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Sep 1, 2009 01:32 PM

Casa Adams = Authentic? (San Diego)

I'm hoping this will be productive, but I admit it is a bit of a rant.

So I went to Casa Adams on Adams Ave in San Diego for lunch. I went there mainly after seeing many five star ratings on another food board, as well as the long parade of people praising it as some of San Diego's best authentic Mexican food.

I was not happy. Not only is the food there pure TexMex style, it isn't even very good at TexMex. Having recently eaten at Super Cocina and El Comal, both within a 5 minute drive from Casa Adams, I found the characterizations of "best" and "authentic" to be very troubling.

I'm having a hard time understanding why San Diego embraces places like this with such passion. The food in SD may suck as many say, but you really don't have to look very far at all to find truly authentic Mexican food. Literally. One more freeway exit and you're right near Super Cocina, Marisco's German, El Comal, Etc.

My beef isn't with Casa Adams. They don't market themselves as authentic regional Mexican cuisine. And the food seems to draw customers, even though it wasn't to my liking. So good for them, and I'm happy to see independent places succeeding.

No, my complaint is at the hordes of San Diego residents who live 30 minutes from Mexico, but seem to actively avoid great Mexican food. Is this why we can't have nice things? I had a whole post typed out for the other board where I spent a long time trying to explain how wrong the reviews were. In the end it just seemed petty and futile.

Is there anything that can be done about this? Seriously, I'm asking. Some grass roots effort? An attempt at online education? Gentle coaxing towards authentic food? Loud praising of San Diego true gems in terms of the authentic cuisine? I'm asking. What can we do?

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  1. I don't say CH is the perfect food discussion board but I am pretty sure you are talking about Yelp and I am not really surprised that you got "misled" by Yelp regarding the quality of food. Just learn from it and look at CH before you go to a restaurants instead of Yelp ;)

    6 Replies
    1. re: honkman

      Well, I was underwhelmed by the food quality, but that really wasn't what my post was about. It's hard to fault them when they give people what they want.

      I'm really looking for some way to reset expectations in San Diego about Mexican food. Real Mexican food. Delicious Mexican food. It seems to me if people had an expectation of truly great food, we have plenty of places that could provide it.

      I really doubt Casa Adams goes out of their way to make middlin' TexMex. That's just what people here think of as great real Mexican cooking. If El Comal is overflowing, and Casa Adams is nearly empty, more places like El Comal will flourish.

      Am I all wrong about this? Aren't places like Ranas, Super Cocina, Tacos El Paisa, Marisco's German, etc better - by nearly every measure - than the Usual SD TexMex? Wouldn't just about anyone like that food more?

      1. re: y6y6y6

        But that is not a problem specific for mexican food in San Diego but related to personal experience (based for example were somebody lived etc. ) vs. public opinion. Just because you (or anybody) has a lot of interest/knowledge about a certain type of food (and its authenticity) doesn't mean that everybody shares the same interest. I saw that you have a food blog about Mexican food which shows that you have an high interest in that style of food and so you are disappointed that other people think different about the quality of Mexican restaurants. But just imagine that somebody else has an interested in another type of food (e.g. Italian) which you don't share. In that case he/she would just shake the head about you how you could eat at Italian restaurant in San Diego and like it. It has a lot to do with personal preferences but also experience. I think everybody who is seriously interested in food will get a more and more mature taste over the years and those posting on CH sometimes forget that a large majority of the population doesn't care what they eat everyday. Most eat to live, some live to eat.

        1. re: honkman

          I agreed completely. And people should be free to like what they like.

          But I do believe, or at least I hope, that if people tried places like Tacos El Paisa it would change their minds about what they liked. Especially given the price difference. To say it another way, I don't think people lack an interest in authentic Mexican food, I just think they lack context and exposure.

          And it's not that I'm disappointed that people's opinions about Mexican food are different than mine. At least I hope that's not the case, as being motivated by sour grapes would be a bit pathetic on my part. To me the motivation is really more about getting people to reset their expectations to something they'll like better. That helps all of us. More customers eating proper adobada means more restuarants trying to do that right and spending less time trying to do California burritos better.

          I admit that may be assumptive and even arrogant on my part, but I honestly think there is truth in it.

          As an example, when she came to San Diego my wife's favorite Mexican food was at OTMC and her go-to order anywhere else was the California burrito. Now those are forgotten as she raves about nopales tacos and conchitas pibil. What I'm saying is - Yes, people's tastes mature, but I think that can be helped along.

          1. re: y6y6y6

            "To me the motivation is really more about getting people to reset their expectations to something they'll like better."

            That's the question. Will people really like it better ? Just to give one example. I have often talked to people about authentic Italian food and encouraged them to test more "authentic" Italian restaurants outside of SD. One complain I have then often heard afterwards for example regarding "authentic" pasta dishes in serious Italian restaurants was that they didn't like it because the pasta wasn't drowned in sauce, they didn't understand the different taste and mouthfeel of freshly made pasta etc. Many of those who went to such more authentic Italian restaurants still tell me that they very much prefer Italian food at places like Filippi's which for them is "real" Italian food even if it has as much to do with Italian food as Roberto's with Mexican food. So it doubt that for a large majority of people you can reset the expectation and that they really would like "authentic" food better.

            1. re: honkman

              One of the most eye-opening experiences of my life was when I moved from PA to CA and saw a Taco Bell. "holy crap, they have those here?"

        2. re: y6y6y6

          A large portion of San Diego's population didn't start here, they've migrated from other areas. If the Mexican food was mediocre where they came from, even SDs underperforming places are still going to look migty good.

          Another large segment of the SD population has never been to Mexico and has no intention of going to Mexico. Their idea of "authentic" (whatever that means) is formed not by actual experience but by their perceptions of what they think Mexican food is, or should be, by watching movies, television, books, cookbooks, and their own palates.

          Mexican food is truly one of the worlds great cuisines. The depth and breadth is breathtaking in it's diversity, not only of ingredients but technique as well. What we get here in SD is but a mere sliver of the true cuisine. If one has no exposure to anything other than Mexican fast food done American-style, or Mexican restaurants serving combo plates buried under a layer of generic yellow cheese they'll have no frame of reference, no way to separate the middle of the road Mexican from the good Mexican. Because perceptions can establish such firm (and sometimes rigid) ideas of what something "should be" many people are disappointed when they don't find "the usual suspects" on the menu.

          And lastly, the "average" resident isn't all that willing to venture into what they oftern perceive to be "questionable" neighborhoods.

          It's not really about taste as much as it is about perception. Change the perception and you'll change where people eat.

      2. > No, my complaint is at the hordes of San Diego residents who live 30 minutes from Mexico, but seem to actively avoid great Mexican food. Is this why we can't have nice things?

        This isn't going to answer your question, but what you describe is something I've observed before in other food contexts. I tend to think of it as a human-condition type of thing. I call it a rush to mediocrity (though from your description of Casa Adams it might be a rush to less-than-mediocrity).

        I live in Fresno. Here we are surrounded by truly outstanding Mexican food in the Latino sections of town & sometimes in the surrounding agricultural towns. Yet half the people who live here think that good Mexican food is Acapulco's Restaurant.

        Moreover, we are also surrounded (literally) by some of the best produce in the country, yet, other than some small-ish farmer's markets in town & a few farms that you can purchase from directly, it's hard to find much interest in that produce here in town.

        It would be easy to attribute this mediocrity attitude to the cultural isolation of places like Fresno & the stay-home-&-mind-my-own-business attitude around here. But when I lived there I observed this attitude even in places like Seattle--a bastion of urban hipidity & otherworldly curiosity. So who knows.

        1. The reviews on Yelp seem awfully similar to one another, so I think there may be a bit of sock-puppetry going on. That said, did you really think a place that has "combination" plates was going to be authentic? From what I can tell, the place sounds like a poor man's Old Town Mexican Cafe.

          One thing you have to keep in mind is that ten years ago, places like Super Cocina, Marisco's German, Mama Testa, etc., did not exist. El Indio was the absolute pinnacle of taco shops ten-fifteen years ago. Now, the people who like that kind of food, who think of "authentic" Mexican, as being the same food they were introduced to years ago, didn't go anywhere. But at the same time, their kids are getting more and more advanced in their tastes, and San Diego is developing some decent food.

          2 Replies
          1. re: jmtreg

            "did you really think a place that has "combination" plates was going to be authentic?"

            It's certainly not a good sign. But I'm trying to get to lots of places in San Diego to find the good stuff and the hidden gems. One of the reasons I wanted to go there is to put the matter to rest for myself.

            And there are good Mexican restaurants that have both authentic dishes and combination plates. I'll humbly submit Casa Del Taco as an example.

            But this is my real point. DiningDiva is spot on - Perception changes would lead to better food options. But how to change perceptions when right now it seems to driven by sockpuppet friendly food boards and newspaper reader polls? How to make authoritative reviews get more exposure? Hell..... I don't know. Maybe Rick Bayless winning the top chef masters thing on Bravo will led more chefs to add some Mexican cuisine to menus.

            1. re: y6y6y6

              Perception changes take time and its blogs and discussion groups like this that change the perception of cuisine. And things are changing in this city. When I grew up, there weren't any good pizza places in San Diego. Okay, there were a few places here and there. But the lion's share of these places, even the highly touted places, were nothing to sneeze at. Today, we've got Bronx and its (possibly better) progeny opening places all over the city.

              Plus, I think as San Diego becomes more Latino, we'll better and better Mexican food.