La Posta, El Indio, El Porvenir, Pokez, El Borrego, El Comal, Carnitas Uruapan, Las Cuatro Milpas, Tony's Jacal, Senor Frog's, Cafe Especial, Porkyland, Clayton's Mexican Take-out, Azteca - to name a few
  • La Posta, El Indio, El Porvenir, Pokez, El Borrego, El Comal, Carnitas Uruapan, Las Cuatro Milpas, Tony's Jacal, Senor Frog's, Cafe Especial, Porkyland, Clayton's Mexican Take-out, Azteca - to name a few
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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.

La Posta de Acapulco

3980 Third Avenue, Hillcrest

La Posta

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.

Cantina Mayahuel

2934 Adams Avenue, North Park

(No longer in business.)

Cantina Mayahuel

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.

Effin's Pub & Grill

6164 El Cajon Boulevard, Rolando

Effin’s

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.

Cilantro Live

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.

Tacos Salceados (Tacos la Ermita)

30-A, Avenida Ermita-Norte, Fraccionamiento Santa Cruz La Mesa, Baja

Tacos Salceados

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.

Expressive Arts Studio

3201 Thorn Street, North Park

El Carrito

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.

El Indio Mexican Restaurant

3695 India Street, Mission Hills

El Indio

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.

Tacos el Gordo

689 H Street, Chula Vista

Tacos El Gordo

There might not be a better place than here to explore the outer reaches of tacodom. El Gordo (“the Fat Guy”) is bright and clean, with direct connections to Tijuana, where Gordo’s has been famous for 30 years. So you can always get adobada (pork) and carne asada, but hey, at some point we gotta break out of the kid’s pen, right? And here’s the perfect spot. Wall menu’s nice and simple. And tacos are good and cheap. This is where you learn that everybody else in the Americas uses far more parts of cows and pigs than we do. For one good reason: these parts are good and make you smarter. (That’s the theory.) So start at the front end, with a taco de cabeza (slivers of flesh off the cow’s head), lengua (tongue), uh, sesos (brains), buche (pig’s stomach), tripa (intestines), and suadero (a kind of steakette of meat from the breastbone). Yes, they (and tacos such as the Azteca, with cactus and grilled beef) are an acquired taste, but I found things I, uh, liked, after a bit. For instance, the cabeza tastes a little nutty, the sesos have a sweet edge, and the Azteca’s cactus gives the grilled beef a prickly-yet-mellow taste. But it’s also good here because the atmosphere is bubbling and happy. Lots of customers, families with giggling kids, old guys, workers on their way home. It feels homey, even if you’re not at home with what you’re eating yet. Hey, we live on the border. This is the upside. It’s adapt or die of burger boredom. Tacos El Gordo, 1351 Third Avenue (at Third and Palomar), Chula Vista, 619-424-7465.

Tacos el Gordo

689 H Street, Chula Vista

El Francés

If you go by the crowds who seem to turn up hungry every night, the Frenchman has to make some of the better tacos in Playas de Tijuana. He’s been famous here for 25 years. But what he’s most admired for is his tongue tacos. Tacos de lengua. It’s a way-big deck-fronted place on a street not far from the ocean, with a ceiling of brick arches rippling back like waves and a bent Eiffel Tower as the A in the El Francés sign. It’s always crowded, specially later, around nine at night. So swing your buns aboard a stool at the red counter amid the chop-chop-chop of the cooks’ cleavers and the smells of pork and cilantro. The menu lists asada, adobada, cabeza (cow’s head), suadero, tripitas (tripe), and lengua (tongue). Order taco de lengua. Come on now, you’ve got to try it sometime. Maybe you shouldn’t fix your eyes on the foot-long lumps under a red-and-white checkered cloth. Cow tongues. They go through ten every night. As soon as you order it, one of the half-dozen cooks will flap the cloth open and plonk a tongue on the chopping block. Chop-chop-chop. He passes a plate of slightly vinegary cucumber slices along with your steaming, seasoned corn tortilla tongue taco. Seriously, the squishiness takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s good for you, and you’ll see a great improvement next time you have to make a speech (kidding). Reward yourself with a truly delicious adobada taco from the huge spit of flaked, red-skinned pork that rotates in front of roaring gas flames. But maybe what you’ll remember most is the atmosphere: cooks chopping, girls peeling onions, waiters yelling orders, and neighbors you can’t help chatting with. Either language. This is Playas. It’s a trip, and it’s worth the trip. Tacos El Francés, Paseo Playas de Tijuana #2553, Costa de Oro, Playas de Tijuana (and two newer branches elsewhere in Tijuana).

Kentucky Fried Buches

While you’re across the line, check out Kentucky Fried Buches, an interesting, modest place that sells deep-fried chicken necks — yes, necks — and corn tortillas and cilantro and salsa, so you can make up your own chicken-neck tacos. (Buche usually refers to the stomach lining, but in chickens it refers to the neck.) Till recently, these guys bought necks by the thousands from El Norte and cooked them up here, ’cause it seems the U.S. doesn’t eat chicken necks. Now they get them from Monterrey, Mexico. Quality’s improved. They’re surprisingly scrumptious. You can eat them like corn on the cob or haul off the flesh and make up tacos from it. For three generations the Escoto family has been running the eatery, since the grandparents José and María came up with the idea in 1963. They say they’re the only chicken-neck joint either side of the line. Juan Manuel says they get plenty of customers from San Diego (maybe because it’s in the Zona Norte — which is peppered with ladies of the night and nightclubs). But hey, Juan Manuel says Tijuana’s new mayor, Jorge Ramos, finished his campaign here, César Chávez once ate here. So did Charles Bronson and Cheech Marin, while they were filming in TJ. And if you can’t make it this time, try and make it necks time. Kentucky Fried Buches, 670 Avenida Constitución, Zona Norte, Tijuana. No phone.

El Porvenir

If there’s one tortilla factory older than El Indio, this is it. This place has been serving tacos and burritos nonstop since…(drum roll, please)…1918! That’s, what, 90 years? Four generations? Whole lotta tacos goin’ on. They must have been doing something right. And they sure got the right name (El Porvenir, “the Future,” named after El Rancho Porvenir, a spread down Guadalajara way). It’s a little one-story shoebox of a building that has been freshened up but still looks as if it has been going 90 years straight. The old wide-board timber siding is intact, the window grilles must have been keeping out the bad guys for decades, and the open kitchen sports a “new” tortilla machine they say is 60 years old. (Before that, tortillas were made a mano.) One thing you know: they’re fresh. The morning ladies turn out 30 to 60 dozen of the little Frisbees every day, according to Rudi Garcia, who runs the place. “People have come from as far as Oceanside, Arizona, Tacoma for regular supplies of our tortillas,” he says. They make only one kind of taco, the $2 carnitas. And basically you get tortilla and carnitas (pork cooked in its own juices and fats). They’re rich and satisfying. Two will fill you plenty. Get a bottle of Sangria Señorial grape juice to go with it. Gives a winey taste to the whole experience. Only $1.25. You sit on orange Formica benches or at green plastic tables. Four tables in all. Art on the gray brick and cream walls is pretty much one large faded picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Morning and lunchtime crowds don’t notice. They’re here for the carnitas; admittedly, mainly for the burrito version. But better grab that taco while you can. ’Cause guess what could be the undoing of El Porvenir? Progress. East Village is creeping south. The winds of change are coming, and property is being snapped up. “They’re starting a bunch of condos next door,” says Mr. Garcia. “Right where the school ice cream vans were stored.” Would he sell? Mr. Garcia runs the place. He doesn’t own the property. But he says he doesn’t doubt the owners would, “if the price is right.” Has the Future’s time passed? Say it’s not so. El Porvenir Tortilla Factory, 1786 National Avenue (at Beardsley), Barrio Logan, 619-702-2445.

Pokéz

There must be other downtown places where sproutsies (that’s vegetarians, to you carnivores) can pick up meat-free tacos, but none that are more into it than Pokéz. These guys are serious vegetarian/vegans, Mexican style. Rafael founded Pokéz 14 years ago, when he was 18. A wooden Aztec-looking dude on a skateboard stands right inside holding the menus, telling you to wait to be seated. No one seems to bother. The food is mostly vegetarian, according to the menu, with no lard used, and beans and rice are low in sodium and also 100 percent vegetarian, and the place says it uses organic as much as it can. They also do meat dishes, but their three main veggie/vegan tacos (the difference is cheese or no cheese) fill you plenty and taste fine, with lots of salsa. The one most full of stuff is the tofu potato mushroom taco, but the Veggie, mainly beans and salad, is delish because it comes in a bubbly crispy tortilla. And the potato taco is flat-out yummy, stuffed with mash. They all come with salad, chunks of red cabbage, lettuce, carrot, tomato. Good atmosphere too: lots of black T-shirts, leather, tattoos, heavy piercing, Dr. Marten boots, red hair, blue hair, hoods. And on the green walls, everybody from Ché to César Chávez, and juke box music going from Diamond Dogs to hip-hop to Johnny Cash, wailing “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Pokéz Mexican Restaurant and Vegetarian Cuisine, 947 E Street (at Tenth), downtown, 619-702-7160.

Ker Little India

Indian tacos? Why not? I mean Indian Indian. This big warehouse that’s half grocery, half eatery delivers exotic food in a wrap that’s not so different from the tortilla. Head for the buffet. Grab a couple of naans, the round Indian unleavened bread, then have at the amazing selection of fillers, from aloo curry — that’s potato — dal (lentils), chholle (garbanzo beans), “baingan ka burta,” a delicious, smoky-tasting roasted eggplant dish, mixed vegetable curry and, heck, three or four more. Just stuff them in the bread, and — presto! Instant tacos! And the amazing thing is, they are all vegetables. Some smoky and roasted, others yogurty, others nutty. Just how you’ll feel when you stagger out. Ker Little India, 9520 Black Mountain Road, Mira Mesa, 858-566-5522.

La Taquiza de Tijuana

What salsas are you supposed to put on what tacos? A catering truck down at the bus and trolley stop on Iris Avenue in Otay Mesa has been a sort of salsa school for me. Taquiza de Tijuana is also an expansion of a Tijuana-based food truck “chain.” One of my all-time favorite street places. It’s open nights. Only nights. And the number of times I have just missed a bus or trolley here, I get almost pleased, because that gives me the opportunity to cross Iris and head for the lights under the white canopy. It’s strung up beside a big catering wagon in what’s a recycling yard by day. When I first used to go there, clouds of smoke and incredible smells would billow out from under the canopy. A girl would be tossing flaps of meat on a charcoal grill set up beside the truck, and the fire would crackle and sear the beef and warm a traditional olla, a decorated, brown ceramic pot sitting on top of the grill, with a mess of beans — frijoles de la olla — simmering inside. And beside that, a plate piled high with sautéed onions and jalapeño peppers.

Then good ol’ health department authorities came by and ordered Taquiza to cease and desist from cooking outside, because, uh, duh, well, it could harm someone. Even though it’s okay for permanent barbecue places to barbecue outside. Whatever. Now they have to do all that in the truck, and it has taken away a big chunk of character and a bit of the Mexican soul, though the tacos are just as good.

So always, I go for an adobada (or al pastor, same thing, marinated pork) or carne asada. Then head for the salsas and other add-ons on the rack set in the side of the truck. For months I freelanced, trying one salsa, then the other. Finally, I asked María, the lady who takes the orders at the cash register (set up on a shaky stand under the cook’s sliding window). María more or less took me by the hand to where the salsas sat for Salsas 101.

“This salsa de árbol is for your adobada,” she said, pointing to a bright red salsa. She said the árbol (“treelike”) woody-stemmed chile starts bright green, matures to bright red, and will make you the same color if you glop too much on.

She pointed to a brown salsa. “And this salsa de chile chipotle is good with beef. The salsa verde [green salsa, made with green tomatillos and serrano chiles] is good for lengua [tongue] and cabeza [cow’s head] tacos. It doesn’t overpower their more subtle flavors.”

Such a feast for the price. You sit at any space at the three tables, huddling together with strangers, eating out in this little puddle of light in the darkness. It makes for good conversation. La Taquiza de Tijuana, 3171 Iris, at 30th, by Iris bus and trolley station, Otay Mesa. No phone.

Mariscos los Paisas

Of course, right across the recycling lot from Taquiza is my other favorite place, another canvas canopy beside another catering truck. This is different in two ways, and similar in one. It operates only through the day, and it serves mariscos (seafood). It’s a big resource for Saturday-morning hangover cures. If you don’t go to a menudo place, you come here for siete mares (seven seas) or tres rios (three rivers) soups. But most of the time you come for tacos. Their shrimp tacos are to die for. First one I had — with a few drops of habanero hot sauce I’d splotted on the shrimp — had to be the most beautiful taco of my life. Lush shrimp, onions, garlic, lettuce shreds, tomato, Mexican cream. Here, on some parking lot, in some secondhand catering van, a Wolfgang Puck was alive and well.

Next thing that happened was this guy next to me called out “¡Paisan!” to the owner. “Taco de ancas de rana, por favor.” He was talking about frog legs. I signaled for one too. Great, with slightly squishy meat inside the corn tortilla, but no match for shrimp. Also good, the fish tacos and ceviche tostadas. Having a little Spanish helps. Mariscos los Paisas, 3267 Iris Avenue (at trolley crossroads), Otay Mesa. No phone.

Deleted

delete, City Heights

(No longer in business.)

El Borrego

You don’t usually think of lamb and tacos together. But they do down in the state of Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City. And now they do in City Heights too. The lamb tacos at El Borrego (“the Lamb”), on El Cajon near Fairmount, give you the concentrated flavor of beautifully moist lamb meat that doesn’t need a whole bunch of add-ons. It’s already been cooked barbacoa-style, wrapped in maguey leaves and steamed slowly for ten or more hours. The main thing you taste, apart from the lamb itself, which is subtle but a bit like goat, is the tequila-like flavor of the maguey (agave) plant. And Rodnia Navarro and her mother also make a nice play on the flavors with their rolled tacos filled with lamb barbacoa plus Mexican sour cream, cotija cheese, and rice. Plus, you’re eating it all in this bright orange and yellow-washed place with sarapes and art on the walls and large Mexican dolls in niches. El Borrego seems to be part of a new wave of places that don’t give in to the clichés of your average Mexican eatery. El Borrego, 4280 El Cajon Boulevard (not far west of Fairmount), City Heights, 619-281-1355.

El Comal

3946 Illinois Street, North Park

El Comal

262 Third Avenue, Chula Vista

El Comal

The El Comal phenomenon was started by Luz Herrera Ibarra, a determined ex–biology teacher from Acapulco. What she was determined about was not ever to cook the watered-down “border” version of Mexican food she believed most of us were getting here in Diego. So about ten years ago, she opened a “little whims” place. That’s the translation of antojitos. Okay, appetizers. They’re all kinda tacolike: different ways of wrapping food with tortillas. Mulitas, huaraches, gorditas. That’s “little mules,” “sandals,” and “little fatties.”

Mulitas are a Tijuana specialty, two tortillas, with carne asada or pork or chicken inside and melted cheese and guacamole, like a mule carrying a big load on his back. Huaraches are long, oval, sandal-shaped tortillas from Michoacán. Your traditional campesino would have it with just beans, lettuce, cheese, and onions, but we add lots of things. Luz adds eggs, beef, chicken, cactus, and more. Gorditas are a Mexico City specialty, tortillas piled with, say, mushrooms and meat, fried in the comal (a round griddle), topped with Mexican cream and cheese.

Actual tacos are pretty darned good too. You can have the suave (soft) or dorado (hard). The soft and hard both come with steak, pork, shredded beef, or chicken. But if you’re feeling gringo today, go for the dee-lish potato taco. El Comal, 3946 Illinois Street, North Park, 619-294-8292. Also 262 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, 619-420-3811.

Carnitas Uruapan

Lemon Grove has this wicked place hovering at its city limits, tempting you like the devil. You pass by that smell. Ayee! Carnitas Uruapan, yet another sister of a famous Mexican joint, Tijuana’s Carnitas Uruapan, named after one of Mexico’s most ancient cities. The owners say they cook “900 to 1000 pounds” of pork here every week. “We’re the only ones who do it properly,” they say. Fact is, there are two extremely good things about this place: the cooked-in-its-own-juices pork and the frijoles. They slow-cook the pork in lard for three hours. Its own juices give it flavor, so you don’t need to add anything except maybe cilantro and a bit of onion. Then, guess what? They cook the frijoles in the same lard. Porky, salty, garlicky, squelchy, melt-in-the-mouth. The dish looks almost Vietnamese when it arrives at your table, with a big green pile of fresh cilantro and sliced onions and tomato on one side and a pile of pork chunks on the other and a plate of frijoles. Now all you have to do is wrap everything in a hot corn tortilla and make your own little taco. You can’t overdo this and live, but as Grandma always said, a little of what you fancy does you good. Carnitas Uruapan, 8035 Broadway, Lemon Grove, 619-462-0704.

Comedor La Oaxaqueña

Grasshopper-chomping’s a Oaxacan thing. And smart? For sure. When those locust swarms happen, you’re looking at hundreds of tons of free protein on the wing. Why not stick up the net and eat them before they eat your crops? So Oaxacans have made a virtue out of necessity and created a dish we should all love. Okay, it takes a couple of leaps of faith. The first is when the spiky back legs get stuck between your teeth. Don’t panic. You could rip your lip. The second is to learn not to look into their beady little eyes as you head them into your mouth. Because, unlike with a carne asada taco, you’re handling the en-tire creature here. Which is why it’s kinder to both sides to hide them all in a tortilla and make a taco of them.

You won’t find this dish at Taco Bell. You’ve got to search it out, and the nearest place I’ve found is deep in the shadowy northeast alleys of the Miguel Hidalgo Market in Tijuana’s Rio district. Comedor y Venta de Productos Auténticos Oaxaqueños is a delicious little bit of Oaxaca with everything from dresses to ollas to moles to clayudas (Mexican pizzas) to roasted chapulines — grasshoppers. The ladies are dressed in traditional Oaxacan garb, wide white pants with flowery decorations down the sides and a white top. The first time I crunched into a little grasshopper (after a shot of mezcal to kill the cowardice), it was a nice surprise, as long as I kept looking straight ahead. They’re crunchy. Salty. A little like shrimp shell, but taste-wise, a lot is covered by the lime. Fried-tasting, crackly, squishy, like peanuts with soft centers. I followed everybody else and folded a bunch of them in a corn tortilla to make a taco. That way they become tasty crunch inside the corn. ’Course, I’ve read scary stuff, that some grasshoppers caught in Oaxaca had lead and pesticide residue in them and others can pass on parasites if they’re not washed and cooked properly. But María says no. They select and wash and cook these little blighters thoroughly. Comedor La Oaxaqueña, Mercado Miguel Hidalgo, Local No. 32 Planta Baja, Avenida Independencia a corner with Boulevard Sánchez Taboada, Zona Rio, Tijuana, 011-52-664-200-2804.

El Sol

Eat here, and you mix with presidents. Well, mix with the guy who cooked for a president. Miguel Madera used to cook “slamburgers” at Danny’s, the sailors’ bar on Coronado’s Orange Avenue. That’s where a bunch of guys everyone just knew were Secret Service came in to pick up an order of Miguel’s slamburgers for — who else could it have been except for President Bill Clinton and his party at the Hotel Del? Fast-forward ten years, and Miguel has his own modest, often crowded little place on University, still flying the black U.S. Navy Seal flag from Coronado days, still making those burgers fit for the most burger-crazy president in history. But the unheralded secret is his tacos. They are generous, tasty, and cheap. At least here on University, they’re better appreciated. His carne asada and grilled fish tacos both make a fine mess of your face, and the shrimp one comes loaded. In fact, all of his seafood rocks. El Sol Mexican Restaurant, 2037 University Avenue, North Park, 619-298-0874.

El Parque

2659 Reche Road, Fallbrook

El Parque

El Parque sits in a clearing off Reche Road, south of Fallbrook. Been here for 30 years. And the irony is, this inland restaurant turns out the best fish tacos you ever tasted. The guys say they have no secret to the sauce: just sweet pickles, mayo, and salsa. Maybe it’s the forest effect, but it comes out tasting great. The lunches are crowded oftentimes. That’s when the avocado workers come in for food. Or Sunday morning, when the El Parque guys make 150 pounds of menudo for locals with a hangover problem. They reckon this is the real social moment of the week. But not for me: nothing beats the end of the day, any day, when you can sit on the porch, tip back your Stetson, and watch the sun get gobbled by the trees. The world seems far away. With a Negra Modelo, couple of buddies, some ranchero music, say, “Ay, Papacita!” and a couple of those country fish tacos, life don’t get much better. El Parque, 2659 Reche Road, Fallbrook, 760-731-2775.

Alambres

If the Gaslamp has a Latino social center, it has to be Alambres. You can tell because of the soccer TV booming out of it and the late-late hours of the kitchen. Catch it midnight Friday and things are just beginning. This is a fun place. It’s run like a Mexico City café-bar, and it’s unique because it specializes in Mexico City–style tacos.

Alambres means “wire,” or, I’m thinking, the “sword” of the vertical rotisserie spit they cook the meat on. Which tells you the idea had to have come across the ocean from the Middle East, from the lamb-twisting spits of Beirut. But immigrants swapped lamb for pork — probably Mexico’s favorite meat — to create taco al pastor — probably Mexico’s favorite taco.

It turns out alambre is also a Mexico City style of taco. Basically roasted pork — or beef, chicken, or fish — on corn tortillas loaded with bacon, bell pepper, and onions. With grilled green onions flopping on the side. Absolutely scrumbo. Here you can have them al pastor, carne asada, fish à la diabla, or even with rib eye. If you don’t insist on rib eye, you can get one here for pretty much una canción. Alambres Mexican Grill, 756 Fifth Avenue, in the Gaslamp, 619-233-2838.

Johnny Mañanas

308 Mission Avenue, Oceanside

Johnny Mañana’s

This place has been chugging along for years in its light, cheery way on the basis of Costa Rican laid-backedness and healthy cooking. They get lots of support from the surfing and teaching communities of Oceanside. So yes, healthy eating is important to their customers. “We do not use any animal fat,” says a notice. “Our deep frying oils have no cholesterol…our chicken is skinless and boneless, with all fat trimmed off…no additives, preservatives, artificial flavors.” Everything inside here has a kind of Caribbean flavor. And colors. What attracts me is the fish taco. It’s grilled, not deep-fried, and there are two corn tortillas per taco and plenty of fish. Johnny Mañana’s, 308 Mission Avenue, Oceanside, 760-721-9999.

Tacos el Cubano

This is one of the nicest surprises down in the “Naughty Zone” (Zona Norte). A couple of taco carts and lots of shouting and toutin’ for business. Come here at night, when this part actually looks more glamorous than seedy. Of course, you have to share the sidewalk with ladies of the night, half-drunk gringos, lots of really good street musicians, and a few unsavory types. I even saw a drunk vaquero up here one night asleep on his horse. But the tacos are totally savory. ¡Sabroso! El Cubano is the last taco cart on Constitución before Coahuila, the heart of the area, where most gringos head on their way to the famous Adelita Bar. El Cubano’s adobada spit glistens and turns, lit up in the night, the drippings lit red by its gas fire flames. The guys touting for your business will practically lift you onto one of their stools. But they deliver with rich pickin’s, specially that gyrating pork. The tacos are juicy. The guys will help you with the best salsas, fresh radishes, sautéed onions, and bubbling beans, and they’ll chat between shouts for business. So who’s el Cubano? The guys jokingly point the finger to the cook. We’ll never know. Hey, and you might even end up with a bacon hot dog from the cart they say started that whole phenomenon, about a half century ago, right out on the street corner from your stool. But that’s another story. Tacos el Cubano, Corner Constitución and Coahuila, Zona Norte, Tijuana. No phone.

Las Cuatro Milpas

1857 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan

Las Cuatro Milpas

It’s an incredible thing, but seems like every time you cruise down Logan Avenue in the 932 bus, there’s a line of people outside that little ol’ restaurant Las Cuatro Milpas (“the Four Cornfields”) and the place next door, La Victoria. I’d always thought they were two restaurants. Turned out they’re the same. This little clump of cream stucco buildings stands behind one long green canvas awning. And they serve incredibly cheap, old-fashioned, simple, and greasy-delicious food. Tamales, burritos, bowls of chorizo, thick brick-colored salsa, and carnitas, tacos with pork meat steeped in its own lard and sinfully full of flavor. As much as the food, I love the history of it. “Our grandfather Nati — Natividad — and Grandma Petra started this as a tortilla factory back in the early 1930s,” Margarita told me the first time I went in. “Then they started simple lunches. They ground their own corn. We still do, right here. We used to have to cook it out on the sidewalk. Grandfather bought this little building for $500. He had to work for years with the Santa Fe, 18 hours a day laying rail for 5 cents an hour to pay it off. We haven’t changed a thing.” She said La Victoria was the store her grandparents opened next door. Now it’s a dining room, a part of the rabbit warren of eating spaces that the family has put together over the years. Margarita runs the place with her sisters Sofia and Dora. Half the pleasure is in the steaming cauldrons, the handmade tortillas, the way people lining up look more like pilgrims than customers. What keeps me coming back here time and again are the carnitas, of course. Those luscious pork tacos. And also the feeling that you’re eating in what’s probably the most famous and unspoiled taco joint in the whole county. Las Cuatro Milpas, 1857 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan, 619-234-4460.

Tacos Varios y Aguas Frescas

Corner of Constitución and Third, Baja

Tacos Varios

This is what we’ll never get in downtown San Diego. In TJ, every night, they wheel a taco stand out to the corner of Constitución and Third Street, right by the Tres Hermanos (“Three Brothers”) shoe store, and they won’t pack up till the sun rises. And don’t you know it, almost straightaway, they’re crowded. Folks getting off work, climbing out of taxi buses, they all seem to stop by for a snack, or, often, dinner. You see them leaning in under the blue canopy, faces lit up by the little gas light clamped to the counter, chomping and chattering away. Students, bureaucrats, cab drivers. The guys behind the cart work like caffeinated jugglers, opening pots, grabbing tortillas, meats, salsas, pouring horchata drink, reaching for money, handing back change. This, you can’t resist. And the choice is quite simple. They only do tacos, so you’ve just gotta decide what flavor. For each customer, the guy starts clacking open steaming lids one after the other. “We’ve got tongue, we’ve got chicken mole, we’ve got milanesa, we’ve got steak ranchero, we’ve got carne asada, we’ve got chile relleno, we’ve got pescado, fish.” They hand you your choice on a plastic plate with a plastic bag slid over it. That way, no plate washing. But what you get is one oversized meal for about a couple of bucks that is the real Mexican thing. Real casera (home style) food. And funny thing about standing around on the sidewalk, chowing down together. Language problems or not, you’ll get to talking. Half an hour will pass, no matter how cold and crowded it is. A good taco can do that to you. Tacos Varios y Aguas Frescas, on Third Street (Calle Carrillo Puerto), at corner with Constitución, Tijuana. No phone.

Tony's Jacal

621 Valley Avenue, Solana Beach

Tony’s Jacal

Touristy? Check. Old-fashioned border-Mex fare? Check. Facing competition from trendier Solana Beach joints? Check, check.

Guess that’s what I like about Tony’s. This place is a little creaky on its joints, reeks history, like, Hollywood–Del Mar history, where the surf meets the turf, Bing, Bob, The Road to Singapore, all that. Of course this, or Fidel’s next door, is where fat cats bring out-of-towners for their safe “Mexico” experience. They both play the Mexican card well, without being gastronomically challenging. But still, there’s something genuine here. Tony’s gives off a vibe that only a place where the family has lived without a break for 100 years can. Plus, it’s the only place I know that specializes in turkey breast tacos.

Sit at the bar while you wait for a table, which you will, ’cause it’s always crowded. You’re probably sitting on the bar stool Elizabeth Taylor used, along with Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, Ronald Reagan — and that great hanger-on whom everybody liked because it was dangerous not to, J. Edgar Hoover.

But the garden patio, with its vast chinaberry tree, is really why you come. Jacal means “shack.” “And that’s what it was here,” Teresa, one of the family who runs the place, told me once. “When Grandpa planted that chinaberry tree in the patio 100 years ago, he never could have guessed that one day we’d have Hollywood movie stars coming to sit under it.” She was born right here in this building. “In what’s now the kitchen,” she says. “This used to be our house. The people in Rancho Santa Fe leased what’s now Eden Gardens for us. ‘La Colonia.’ They wanted their Mexican workers nearby, but not too near. We had to have our own school, because they wouldn’t let us go to the white kids’ school. My dad had to ride in the back of the bus. That’s how it was.”

This is what makes food interesting for me. Like, the turkey tacos are the result of economy too. “It’s easier to prepare one big turkey than a whole bunch of chickens,” Teresa said. “And it’s healthier.” The tacos taste like turkey, with lettuce and salsa and beans and a pretty interesting rice, flavored with the turkeys’ cooking liquids. At the end: a mean deep-fried ice cream and buñuelos (fritters) with sugar and cinnamon. Tony’s Jacal, 621 Valley Avenue, Solana Beach, 858-755-2274.

Señor Frog’s

Taquiza Tuesday at Señor Frog’s is dangerously cheap. Like, free, after you pay the entrance of about $15. The food is free, the drink is free, including liquor, from three to nine at night. Plus lots of music. But here’s the thing. The food comes up from downstairs, Señor Frog’s restaurant, and they make pretty great chow down there. It’s served as a buffet, and a whole lot of that is tacos and fillings. The food is laid out on a long table with a stack of paper plates up front. A cook takes each plate and ladles anything you want onto tortillas to make tacos of them. Typical choices are fish tacos, birria (stew), pork, chicharrón (pork rinds), carne asada, frijoles, and ceviche. As many refills as you want, no questions asked. Same with the booze. The only problem? Eating them if you haven’t got a table. In the milling crowd, one jog to the elbow and you’re likely to lose it all. Señor Frog’s, Via Oriente 60, Zona Rio, Tijuana, 011-52-664-682-4962.

Ranchos Cocina

3910 30th Street, North Park

Ranchos Cocina

1830 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach

Ranchos Cocina

Atmosphere of plants, clunky honest woodiness, and, like as not, idealists at the next table talking global warming make you want to eat right, healthy, vegetarian even, when you’re here. The menu emphasizes the vegetable kingdom even though they sell plenty of steaks and pollos rancheros. Half the tacos they have are vegetarian or vegan, like tofu, nopales, shiitake mushroom (which comes with cabbage), spuds, soy chorizo, and tempeh (fermented soybeans). But you feel they get it here. This ain’t no toss-everything-in-the-fryer joint. They say they try to use organic fruit and veggies as much as possible, that their rice and beans are vegetarian, or vegan, meaning cooked in canola oil. Even with the meats, they have the right attitude. Like, rather than deep-fry it, they will happily grill your fish-taco fish, as they do the lobster and salmon tacos. Simple and delicious. Ranchos Cocina, 1830 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach, 619-226-7619; also at 3910 30th Street, North Park, 619-574-1288.

La Fachada

20 25th Street, Logan Heights

La Fachada

“The Façade” is another place where you go when you have the late-night munchies. It’s open till three every morning and has a great choice of standard tacos. The thing to do is to sit out under the lights of the tent where the catering truck is. Munch on tacos and chew the fat (between trolleys, which are kinda close by). And hey, hey! They still do grill the asada and onions and beans outside over glowing coals in billowing smoke. I’d always have the carne asada or the shrimp when I ate late in the main building, but now, if I make it to the tent area (and it’s open only till midnight), gotta have either the carne asada smoking in front of you or al pastor, from the spit in the truck. And about every half hour or so, the guys turning the meat at the grill announce that the newest batch of sautéed onions and beans is ready, and they hand you a cup and plate to put them in. Beautiful. Plus, it has this garden atmosphere. You get the feeling of being in Little Tijuana. If this is at the end of a night, and ye old pockets are light, they have a nice cheap little plate of three rolled tacos that’ll at least keep you going till sunup. La Fachada, 20 25th Street, Logan Heights, 619-236-8566.

El Mexicano

This was called Antojitos del País for the longest time. But nothing else has changed. The counter area is stacked with big, steaming pots and bubbling clay tureens. Stews from every part of Mexico fume away in them. This is an ideal do-it-yourself taco joint. Ask for beef or goat and grab a pile of corn tortillas, hand-slapped in front of you. You’re in taco heaven. And that’s official. Why? Half the officials of Tijuana come here to eat. I once caught an ex-mayor (now senator) making his own tacos here one lunchtime, Mexican hours — about 4:00 in the afternoon. That’s the best time to catch the scene. Or 4:00 in the morning. It’s open all night. El Mexicano, Gobernador Balarezo 9750, Fraccionamiento América, near Palacio Azteca Hotel, Tijuana, 011-52-664-686-2424.

Jalisco Café

1669 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

Jalisco Café

Excellent old-fashioned eatery (it has been going 60 years) featuring great fish tacos with breaded fish, shredded cabbage, and yogurt salsa. Unusual charcoal-broiled chicken asada taco. Jalisco Café, 1669 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach, 619-575-4955 (also at 4026 Bonita Road).

Lydia's Café and Nightclub

1628 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

Lydia’s

Another great old institution in IB, right opposite Jalisco’s. Of course, compared with Jalisco, Lydia’s is a newcomer. Only been at it since 1957. But you’ve got everything here: big family parties, girls waiting to dance with you in the evenings, backed by, like, Lydia Pimentel’s 6 children, 27 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren, and 7 great-great-grandchildren, a lot of them getting folks up and dancing anything from line dancing to merengue, ranchero, quebradita, and salsa in the evenings. ¡Que noche! The menu’s traditional Mexican with some original twists, like the botanas (beans, pork, melted cheese over corn chips) that everyone says is Lydia’s invention. But stick with the tacos: the cabeza’s good, the carnitas are great, and the carne asada ain’t half bad. Plus on weekends they have a taco cart outside with good al pastor. Really, with Lydia’s ya got Mexico in a bottle. Have fun! Lydia’s Café and Nightclub, 1628 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach, 619-429-3603.

Café la Especial

This is Café Especial Sur, as opposed to Norte. An institution on Revolución up the street from Caesar’s hotel. Here is where it all began, the steamed taco, in 1948. Steam cooks the taco and makes it suave, soft. You can also get them at the restaurant down the stairs. Best eat: taco-tamale-enchilada combo (with beans, and guacamole or rice). Café la Especial, Avenida Revolución 718 (down market steps), Tijuana, 011-52-664-685-6654.

Porkyland

Ah! The smell. The smell! Bubbling lard in great three-foot copper cauldrons roils away with pork buches (stomach lining), chicharrón, and roasting legs of pork most of the day. You can’t help but be drawn in by that sabor. Taco al pastor is the best deal here, and probably anywhere in San Diego. The flavor and tenderness tell you they don’t rush the cooking here. Be wild! Forget the diet for a day! Porkyland, 2196 Logan Avenue, Logan Heights, 619-233-5139. (Also in La Jolla.)

Clayton's Mex Takeout

1107 10th Street, Coronado

Clayton’s Mexican Take-Out

“Please, No Eating on Premises,” says a sign. That’s because so many people dive straight in while they’re waiting for their friends. This little hole-in-the-wall behind the venerable Clayton’s in Coronado has been quietly dishing out tacos and burritos for years. It’s kind of famous for the generous size of its carne asada burritos. The decor? Basic. Floor is concrete slabs exactly like the sidewalk outside. A little red tile “roof” overhangs the order counter. A fan and two Spanish-style lamps — yellow glass, black wrought iron — hang from the ceiling. But that’s it. The tacos they put out are stuffed. What’s more, people admire their homemade salsa. One of the cooks, Gilberto, makes it from his mom’s recipe. I heard folks from Mexico City in here saying it’s the best darned salsa in El Norte. Carne asada is at the heart of the business, and the tacos are great, but the shredded beef crisp taco is the most delicious. Prices are delicious too, for Coronado. At these prices, except for the kids driving by in Daddy’s Lincoln SUVs, you could be in IB. Clayton’s Mexican Take-Out, 1107 Tenth Street (at the back of Clayton’s Coffee Shop, 979 Orange Avenue), Coronado, 619-437-8811.

Bull and Bear Bar and Grill

1271 Prospect Street, La Jolla

(No longer in business.)

Bull and Bear

You sort of don’t expect it on Prospect, but the Bull and Bear, this trendy pub for the accountants and land barons of La Jolla, does great fish tacos. They’re stuffed with cabbage and ooze with creamy sauce and dark salsa. You get salad and red-colored corn chips, so it looks good too, and so do you, sitting out on Prospect, chowing down, and watching the fashionable world go by — watching you. Bull and Bear Bar and Grill, 1271 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-551-0077.

Taco la Linea

Nine years ago, María Antonia Garcia had this Australian lamb idea. Like, to make tacos out of them. And guess where she does it? Just five yards into Latin America, at her taco stand directly outside the west channel of the pedestrian entrance to Tijuana. And sin duda, she turns out some of the most scrumptious lamb tacos anywhere. Just check out the permanent cluster of customers voting with their feet. The lamb (Aussie, “because it has the best flavor”) comes in mayo-spread tortillas with cilantro and spices and all the fixings you want. They also do standard tacos like carnitas, and unusual ones — think one is ears — but most people will tell you they come for the lamb. What better way could you have to step into Old México? Watch out, they’re closed on Thursdays. Taco la Linea, Corner Avenida Amistad and Calle José María Larroque, at western pedestrian entrance gate into Tijuana. No phone.

Azteca

This used to be down at 12th and Imperial, another place where missing the bus had its consolations. Azteca filled you up and felt genuine. Then the building boom came and condos were slated, so Azteca was forced out and razed. “We came up here to Market Street, higher rent, decorating, and guess what?” says one of the guys. “The building boom fell through, and our old place is a parking lot.” Whatever. They still serve the same generous tacos that hooked a generation of trolley drivers and Father Joe’s clients (at the beginning of the month, anyway). Lot of the same customers have migrated up here, although condoïstas walking their dogs are starting to appear. I always go for the carnitas and the fish tacos. What I like: you get two tortillas per taco. That makes sure you don’t get a mid-chomp collapse. Also, this is right at the Park and Market trolley stop and ye olde Palms Hotel, where an urban legend has it that Wyatt Earp lived for months. So you can hop off one trolley, chow down, check out Wyatt’s room (second floor, corner), and be ready when the next trolley comes along. Azteca Taco Shop, 555 Park Boulevard, East Village, 619-955-5494.

Limónz Rostizados

And this is the new Mexico, what’s happening in places like Mexico City. Trendy design, like transparent plastic bubble stools and wavy frosted plastic tables, echoey lime-and-white walls, and at the heart, a bunch of chafing dishes loaded with everything from carnitas to angel-hair spaghetti. Go for the marinated crispy-skin roast chicken. That’s what this place is all about. It’s juicy, spicy, and full of flavor. And you can really pig out. Either with the traditional-sized “street tacos” in corn tortillas or their idea of the Big Mac, “Mexican Soft Tacos,” way-big floppy flour tortillas that are great stuffed with the citrus-spice marinated chicken (or pork carnitas, or steak asada) plus an assembly line of condiments and garnishes. This is the fun part. The condiments could be anything from black beans to fideos secos (chipotle-spicy angel-hair pasta that’s delicious covered in grilled cheese) to poblano chili rajas, which is roasted poblano and bell peppers sautéed with onions, then cooked with Mexican cream and cheese. Yum, yum. Then you come to garnishes like the house-made, fresh-tasting guacamole and salsa fresca with cactus and (whew!) finally to a bunch of really cool salsas, “flavor sauces” like mango-habanero, spicy peanut chipotle, achiote, and jicama with Japanese red peppers. We’re talking sofisticado here but without the La Jolla prices. You can go on experimenting forever. And ask the counter guys. They can lead you into new worlds of taco combos. And yes, it’s all fresh. This place doesn’t draw the raving crowds that the shacklike Cabo Cantina does just up the road on a Friday night, but it is a “cool Diego,” border-city, two-cultures-for-the-price-of-one joint if there was ever one. If you’re interested in truly creative taco food, you’re here! Mexican Moderne doesn’t always take in this town. Someone else tried a place down in Chula Vista, the Baja Taco Shack. Hear it didn’t make it. But these guys are doing great. They oughta nail up a sign. Taco Future Is Here. Limónz Rostizados, 978 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach, 858-605-0093.

Oh, Lord. Then there’s that place on India Street. The tiny little box next to the Burnham skyscraper. The taco guys there have been under threat of eviction for five years. Another high-rise is supposed to go up. But hey, they’re still here. Oh, and Las Ahumaderas, scrumptious bunch of all-night taco joints in TJ (at Guillermo Prieto and Gobernador Balarezo, where you pick up some of the town’s best musicians for your party). They say El Paisa, the first booth, is the best.

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