789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Earlier this week I had a chance to preview the new menu from Puesto at The Headquarters, slated to soft open on Tuesday, November 19th. I’ve eaten at the La Jolla location and the Puesto food truck several times. It’s always been fresh, innovative and delicious. I was curious whether the new place would also serve their unique take on Mexican street food.
Owner Eric Adler, despite the bustle of construction around us, provided a tour of the 4,500-square-foot, two level space, featuring two large outdoor patios, a communal dining area for, a mezzanine overlooking the lounge, and a cozy dining room. The Thomas Schoos design includes beautiful murals by graffitist Chor Boogie.
The cocktail program, designed by mixology powerhouse Queen-Conner-Ward Collective, serves up a number of inventive libations. The Puesto Perfect Margarita is strong and tangy with juicy lime, add on a strawberry or mango fruit ice and your drink will slowly turn into a slushier, fruitier concoction as it melts. Another favorite of mine was La Verdad, freshly pressed nopales, agua fresca, lemon and tequila blanco. Brilliantly green and brightly herbaceous, it was dangerously delicious.
I was stoked to see wine from the Valle de Guadalupe on the menu, and plans are to include several more offerings from this underrated region. Also planned is a happy hour to attract locals after work, but details hadn’t been finalized.
Diners in a hurry can grab a salad, bowl, or some tacos from the service bar and sit in designated areas outside or in. In the full service dining areas, antojitos include tostados de pulpo, vibrant in color and taste, Mexican octopus, habanero, and cherry tomato atop disks of thinly sliced, sweet and crunchy jicama. Jicama is one vegetable I’m pretty ambivalent about, but here it really worked. It’s sturdy enough to pick up easily but not so thick that the toppings go flying. The Mexican shrimp cocktail was a little sweet for my taste, but it was nevertheless well executed, with the shrimp plump, fresh, and nicely cooked.
There are eleven different tacos. Of the new offerings, my favorites were the rajas, a vegetarian blend of chile poblano, oyster mushrooms, avocado, sweet corn and cheese, griddled till the cheese is crispy and brown, then rolled and stuffed into a corn tortilla, and the halibut, a thick piece of mild white fish under a dollop of nutty white mole. You can order them singly, or in batches of four or ten, sharing and mixing and matching is highly encouraged.
There’s a traditional chicken mole as well, a rich, deeply complex sauce served over juicy chunks of Mary’s Organic chicken breast. Mole is a sauce I’ve made exactly twice, mostly just to say I’ve done it. It’s a long, multi-step, labor intensive process and calls for a few dozen ingredients, which is why you don’t see it on many menus.
On the sweet side, the buñelo ice cream sandwich, a collaboration with The Donut Bar, is a wink to the ubiquitous fried ice cream in "Mexican" restaurants. It's vanilla ice cream between warm, cinnamon and sugar dusted fried tortilla wafers, rolled in chocolate curls and a drizzle of coconut chocolate sauce. The tamale de piña is comforting, with its hunks of pineapple, earthy walnuts and little sidecar of sweet milk syrup to dip or pour.
Obviously, since this was a menu preview, the food and drinks I tasted were gratis. I almost never write about restaurants unless I’m paying my own way and I’m anonymous. But, I like these guys. They’re a homegrown San Diego success story. They’re excited and passionate and proud of their menu. They didn’t take the easy way out and install a bunch of flavored margarita dispensers. There’s not a combo plate to be found. And the food is really good. I didn’t love everything, but I did love most of it, and I’ll definitely go back on my own dime.