1810 West Washington Street, Mission Hills
At this Five Points hot spot, hefty helpings of flavorful carne asada and shrimp are packed into flour tortillas like a past-his-prime wrestler into fluorescent pink Spandex. It’s a fitting analogy for a venue that pays equal homage to the food and wrestling culture of our neighbors to the south. Every inch of wall space from the entrance to the restrooms is plastered with mano a mano memorabilia, and hungry customers flock here at all hours, as have national TV shows such as Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives and Man v. Food. Most come for the Surfin’ California, a heavyweight sea-meets-land take on a California burrito that’s punched up with the addition of camarones (shrimp) and “super secret” chipotle sauce. Six house-made salsas punch up solid base flavors. Each of those spicily formidable contenders makes a good case for partaking of the variety of Mexican cervezas or American craft beers on hand.
— Brandon Hernández
1985 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
Sure, Bahia is wedged between a 7-Eleven and a beauty-supply store, but don’t write off this family-owned-since-1984 hole-in-the-wall as your average strip-mall Mexi-slop. The Ibarra family prides itself on their lard-free menu, which touts highlights such as the world’s greatest chile relleno burrito (seriously), chicken flautas, menudo (pure magic on hangovers), and a nopales breakfast burrito. Their extensive low-fat vegetarian menu includes a delightful veggie ’rito on a whole-wheat tortilla and the Bahia burrito, which finds a mild green chili pepper surrounded by melted white cheese, enchilada sauce, sour cream, rice, and beans. Tender meats and flavorsome seafood round out the menu. Avoid the nachos. Bahia’s mild green tomatillo salsa will change your life forever.
— Chad Deal
4145 Voltaire Street, Point Loma
Try the California Best West burrito. That’s juicy carne asada or chicken, diced potato, sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole, and an acidic house red sauce on a fresh, homemade tortilla. (The tortilla recipe was reportedly bought from the original owner for $3000.) Established nearly 20 years ago, and formerly labeled Tex-Mex (don’t worry, it’s not), Tommy’s makes huge tacos, burritos in the $5 range, and amazing rolled tacos, all prepared with 100 percent veggie oil. The salsa bar holds exceptional mild and hot reds, an invigorating tomatillo-garlic blend, and a cilantro sauce that looks and tastes like wheatgrass. Delivery is free on orders over $25. Sidewalk patio seating comes with a cool ocean breeze.
— Chad Deal
842 Market Street, East Village
Located walking distance from the Gaslamp Quarter, Valentine’s clean and spacious dining room is ideal for late night (open till midnight weekdays, 2:30 a.m. on weekends), post-club munchies. Their juicy carne asada fries, California burrito, and substantial al pastor taco lend themselves well as nightcaps to the booze-filled belly. The seafood, especially shrimp, is exceptional, but steer away from veggie options, which lean toward the bland, with canned mushrooms, too-crisp produce, and heavy-handed lettuce portions. The spicy carrots are on the softer side, and, while not bad, the salsas are generic. However, most burritos go for around $5, foosball is 25 cents, and everything is made big.
— Chad Deal
Advertising itself as “mi adicción,” the 16-year-old La Playita is habit-forming. Peeling paint, wall-mounted shark jaws, and a sign indicating that oysters from the Gulf Coast “may cause severe illness or even death” assert the restaurant’s no-frills ambiance. Regardless, “the oyster soup saved my marriage,” a regular informs me, the only gringo around. Taking a tip from the locals, I tried the mixed ceviche tostada ($5), which rivals the best of Ensenada street carts. The breaded shrimp tacos ($2.50) are first-rate, though the fish proved lackluster. Spice things up with a house chile de arbol and garlic sauce (very hot), and a slew of Tapatio’s lesser-known cousins. Tecate micheladas provide bliss on sweltering Indian summer days.
— Chad Deal
737 Pearl Street suite 202, La Jolla
Touting the T-shirt slogan “Ugly, gaudy, and looks like Mexico” — a quote from a neighbor complaining in 2005 about the shop’s myriad banners — Don Carlos is a well-kept hole-in-the-wall that has been a staple ’rito joint in La Jolla since 1984 and is purportedly the oldest in the area. Thirty-four types of burrito include the utilitarian Hungover (breakfast meats and eggs), Scripps (Soyrizo!), a few variations on the classic California, and what just might be the greatest shrimp burrito on the planet. They offer plenty of veggie options with no lard or chicken stock. Salsas come in smoky red, complex green, and the occasional stray bottle of Cajun Power garlic sauce. Choose from a selection of Mexican and craft beers in the bottle, and post up on the patio overlooking Pearl Street.
— Chad Deal
9683 Campo Road, Spring Valley
Ranas offers Mexico City specialties taken from the recipe books of server Alan Acosta’s mother, uncle, and grandpa. In its seventh year, Ranas honors the role of cactus in traditional Mexican meals, preparing fresh nopales in-house and incorporating them into 14 of the dishes. Anticipate oddities such as peanut butter chicken, the superspicy Entomatado Pork, slow-cooked in roasted tomatillo chili sauce with nopales, and a green-pumpkin-seed mole that Alan says “contains about 25 ingredients.” Local white and blue corn tortillas define a whole new echelon of quesadilla stuffed with sautéed black mushrooms and zucchini blossoms. The creamy chipotle is the best in town. Have a michelada on the patio and enjoy the view of Mount Helix.
— Chad Deal
Mariscos German (lonchería trucks)
- 29th Street and Ocean View Boulevard, Logan Heights
- Fern Street and Grape Street, Gala Foods parking lot, South Park
- 3515 University Avenue, North Park
Mariscos German is known for its San Felipe–like fish tacos, but try the fish and shrimp burritos. If you’ve been looking for seafood crisply fried in a tempura-like batter, loaded with cabbage and a tangy Mexican white sauce (not tartar), and stuffed to overflowing in a fresh, chewy, yet supple flour tortilla, these big boys are your ticket. The salsa lends a smoky, piquant note, but watch out for the pink stuff in the squirt bottle — it’ll make your mouth catch fire. Some trucks have stools or plastic chairs for customers. If you stay to eat, the dripping sauce lands in a parking lot rather than in your lap, and you can strike up conversations with folks from the neighborhood.
— Emma Goldman
290 North Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
Is this where the Mex-Cal culture, was born?
Juanita’s sits on Highway 101, a tiny shack among surf shops, eateries, bike shops, and airbrush tanning salons. It’s famous for its rolled tacos, carnitas tacos, and flautas.
But you’re here for a man’s meal: the burrito. More than that, two special burritos: the chile relleno burrito and, yes, the California.
“These guys are why we make them,” says Alex, one of the two sons of Juanita, who started this in 1984. He’s looking at the surfer kids filling the place.
“Call it MexCal culture. Surfers are crazy for them.”
And, boy, guilty pleasure. Burst open your California burrito, chew down. You may say it’s not the real thing, but what else can beat that combo of marinated carne asada and juices-soaked fat french fries and sour cream?
The chile relleno burrito? Beautiful battered poblano chiles stuffed with jack cheese, wrapped in a tortilla. Make a nice hot mess all over your face. Wash it down with a milky chufa nut and cinnamon horchata.
Sigh. Almost as perfect as the perfect wave.
— Ed Bedford