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Old Town--I know, I know

  • d

I know it's touristy, but what the heck, we'll be tourists, so we are definitely going to spend a few hours at Old Town. So of the restaurants available there, which would you recommend for a meal? I've read over and over on these boards that the Mexican food avialable in San Diego isn't "good" or "authentic," but since we are coming to CA from Philadelphia, it has to be better than what I can get at home! Recommendations for delicious Margaritas are also welcome!

One more out-of-towner question: I've also read on these boards about popular restaurants having lines or long waits for a table. We really hate to wait. At home, we know when the "off-times" are and places for good food where we won't wait so long. Can you share any secrets with me for avoiding a wait? We are visiting during the last week of September, partly because we hope that it is a good time to avoid crowds. Do I still have to expect to wait at popular restaurants during on weekdays at the end of September?


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  1. Go for lunch before noon (11:15-11:30 is best) or after lunch rush (After 1:30) and for dinner 5:00-5:30.

    School is back in so tourists are gone but more locals are around.

    1. We were in Old Town recently on a Saturday night, and it was dead compared to how it used to be. That said, I'd recommend Casa Guadalajara for dining. El Agave is pretty good, too, but they seem to be more hit-or-miss than Guadalajara.

      3 Replies
      1. re: phee

        second guadalajara. my favorite in old town

        1. re: kare_raisu

          Thirding Casa Guadalajara. In my trips to SD, I try to hit it at least twice. I don't care what others on this board thing of SD Old Town restos, I love the atmosphere, and think CG is fantastic! They do an excelent chicken mole, and I -do- love their margaritas!
          Try and get there between 4-6pm, and you'll miss most of the larger crowds, plus you'll have more of a chance to sit outside in the patio and soak up some of that gorgeous San Diego weather!

      2. I recently went to a happy hour at the Alamo, a quick service place at the corner of San Diego Ave and Harney, and it was pretty decent. They have an outdoor patio and serve margaritas. It's just a step up from a taco stand though. I also like sitting at the bar at the Old Town Mexican Cafe for a margarita and some chips and maybe some carne asada tacos or taquitos. The food is middling but it's sort of lively and fun. You can almost always find a seat in the bar in the far left room - and you won't have to wait for that.

        Casa Guadalajara is the last remaining "Bazaar del Mundo" restaurant in the area - it's actually outside the park, on the opposite side of Juan Street and to the left. Someone also told me recently that La Pinata is good, but I've never eaten there. I don't think I've read anything about it on here either - has anybody been?

        I was also at the park on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and it was pretty well deserted. It's sort of a shame really, because I really do think they are trying to do a good job with it. They've got it all done up in accurate historical style - with reenactment actors walking around and lots of educational programs, etc. - more along the lines of a place like Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation. It's sort of hard to compete with the old concept though which was a lot more fun to most people.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Alice Q

          Unfortunately, historical is not what people seem to what...local or tourists. Judging by the number of requests for "authentic" Mexican and fish tacos that this board gets from visitors coming to the city, it would appear that a great many people want to experience the *colorful* Mexican part of San Diego's heritage, not the historically accurate and seemingly bland seaport theme. You know, for the dollar volume of this contract you'd think either State Parks & Recs or Delaware North would have done better surveying. Oh, well...

          1. re: DiningDiva

            So true DD. I remember before the change happened, we used to love to go to Old Town and fight for parking and eat at Casa De Bandini. I went down after the change in ownership and it was a ghost town. They took out all the flowers and color and gave us wood and brown and hitching posts. Even the food servers seemed bland, maybe because the crowds were gone.

        2. We enjoy the Old Town Cafe. Just walking by and seeing the Tortilla Lady making the tortillas or looking at the turning chickens on the fire.....mmmmm. I will even take a break from my cheeseburgers to eat here!

          1. We like el agave. It is busy but they are on opentable so at least you can book it. I'd make sure to listen to the waiters advice on what is good but I've had lots of nice meals there.

            If you want to go somewhere that isnt busy, I've noticed some of the restaurants in hillcrest have been really empty recently, so you could try somewhere in hillcrest.

            1. Spicy Mexican Grille, as previously reported on this board, is very good. As previously stated it is owned by the proprietors of El Agave. Its less expensive than El Agave, still not cheap, but worth every penny.

              1. It's not typical Mexican, but we like Berta's Latin American Restaurant (http://bertasinoldtown.com). It's never been very crowded but the food and the beer are both good.

                1 Reply
                1. re: happensatonce

                  Second this rec...and it's not Mexican at all! Berta's used to have coupons in the in-room tour books for either 50% discount on a second meal or two-for-one (I don't remember). I haven't been to San Diego recently, so I don't know if they're still running them, but it's worth a look. As for crowds...never seen one there.

                2. It's sort of funny. People diss Old Town, but even many of the dissers will say "but I like Casa Guadalajara, El Agave, Berta's, etc." So what is it that people don't like?

                  Well, let's be specific. What people don't like is a restaurant that has "Old Town" as part of its name, maybe one that ends with "Cafe"...

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: RB Hound

                    You can find the answer in DD short summary of the idiocy in the selling out of old town as well as previous posts regarding old town. Its lost its charm albeit faux

                    1. re: kare_raisu

                      Backing up...

                      I wasn't asking why people diss "Old Town"; I was asking why people diss "Old Town restaurants", when 99% of the time it is one particular restaurant they are dissing - so why not be specific? :)

                      1. re: RB Hound

                        Okay, I don't get it, you guys. I'm one of the ones who's going to stand up for Old Town Mexican Cafe. There. I've said it. That's the place my sister and I visit when we go down to San Diego, and we love the margaritas, carnitas, and tortillas. We love the little sweet-smelling limes and freshly-cut avocados that come with the carnitas. We love the tortilla ladies making the fresh corn and flour tortillas in front.
                        And yes, we're California natives and have eaten Mexican food all our lives.

                        1. re: aurora50

                          I've been to OTMC probably 4 times and every time thought it was lame. Fresh tortillas are great, but can be had at a lot of other places, and limes and avocados will be good anywhere. Sorry, just never thought it was anything special.

                          1. re: Josh

                            I have sometimes been required to eat here on and off for more than 20 years.

                            I only get the carnitas and have never been disappointed.

                            1. re: Cathy

                              I see. I don't think I had those on any of my visits. Good to know.

                        2. re: RB Hound

                          My guess(es):
                          >is because there is better stuff outside of old town.
                          > Local chowhounders dont want Chowhounder "Jim" coming from Toronto to Old town and ordering a California Burrito and thinking its "authentic Mexican Cuisine"

                          Regarding the Carnitas at OTMC - they give you an option of fried "nuggets" or shredded - which to you order?

                          Btw I really miss sitting at the old Casa de Pico leather round tables and ordering those cheesy appetizers and some virgin drink with grenadine to Mariachi music as a kid. Probably one of my fondest memories growing up.

                          1. re: kare_raisu

                            I always order the shredded carnitas.

                          2. re: RB Hound

                            just about everything run by Delware North is complete garbage. We're talking take refried beans out of the can, heat in microwave, put plastic like fake cheese on it, serve.

                            1. re: oerdin

                              Aw, come on, tell us how you really feel ;-} Delaware North also has the concession for Petco Park. Food issues and complaints were the biggest single issue the year the new park opened.

                      2. As I have posted before, El Agave and sister restaurant Spicy Mexican Grill are the best Mexican restaurants in Old Town.

                        1. Thank you so much for all of your thoughtful responses. I will be sure to post my review once I have decided where to eat.