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Jan 18, 2010 09:37 AM

Best Upscale-ish Mexican in San Diego Area?

I've searched the threads, but it's hard for me to discern which are nice restaurants and which are more hole in the walle.
Although I grew up in San Diego, it's been a long time since I've been in town, so I don't know restaurants anymore. I'm looking for a good place where I can go with my whole family for my mom's 65th birthday. The whole family is coming in, and she's craving Mexican, but insists there is nothing good in town and just wants to bring in Don Carlos (which I love, so I wouldn't complain too much).
Anyways, she lives in La Jolla, so I'd love any recommendations for good, non hole in the wall places in San Diego area (i.e. escondido is too far), where ten people, including a 90+ year old grandmother, would enjoy eating.

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    1. re: 4wino

      In addition to Candelas (be sure to check out the new one in Coronado) add El Vitral - - it can be wildly inconsistent but when it's on, it's very good. You could definitely take your 90+ year old grandmother there.

      Another option, tho' not quite as upscale is the El Comal branch in North Park. It's on Illinois, a half block north of University.

      El Agave is still in Old Town and would be a fairly safe choice. There are a lot of stairs at El Agave so if your grandmother has mobility issues, you might want to call first to make sure she'll be able to get into the restaurant.

      If you want to go the other direction (north) there is a contigent on this board that really, really likes Hacienda de Vega in Escondido.

      Fridas in Otay Mesa had kind of a rocky opening but seems to have gotten things on track. I have(Mexican) friends that live in Eastlake and they like it quite a bit.

      If your mother is craving Puerto Nuevo style lobster there is always Ortega's in Hillcrest. Good margaritas, food can be pretty average to pretty good.

      With the exception of El Agave, I think all of the above have fairly easy access, i.e. flat with not a lot of stairs, if the 90 year old in your group has walking or mobility issues.

      1. re: DiningDiva

        EL comal is a great tip.

        You might want to try El Vitral, although it gets heavily mixed reviews.

        1. re: DiningDiva

          A strong second for Ortega's in Hillcrest. Their lobster is okay, but their tortillas, salsa picosa, mole enchiladas, and queso fundido with chorizo and rajas are some other high points (especially at happy hour).


          1. re: SaltyRaisins

            Is Ortega's the same one in Puerto Nuevo?
            I am craving me some lobster wrapped in warm flour tort's with kick ass salsa picosa and a couple of cold Pacifico's..dang, who's in..I'm buying!
            ; )

            1. re: Beach Chick

              Yes, it is the same Ortega's as in PN. Their Margaritas are better than a Pacifico ;-)

              1. re: DiningDiva

                Thanks DD..are the Marg's wine based or the good stuff?
                ; )

                1. re: Beach Chick

                  TEQUILA baby :-)

                  This is a casual/fancy sit down place. Next door to where the Better Half was, across the street from Chilangos.

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    That's what Mamas talking about!
                    Love me a top shelf Marg..
                    Stay thristy my friend...hee hee

        2. re: 4wino

          I would not recommend Candelas. I dined there last month with a friend and was so disappointed. The restaurant is gorgeous and the view amazing but the food is just OK and a bit confusing. The waiter described the food as Mexican food with French influences and techniques and yet the cheese they mostly used was mozzarella and the most prevent side was mashed potatoes!! None of the flavors came together on the plate and certainly did not match the price. All in all, I can't see any reason to go back.

          1. re: sdnosh

            I have never been impressed with the downtown location either.

            When it comes to Upscale-ish Mexican in san diego vs Downscale-ish Mexican in san diego, I will go with Downscale-ish Mexican everytimeish.


            1. re: stevewag23

              When Alta Cocina is done well it is spectacular. Very few places in the U.S. do it well. I had high hopes for El Vitral, but it really missed the mark by country mile.

              Two things to remember when considering Mexican food. 1) Most Americans really have no (or very little) clue as to what real Mexican cuisine is all about; they are familiar with only a small sliver of the depth and breadth it offers. 2) Mexico has long been enamored by many things European and French in particular. It emulated French thought and philosphy in the 1800s and was ruled(and I use that term loosely) by Emperor Maximillian for a short period of time. Through much of the 20th century when Mexicans dined out , they opted for "Continental" cuisine (which you have to be older than 40 to really understand what Continental cuisine was <gg>) which trended strongly to the French.

              San Diego (and we're not alone in this) has got to be the bastion of taco shops and burrito culture. That is such a small portion of the Mexican cuisine, but if it's all people know, it makes for an up hill battle for any other type of Mexican restaurant.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                Great post.

                The other uphill battle that Alta Cocina has in san diego is the cost factor.

                I have heard on more than one occasion (more like a million times), "why should I pay that much for mexican food?!?!?!"

                Usually with a smirk and a puzzled look on the persons face.

                1. re: stevewag23

                  Ok, I'm confused. Is "Candelas" the same as "Alta Cocina"?

                  1. re: Morganna

                    Candelas is a restaurant.
                    Alta Cocina is a style of cooking.

                    It is how upscale, contemporary, non-traditional Mexican cuisine is often described. Alta Cocina is refined vs. rustic even though it usually uses the same ingredients and often times the same methods. Alta Cocina is the Mexican version of haute cuisine.

                    1. re: DiningDiva

                      Ah HAH! Thanks for educating this country girl from the midwest and Vermont. ;)

                      My husband and I are traveling to SD (I have a conference, he's tagging along), and we'll be having four dinners on our own, and no car to get around, so I'm poking around to find things we can't really get hold of in Vermont. I've been perusing threads and I'm looking forward to when the boards change and SD gets its own board! :) I'll probably post something for more guidance in a few weeks. Anyway, the reason I poked in here is Mexican is something we really like, a lot. All sorts from Tex-Mex, to New Mexico, to authentic regional stuff (we've made things at home from some really great cookbooks, though we've had to do some substitutions).

                      Mexican was something I hoped we'd be able to find in SD.

                      1. re: Morganna

                        Mexican you will definitely find here, but it tends to be pretty narrowly defined by the taco shop culture that is specific to San Diego. For as close to the border as we are, the variety of Mexican food isn't that great. Depending upon where you are, and without a car, it might not be terribly easy to get to the good stuff that is here.

                        If you have Rick Baylesses cookbook - Mexico One Plate at a Time - you'll notice that for a lot of the recipes he'll give a traditional rendition of the dish and then follow it with a contemporary version. A lot of the contemporary recipes in that particular cookbook fall into the Alta Cocina category. If you have the cookbook reading the differences can give you a basic understanding of traditional vs. alta cocina.

                        If your conference is downtown at the convention center, Candalas and El Vitral are located there and fall into the Alta Cocina category, tho' neither comes all that close to Alta Cocina in Mexico. El Agave isn't exactly Alta Cocina, but it's certainly not downscale either. It specializes in mole and is reachable via the blue (or green) line trolley to the Old Town transit center and then a short walk or cab ride up the street. El Agave actually does a decent job on their moles but they tend to be inconsistent. They do, however, have a huge selection of tequilas and mezcal flight, as does El Vitral.

                        The new board is really exciting :-). Post your location and questions and you'll get some help I'm sure

                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          We do have Bayless's book, but we usually refer to Nancy Zaslavsky's "A Cook's Tour of Mexico" and use recipes from that.

                          We'll be staying at the Westin San Diego, on Broadway. Planning on going over to Coronado Island at some point because it appears that's where the closest beach is (if we can get there, that is), and we're perfectly fine with taking buses and trolleys and such. :)

                          I'm trying to hold off posting until the new board is up and I can do a really good search of recs, so I'm not covering the same ground loads of folks have covered. :) It's difficult, I am, by nature, a big planner, and I like finding stuff out WAY in advance. :)

                          1. re: Morganna

                            "Planning on going over to Coronado Island at some point because it appears that's where the closest beach is (if we can get there, that is), and we're perfectly fine with taking buses and trolleys and such. :)"

                            You can take the ferry to Coronado and back, which is one of the best, most overlooked things you can do in san diego. Many san diego locals have never even done it.

                            And it leaves from Broadway Pier.

                            Ocean Beach is probably your 2nd closest beach. But most likely you have to drive.

                            1. re: stevewag23

                              You can trolley to the Old Town transit center and get a bus from there to OB, I forget what number.

                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                  Oh sweet! Is there food available near/at the beach or would we need to bring stuff with us?

                                2. re: stevewag23

                                  Yeah, that's what we were planning to do. I even found a page from the Coronado visitor information site that lists places to eat. I was planning on asking what were good places to eat there.

                                  1. re: stevewag23

                                    I second that. My suggestion for an awesome sunday. Walk to the Ferry from the hotel (take a moment to check out the Boats (Midway, Star of India, Carnival Cruiselines) on the Harbor. Hop on the ferry to Coronado. Walk from the ferry landing to Hotel Del (between 1 and 2 miles). check out the evening sunset on the beach. Grab Dinner at either Brigantine (seafood) or Miguel's (Mexican) and then catch a cab back to the Ferry and home.

              2. A lot of people like El Agave in old town, really good service and a bit more upscale. I took my grandma there and she liked it!

                2 Replies
                1. re: jennywenny

                  Thank you all!
                  I'll ask my mom and see what she says!
                  I was also looking into amigo spot, has anyone been there?

                  1. re: dag16

                    I admit I have been to Amigo Spot (for drinks, ok) and I would advise you not to go there.

                    If you are considering El Agave dont worry about access - there is handicapped access via a ramp on Old Town Ave. alongside the restaurant.

                2. Alfonso's in LJ is decent..whats the name of the Mex place next to Carinos?
                  Jose Courtroom LJ..
                  Pancho Villas in PB is excellent but divey.
                  Tony Jacal's in Del Mar or Fidel's..

                  Dining Diva and others have given you excellent advice!