2496 Broadway, Golden Hill
As a longtime San Diego resident, I’ve often been puzzled as to why, in a city full of amazing Mexican food stands, anyone would go to Taco Bell or Jack in the Box. Why order a tasteless corn shell filled with ground-up, premade “meat-matter,” when you can get fresh, made-to-order carne asada tacos with guacamole made from real avocados? That’s one of the joys of living in this border city.
I live close to not one but two such places. Humberto’s, on the northeast corner of 25th and Broadway, makes a mean bean, cheese, and guacamole burrito, served with either a smoky red or a zingy verde salsa. Los Reyes, on the northwest corner, satisfies even more, with its freshly prepared meat and seafood dishes.
Family-owned since 1993, Los Reyes is a fixture atop Broadway, in the heart of Golden Hill. While the restaurant’s ambiance leaves a lot to be desired, the friendliness and professionalism of the staff make up for the sterile dining area, which still bears traces of its former life as a fast-food drive-thru. In fact, it’s still often best to get your food to go, as the dining room can be overflowing with families and workers from downtown and the shipyards stopping off for a quick meal before heading home.
Los Reyes’ popularity comes from its fresh, well-seasoned fare. It bills itself as a seafood place, and dishes like Camarones al Mojo de Ajo ($8.49) — a garlicky, buttery shrimp concoction that comes with rice, beans, and your choice of corn or flour tortillas — are tasty, even if the crustaceans occasionally can be a bit rubbery. A savory crust surrounds whitefish fillets in the fish tacos ($2.79 each) and burritos ($3.99); both come with cabbage, pico de gallo, and a well-rounded, crema-based dressing. On summer evenings, the tacos go well with an icy beer on your front porch.
On a wintry afternoon last weekend, however, my son, husband, friend Brian, and I craved something more substantial from Los Reyes’ extensive menu. As usual, we decided on takeout, since there weren’t any open tables — there was also a loud soccer game blaring on the TV in a corner of the seating area.
We got our food and traipsed home to chow down. Brian is a chilaquile aficionado, so even though it wasn’t breakfast time, he opted for Los Reyes’ version with verde sauce ($5.49). The portions here are gargantuan — when Brian took his container out of the bag it easily weighed over a pound. With thick-cut tortilla chips, scrambled eggs, and salsa verde, the chilaquiles, even without sides of rice and beans, is enough for two meals. Left on the grill longer than most, the chips are crunchy and chewy, redolent of the sauce and the pico de gallo with which they are fried. Brian gave me a bite, and I was impressed. All too often, with chilaquiles, the sauce is added too late, and they end up soggy. These held their shape to the last bite.
My son’s rolled potato tacos ($2.79), however, didn’t hold their crisp for long. Then again, he ordered them smothered in guacamole, crema, and cheese. These are serviceable, the potatoes lightly seasoned, not too spicy for little ones. But I couldn’t help thinking of the carbs they contained. They wouldn’t be my first choice.
As my husband unrolled his carne asada burrito ($4.49) to slather on salsa procured from Los Reyes’ salsa bar, the scented steam coming off the meat made my mouth water. He grudgingly gave me a taste. Meltingly tender strips of beef mixed with peppery red salsa and creamy guacamole. Meats are where Los Reyes shines. Arrayed in warming trays underneath the glass-fronted counter, the crispy carnitas, buche (pork stomach), and brick-red al pastor leave nothing to the imagination: what you see is what you get. Los Reyes prides itself on order and cleanliness, and there are no mysterious crusty bits to make you doubt the restaurant’s A rating. The carnitas, carne asada, and pollo asada can all be ordered by the pound, family-style, for $11.99.
My order of pollo asada sopes ($4.99), with beans, guacamole, crema, lettuce, tomato, pico de gallo, and cheddar cheese would put any fast-food place’s “tostadas” to shame. The sopes are three small but substantial corn platforms — thick tortillas, crunchy and chewy, and piled with fillings. They go down like hefty open-faced tacos. Pollo asada is the perfect meat, not so moist that it bogs down the base. The beans hold things together just long enough to take a bite. This is messy, messy food, but deeply gratifying.
So, while Los Reyes doesn’t come close to El Agave or Barrio Star — or even Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Cafe — in terms of ambiance, service, authenticity, or creativity, it does transcend the usual stand fare. With nary a chalupa in sight. ■
Los Reyes Mexican Food 2496 Broadway, Golden Hill, 619-231-0716
Vibe: spare, brightly lit inside dining; great takeout
Fare: Mexican seafood; tacos; burritos; combo plates; jugos naturales
Seating: 9 tables inside; 4 patio tables
Must Try: Chilaquiles verdes; sopes with pollo asado; breakfast burrito; anything with carne