Raw tacos? Sure, but there’s a whole package that comes with the idea. These are the folks who brought you raw flaxseed burgers and raw walnut mushroom meat loafs. The tacos look like tacos, but they taste of smoky chipotle, a little molasseslike. Their main filling is a nut “meat” made out of almonds and walnuts and sun-dried tomato, chipotle, and avocado. And yes, there is a Mexican connection. A dynamic little lady named Cristina Guzmán from Mexico City pioneered the raw thing in Chula Vista four years ago and now has three restaurants that serve raw-only food. Her message: “Enzymes!” Seems enzymes help your body turn food into energy. But cooking food over 105 degrees Fahrenheit starts destroying them. The staff makes everything here, even their own salsa fresca. “We make the ‘sour cream’ out of almonds and lemon juice,” says Angie, one of the place’s vegan missionaries. So you sit up to the green mosaic counter in a cheery, airy space with dangling lights and walls of live plants filtering that city air for you. Chomp in, guilt-free, knowing no animal has been sacrificed at the altar of your appetite. (’Course plants, like the dehydrated tomatillos, corn, and the nopale cactus that go into the tortillas themselves, have been.) Angie says she gets other benefits, aside from the new taste. “Since I switched to the vegan lifestyle,” she says, “my energy levels have been through the roof, and specially with raw foods, it’s like electricity through your veins.” Cilantro Live, 3807 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-325-1949. Also in Lemon Grove and Carlsbad.
30-A, Avenida Ermita-Norte, Fraccionamiento Santa Cruz La Mesa, Baja
Sweet tacos? Imagine. First bite: corn tortilla, shrimp, pineapple, raspberry, walnuts, orange slices — this may be the most original taqueria in the galaxy. Either side of the border, anyway. Javier Campos Gutiérrez started up in business in this faded but respectable Tijuana neighborhood of Santa Cruz La Mesa off Agua Caliente as a hole-in-the-wall taco joint. Now Tacos Salceados — though everybody calls it by the street it’s on, Tacos la Ermita — has grown to a large curbside café, packed every night plus lines outside. Why? Two big reasons: quesatacos and taco dulce. For his quesatacos, he throws a handful of shredded cheese onto the hot plate, then glues a corn tortilla to it and adds shrimp, then slices of avocado, and creams a pinkish dressing over it. Sloppy and delicious. The cheese is grilled till it’s almost crackly against the tortilla. The pink dressing, salsa de camarón, gives it richness. The avocado gives it squelch. Oh man, it works. But don’t leave yet. The taco dulce looks like a kind of crepe. Inside, it has shrimp with pineapple, and raspberry sauce oozes all over the top. Chopped walnuts are scattered everywhere. Mint and garnishes of orange slices make it look fit for a king. Twice when I’ve gone, I’ve met people who came all the way down from L.A. for this. What, you’re still here? Tacos Salceados, 30-A Avenida Ermita–Norte, Fraccionamiento Santa Cruz La Mesa, near Calle Barburias del Mar, off Agua Caliente Boulevard, Tijuana. No phone.
3201 Thorn Street, North Park
Charming ex–San Diego streetcar is now a restaurant in Barrio Logan. This is not smart, and it’s not in a smart part of town. That’s partly why it’s so great. Go for the fish tacos, or if you’ve got bread, the breaded shrimp or fried tilapia. Mainly, go to catch the atmosphere of San Diego, circa 1890. This wagon has been off its wheels and serving food since 1948, when Detroit’s campaign to destroy light rail in San Diego won out. El Carrito is currently closed for redecorating. It will reopen on February 15. El Carrito, 2154 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan.
3695 India Street, Mission Hills
Some folks say El Indio sucks and that it survives on its reputation as just about the oldest taco place in town (it started in 1940) and as the inventor of taquitos. They say it’s on the tourist circuit so it’s always full of know-no-better turistas from Kansas or the cruise liners docked for the day. Or else it’s great-aunts bringing great-nephews and nieces to show them where they hung out when they were kids. Or else, politicians coming to press flesh and be seen in Latino settings. I dunno. Maybe I’m a sucker for history and atmosphere, but I kinda like the place. Actually, I kinda love the place. It’s your grandpa’s San Diego, alive and well, and not pandering to the more sophisticated, “contemporary Mexican” tastes of our smarter age. Just think. This is an original tortilla factory. One of the first. And the guy, Ralph Pesqueira Sr., the present owner’s dad, invented the damned tortilla-making machine that still cranks ’em out every morning. Not only that, Ralph invented taquitos. Maybe San Diego’s greatest culinary invention ever!
So when I find myself up at the top of India Street, I at least get a bag of El Indio’s homemade tortilla chips and three or four salsas. Dammit, these much-hyped chips are good. No, great. Rough, salty. You see tables full of people sounding like firecrackers, eating nothing but, with a couple of the salsas, which also don’t suck. The taquito, of course, is a must. Tight-rolled, deep-fried, with shredded lettuce and beef or chicken inside. Or how about those mordiditas, bite-sized, chopped-up taquitos covered with nacho cheese and slices of jalapeños? Wicked. Cholesterol City, probably, but go-o-od. Also, their fish tacos are at least as tasty as fish tacos at Rubio’s, and their shredded beef tacos are fine. ’Course, you need time. It’s always been crowded. The only difference between eating now and eating 50 years ago is they have plenty of inside eating space and a new fountain courtyard outside. But stuffing your face under the trees on the breezy traffic island can’t be much changed, apart from that river called I-5 whisking between you and the bay. El Indio Mexican Restaurant, 3695 India Street (at Winder), Midtown, 619-299-0333.
1351 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Tacos El Gordo