Fancy wimmen are okay, but there's nuttin' like the real thing: a nice warm adobada taco on a nice cold night beside a nice hot grill outside a friendly taco catering truck, with that marinated pork swimming with cilantro and spices and slimy sautéed onions. And a dollar bottle of Sangria Señorial, of course.
Sigh. Is it just me, this wacko taco love affair? I don’t think so. Scratch any San Diegan and they have their secret taco joint, where they go and get their fix from the only taco guy in town who understands how to put together a taco, who appreciates the relationship between meat, salsas, beans, and tortilla.
The real thing is, tacos are right for our town. We’re not about dressing up, formal surroundings, nit-picking over some tiny nouvelle cuisine pile in the middle of a drizzled plate that sets you back 30 buckaroos. Tacos are about good, affordable times for everyone.
This list of faves is in no way anyone’s final word. It’s just a few places that warm ye old cockles of the heart when I think of them or where I drag buddies if I’m in the area. I know you have your list too. In fact, let me know! Then we might get to a top 400.
Actually, am I the only guy in town who hasn’t switched from tacos to burritos, because they stuff more into burritos? Even taco joints now push burritos as their numero uno item. Fat City! That’s what we’re becoming, and I blame burritos, which means “little donkeys,” right? That’s what we’re all starting to look like. No. For me burrito equals boring, most of the time, while “taco,” aah! Taco means tiny taste of temptation. Satisfaction by a thousand different cuts of meat and veggies.
What is it about taco joints? Guys joke about them, about Aliberto’s and Aiberto’s and Taco Bell and the truck that pulls up around six every evening. But when you get the munchies, there is no alternative to a little mess of pork or beef or fish or even tofu tucked cozy and warm inside a couple of those little flying saucers.
3980 Third Avenue, Hillcrest
Come Friday night, about midnight, when all of Hillcrest has got the munchies at the same time, it’s a zoo here, in the liquor-store parking lot, with sideshows galore. The competition’s hot too. Down the street, the Cuervo taco shop (110 West Washington, 619-295-9713) has a reputation for carnitas (slow boiled then braised or roasted pork). But for carne asada tacos and atmosphere in spades, these guys are it. The building’s painted orange and white, with green canopies. It must have been a drive-through in its first life, but now where cars pulled up it has tables in an L-shape around the enclosed kitchen. You still order at the little hole in the wall. Also kinda famous because here is where the Taco Shop Poets held their first meeting. (You haven’t heard of them? Shame! Go find Adrián Arancibia’s Atacama Poems without delay.) Added bonus: breakfasts start at 2:00 a.m. and go till 11:00 a.m. Include eggy breakfast tacos and burritos. And what’s great is the speed. The tacos come through that hole floppy and steaming, spilling shredded lettuce and dripping salsa and beans. And even though traffic-crazy Washington is but a bean-flick away, it seems like another world from here. As long as nobody does anything crazy — no guarantees on some Friday late nights — this may be the funnest spot on the planet to end the workweek. La Posta de Acapulco’s Taco Shop, 3980 Third Avenue (at Washington), Hillcrest, 619-295-8982.
2934 Adams Avenue, North Park
Larry Auman, the kid from New Jersey, has nailed Mexico here. He’s an artist-turned-bartender-turned-chef who traveled a lot down there and wanted to re-create it up here. He named this place after the Aztec goddess of the agave plant, Mayahuel, and he’s painted his cantina’s long room wild yellow and dotted the walls with paintings, skulls, small skeletons, and devils riding donkeys. He also cooks some of the most delicious tacos anywhere this side of the border. Ask for any of four — mahimahi, shrimp, chicken, or tasajo-style, which is jerked beef cut in thin strips, marinated in lime juice and salt, and then seared. I’ve had the shrimp and the beef. It’s a trip sitting at the counter, catching savory whiffs as Larry puts the shrimp and shredded beef on the griddle. He juices them with pineapple and chipotle sauce, prepares double tortillas for each taco, adds shredded white cabbage, carrots, cilantro, salsa, then squiggles sweet and salty Mexican cream and ancho mayonnaise on top, along with a hot sauce he makes himself and calls “à la diabla.” So-o-o delish, and you feel cool eating them here, for some reason. That tangy combo, with the mild jack cheese and the Mexican cream, is just great. The shrimp have a seductive, smoky flavor and look good on the rough brown clay plates. He makes everything here. So the only no-no is asking for a bottle of Frank’s Hot Sauce. Cantina Mayahuel, 2934 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights, 619-283-6292.
6164 El Cajon Boulevard, Rolando
Yes, you’ve been kicked out of better joints than this, but where else can you yell out, “Gimme an Effin beer and a plate of Effin tacos!” without anyone tut-tutting? You get students from State here, working stiffs who’ve made this their local, and George, an IT guy from nearby Platt College who’s “been here since day one,” 12 years ago, holding up the bar and flirting with the baristas. “Taco Tuesday” tacos are $1.50. Try to have Agnes on as the cook because she brings in her own “secret spices” to scatter in the tacos. Yes, they’re basic: flour tortilla tacos with ground beef, cheese, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes inside, but (1) the beef has a good, savory taste to it, (2) they go great with Guinness, and (3) you’ll be able to yell, “These Effin tacos are on me!” if largesse is your thing. Taco Tuesdays at Effin’s Pub & Grill, 6164 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area, 619-229-9800.