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May 20, 2013 08:22 AM

What are the distinguishing traits of San Diego-style Mexican Cuisine?

A NorCal native wants to know -- what would you say differentiates San Diego's Mexican food? I have many friends from SoCal who claim that the Mexican food is much better than up here (SF Bay Area), but they have yet to properly articulate to me exactly why.

Looking at Yelp photo albums has given me some clues -- scallop tacos sound amazing, it looks like a lot of menu items get a final deluge of cotija or other grated queso, and then there are the rolled tacos, which look to resemble what I know as a taquito.

Thanks in advance for your illuminating responses!


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  1. SD Mexican food falls almost exclusively into the taco shop genre. Simplicity is the key. Few ingredients, sometimes good flavor, key trait is that it's CHEAP. There is a very small market for mid-to upper end Mexican food.

    If your friends are talking about something other than tacos, burritos and combo plates, then, yes, the Mexican food in SF probably far exceeds San Diego.

    A carne asada burrito in SD is very, very hard to beat and they're usually pretty good from joint to joint. No rice, no beans, no laundry list of other choices to stuff into the burrito, just a stretchy tortilla with some chew, grilled carne asada, a hit of guac and pico, add the house salsa of your choice. Mission-style burritos are nice, but a SD CAB is better.

    Tortas? Not too many places, though the ones we do have are pretty good. Tamales? check. Mole? Mayahuel & El Agave, check. Mariscos? In spades at all price ranges from the $1.25 fish taco at El Pescador to a Gobenador eaten standing in the parking lot at Grape & 30th, to TJ Oyster House and Los Arcos, if it comes out of the ocean, some Mexican restaurant in SD is doing a pretty decent job with it. Pozole? check. Guisados? check. Tortillas from nixtamal? check. Mexican sweet breads? check?

    He's the issue with Mexican food in SD, you've really gotta dig to find the good stuff. It's easy if you're in South County because some of the best options are there. San Diego has a completely different mindset about food than does the Bay Area. It's much harder for restaurantuers looking to do something other than tacos, burritos and combo plates, to get a strong enough toe hold to survive in the taco shop culture we have here. As a result, we don't have the diversity that exists in Mexican cuisine here as much as other areas spite of being right on the border.

    But, SD does have one thing going for it that SF doesn't and that is our proxcimity to Tijuana and Baja. It is an easy trolly right to the border and some of the most interesting a creative food in the area right now. It's so easy to just go spend the day doing a taco crawl, or sampling local craft beers or wine, or crossing to have a very nice upscale meal at a very reasonable price. The good news is that a growing number of SD chefs are exploring Baja and coming back and introducing some of the ingredients and dishes they're eating SOB in their restaurants NOB.

    I don't know that you can really say the Mexican food in one area is "better" than another. They're different because the food culture and attitudes in the two areas are pretty different.

    Oh, and rolled taco = taquito = tacos dorado...all one in the same.
    Flautas = rolled tacos made from a flour tortilla.

    Here's the link to a recent discussion that has an embedded link to a pretty decent list of good places to have Mexican in SD.

    7 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva

      Hi DD

      Is Aqui es Texcoco and El Charco an example of Mexican/San Diego or are they more Mexican regionally authentic?

      1. re: Gypsy Jan

        Texcoco and El Charco are stellar examples of regional Mexican being done well in SD.

        For some of the cross over stuff, I was thinking more of Chad White's pop-ups, Jay Porter's feature dinners at El Take it EZ and so forth.

          1. re: Fake Name

            I know :-(. At least they did some interesting Mexican food while it lasted

            1. re: DiningDiva

              Si. Somos pequeños pobres.

              I miss Don Marios for the same reason. His shrimp diablo was super.

      2. re: DiningDiva

        Wow, thank you for such a detailed response! I'm really starting to get a better picture here.

        1. re: DiningDiva

          DD - Thanks for one of the best overviews of San Diego area Mexican - the highs and lows both - that I've come across in some time. Nicely done.

        2. Agree with Diva...our access to Baja Mexican cuisine, particularly seafood (inlcluding not only tacos, but great ahi tostadas, pulpo, gobernadores), the original caesar salad recipe from Tijuana, great and affordable wines coming out of the Guadalupe Valley near Ensenada, as well dishes from the Puebla/Mexico City area with mole sauces.

          1. Typical San Diego Mexican is a subset of Cali-Mex/Tex-Mex. The main difference is no beans or rice in the burritos, and the beef is shredded v. ground.

            As casual taco/burrito joints go, San Diego is great. However, as DD points out there really isn't a great deal of variety reflecting other regional Mexican cuisine -- although it's out there if you look.

            As to which is better...

              1. Last year we relocated to SF from SD and there are a couple of places here that make Mexican stuff every bit as good, if not even a bit better, than you can get in SD (keep in mind for a while I was in agreement with your acquaintances).

                Garaje in SOMA has food that's a bit more upscale than an SD taco shop, but the flavors are on the money.

                Another good spot is Don Pisto's in North Beach. Their al pastor and fish tacos are fantastic, and beat anything in SD while being similar in approach.

                6 Replies
                1. re: Josh

                  Yeah, after a while, one's palate becomes "dumbed-down" and willing to accept inferior imitations of high-quality foods.

                  After a while, one will be willing to accept nearly anything, like rice in burritos.

                  1. re: Fake Name

                    You must have missed the part where I had written off the Mexican food up here. :-)

                    As you have often confessed, with your low tastes and lack of sophistication you might not really be able to appreciate the greatness of the Don Pisto's al pastor taco, or the Garaje Cadillac taco, but I hold out hope that one day you will comprendo.

                    1. re: Josh

                      Al pastor? Garaje Taco?

                      Are these not made with commodity meat?

                      The Cadillac w/ Carne Asada, Gulf Prawns, Jack Cheese & Guac on a La Palma Corn Tortilla

                      Gulf prawns? Prawns? Have we moved to Florida?

                      1. re: Fake Name

                        Not commodity meat, no (as the price tag should've indicated). This *is* San Francisco, don't forget.

                  2. re: Josh

                    Thanks for the recco's -- I'll have to try out Garaje with my brother for lunch sometime, and check out Don Pisto's for a nicer night out!

                    1. re: Josh

                      Josh, no one has posted about Garaje on the SF Bay Area board yet. It would be great if you'd share your take, please.