic eatiers in the vein of Super Cocina, right?"

            Nope. The Mexican food in San Diego is pretty bad. Sure there are taco shops on every 3 corners out of 4 but they have a numbing sameness and other than some good CABs, are usually only so-so.

            Mama Testa does not do carnitas nor al pastor very well, in fact, those are two of the most disappointing things you can possibly order on that menu. I'm assuming by "beef tortilla soup" you mean the Tacos Mojados, which would be lengths of taquitos floating in a spicy, flavorful broth. This is one of the best menu items, but at 105* in the shade and 105% humidity, it's probably the last thing I'd want to order right now ;-). At $6 for the Mojados I rarely leave feeling like I need more, and I'm definitely known as a good eater :-D. The salsa bar is probably the best in town and it's all made in house (something that can't be said for most Mexcian restaurants) as is the chorizo and cochinita pibil.

            I think Mama Testa *has* lost a step of two in the last 7 - 8 months, but one of the realities for any restaurant in the Hillcrest is the steep economics of the area. Rents are high, utilities are high, and there is little available parking. It certainly can't help that Bite is right next door and Baja Betty's, serving gigantic margaritas and large portions of bad food, 2 doors down.

            I can guarantee you a couple of things, 1) the rent Super Cocina pays is probably a third that of Mama Testa and 2) most Mexican restaurants, and nearly all taquerias, are not using free range chickens or organic meats. Menu prices have to cover a lot more than simply the cost of the food, which has gone up incredibly over the last 3 months.

            Mama Testa is not the best Mexican resto in town, nor does it claim to be. Yeah, it's somewhat gringoized and has had to become moreso over that last few months to survive. It's located in a trendy, high-rent neighborhood with a somewhat fickle customer base. Plop it down in City Heights or Chula Vista and I doubt if Mama Testa would survive in its current format, but then it wouldn't have to cater to the narrow expectations of a non-hispanic client base who seem to think that burritos the size of Shawn Merriman's forearm equals a good value and great Mexican food. Sadly neither is true.

            How's your Spanish? For good Mexican you'll either need to cross the border or visit some off the beaten track cities like Chula Vista, El Cajon and occasionally Santee.

            1. re: DiningDiva

              DD--can you explain more how Mama Testa's is going more gringo? We were there in late June and thought they were still pretty much on par. The only thing I've been missing is their tomatillo salsa.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                I must say, it is true that the salsas were quite tasty.

                Just to compare, we did wind up hitting up a random authentic looking taco stand and the results were shockingly mediocre. The place looked like it should deliver the goods... although the more exotic goods (like lengua and cabeza) were not on the menu, they didn't shy away from displaying food names in Spanish, which I took for authenticity. What was delivered however was pretty bad.... I ordered one carne asada and one fish taco. These were not the 2-3 bite tacos that you'd get in LA. Both arrived in an oversized tortilla piled high with iceberg lettuce, orange cheese and guacamole. The one salsa they offered was all heat and no flavor.

                Really, it's quite shocking... I mean San Diego is so close to Mexico... why can't they deliver the goods?

                What places in Chula Vista, El Cajon and Santee would you recommend?

                Mr Taster
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                1. re: Mr Taster

                  There are a few spots in San Diego turning out pretty tasty border-style Mexican food, but I think you're misunderstanding the nature of the Mexican food scene in San Diego. "Mexican food" isn't some monolithic entity, it varies hugely across all the different states in Mexico. If you ate food from Oaxaco, and then food from the Yucatan or Veracruz, you might have no idea they were from the same country.

                  Maine has a food culture of its own that varies dramatically from a place like Los Angeles or Mobile, so the assumption that any given Mexican border town ought to have good fried chicken or meatloaf would be obviously erroneous.

                  The Mexican food popular in San Diego is driven by what the public will support. Taco shops are popular because they're cheap and the food is well-suited to late night drinking binges.

                  Then you have the question of what "authentic" even means. By what standard? Tijuana has a style of street food that is the way it is because of its proximity to San Diego. Several taco shop standards like buche, sesos, and lengua came about because of Mexican border town proximity to American slaughterhouses where these cheap cuts were available.


                  Best Mexican I've had in San Diego, based on what little I know about "authentic" Mexican food:

                  Mama Testa - You ordered one of the few wrong items. If you're willing to give it another shot, try the fish tacos, La Tuya Tinga, the rolled tacos in beef broth, the Yucatecos, or the nopales/oaxaca cheese tacos with ancho chile sauce.

                  Super Cocina - you already know this one.

                  Northgate Market - It's a giant Mexican supermarket, but they have a lunch counter with some good stuff. I had some lamb barbacoa here, and some birria de chivo, and both were really great.

                  Oaxacan place at Escondido swap meet - Don't know the name, but met some fellow 'hounds here for lunch and was really impressed. The tlayuda was awesome, and the habanero salsa was very tasty. It's kind of near the base of the movie screen, to the left of it.

                  El Asadero - This is a butcher shop/lunch counter on El Cajon Blvd. owned by a family from Mexico. The carne asada is top notch, cooked over open flame to order (not grilled on a griddle with oil). The Al Pastor is pretty good, too - comes with pineapple bits. Tacos come on tortillas made fresh to order. Burritos are giant. Beef barbacoa is incredibly good. Carnitas are great as well. This is one of the hidden gems for border-style Mexican food in San Diego, and no yellow cheese is to be found except in quesadillas.

                  1. re: Josh

                    This is a great list... many thanks

                    By the way I am not by any means underestimating the diversity of the regional styles of Mexican food. There's a mini-empire of Oaxacan restaurants here (had my first taste of huitlacoche there... yum), and I've ventured over the border and eaten superb fish tacos at a tiny local roadside stand in Ensenada. (I have yet to find anything in SD or LA which compares)

                    But this is a great list by which to go by for future trips down south. Thanks for the list!

                    Mr Taster
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                    1. re: Mr Taster

                      Can't believe I wrote "oaxaco". :P Embarrassing.

                      Where in LA can I find those places? I visit up there from time to time and would love to check some of those out.

                      1. re: Josh

                        IMO, the best Oaxacan in LA is Monte Alban on Santa Monica west of the 405, but there is a debate in CH land over this.

          2. re: DoctorQuality

            2nd Terra, 3rd Mama Testa's

            also consider California Cusine (I have not been but it gets thumbs up on the board) and Yakitori Yakyudori.

              1. re: ekomega

                A 3rd for YY!

                Here's a chance to sample the food of a small chain whose only location outside of their home city of Nagoya is S.D.!

                If you can, especially if it's just the two of you, try to snag a pair of seats at the bar. It's the best place to fully enjoy the experience, as items will be served to you straight from the grill. (And please don't let it sit on your plate long after it's served. These things can cool-off pretty quickly...)

                1. re: cgfan

                  I can't recommed Terra. Its mediocre fancy food at a medium high price. I went there with my wife on our anniversary based on some good reviews here. Everything comes swimming in a sauce of some sort which overwhelms the main ingredients. I ordered Halibut and it was overcooked and rubbery. I have to admit I like simpler food at a lower price point.

                  It seems that some restaurants here gain a cult status (and we all know who they are) and their name gets repeated over and over again like a commercial on TV. Invariably I am dissapointed when I go to any of these places. Sorry for the rant.

                  1. re: pantani

                    Which restaurants do you like ?

                    1. re: honkman


                      I live in Encinitas and work in Sorrento Mesa. Here is a list of places I frequent that I can tolerate, I am sure some of them will get a bashing by others because we all have different tastes:

                      North County:

                      Roxy - Good vegetarian food.
                      Pizzacato - Good salad (order the Griglia) sometimes ok pizza.
                      Tuscan Sun Deli - Good antipasto and sandwiches.
                      Pizza Nova
                      Fidel's for Tostada Suprema
                      Sansei - Good japanese and salads fast food.
                      Fish house Veracruz - Simple fresh good fish reasonable prices, best fish market around.
                      Karl Strauss - I like the beer, but food is questionable.

                      Italian - Lorna's, Mimmos Italian Village for the salad combo, Lotsa Pasta
                      Indian - Indian Tandoor - Mira Mesa Blvd.
                      Pho - Pho Hoa Cali - Mira Mesa Blvd.
                      Thai - Saffron (I'm ducking for cover)
                      Greek - Cafe Athena, Taste of Lebanon
                      Kabul West - Good lunch in the food court
                      Whole Foods Market - Monster sandwiches with endless options.

                      Thats all that comes to mind

                      1. re: pantani

                        I wish we had a Pizzicato further south. Karl Strauss' beer is really not very good, IMO. The Stargazer IPA isn't bad. I think their food is much better than the beer, honestly.

                        Try Pizza Port sometime.

                        1. re: Josh


                          I don't like all of their beers, mainly I go for the Hefeweizen which I think is pretty good. I also like Red Trolley on occasion. I have been to Pizza Port a few times, its hard to figure out what to get and some beers I have had there are over the top. I should give it another try though, but the Animal House atmosphere is a put off for me. Some people like very strong beer ala Arogant Bastard. I like good strong hops but not something that is melting my tounge.

                          1. re: pantani

                            I hear you. I agree with you on the hefeweizen, too. That's a pretty decent beer. That and their IPA are pretty solid offerings. The rest of their beers taste too much like their proprietary yeast strain for my liking.

                            If you find Port too Animal House, you might want to check out Stone's Bistro. Not all the beers are over the top.

                            At either Stone or Port, you can taste before you commit. Just go up and ask for a taste of whatever sounds interesting to you. All the good beer bars will do that for you.

          3. I think Ranoosh would be nice for lunch, Kous kous, La Vache, Khyber Pass, Ebisu Sushi, Parallel 33 for dinner.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jennywenny

              I stay away from Ranoosh. Its mediocre - which for me feels like a wasted meal. Not the same, by Khyber Pass is really good and you can get your fix of hummus and such.

            2. For something really different, try Pomegranate at 2302 El Cajon Blvd, just east of Hillcrest in North Park. GREAT romantic atmosphere. Russian/Georgian food - who'da thunk it!?

              1. So long as you avoid the City Deli, pretty much any place you choose will be good.

                1. I love La Vache for lunch. They have several tasty salads, including a crab and smoked salmon salad that is loaded with seafood, and yummy French wines by the glass. For dinner, California Cuisine is a favorite -- the Niman Ranch pork chop is always juicy and flavorful. We also love the Afghan cuisine at Khyber Pass. If you like lamb, they have one dish of lamb "stewed" with apricots and served with rice, and another with lamb and sour cherries that are both fabulous (of course they have other options beside lamb).