A sampling of a la carte items, $5-$6 apiece. Chile relleno, pork tamales, fish taco.
  • A sampling of a la carte items, $5-$6 apiece. Chile relleno, pork tamales, fish taco.
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Café Coyote

2461 San Diego Avenue, Old Town

The appealing-looking storefront has lured many an unsuspecting eater.

What do the tourists see when they come to San Diego? I wondered this as I walked around Old Town, trying to decide in which hokey Mexican spot to have lunch. Fiesta del Reyes seemed to be offering a Disney-fied Mexican experience tucked in the back of the Historic Park. Meh. The gaudy loudness of Fred's Mexican Café held all the allure of a headache followed by indigestion. No way. Old Town Café had… I'm not sure what. A bad smell mostly. I got a table then quickly got up and am-scrayed, leaving my plastic cup of tap water untouched.

As it turns out, these places probably got off easy. At least they didn't run the risk of me calling them the worst Mexican restaurant in town.

That distinction goes to Café Coyote.

It looks pleasant and huge from the outside. Copious patio seating, a sort of separate bar area for people wishing to… avoid children I guess. Some tasteful paint here and there, and the promise of house-made tortillas.

I ordered a bunch of small items a la carte so I could really get a sampling of what this high-volume tourist spot's really all about. In the lineup was a pork tamale, a chile relleno, and a fish taco. It seemed a fair sampling of representative dishes. I skipped the refried beans and rice, because that stuff's easy to fake, and mostly just filler anyway.

It didn't take long for my food to arrive, and upon reflection I'm not surprised at the outcome. I'm pretty sure it had been microwaved, or in some other way reheated. The melted cheese topping the tamale and relleno was rubbery, a sign the cheese had been melted, hardened over time, and finally heated again in order to serve. Both dishes also had a lot of water running out of their respective sauces.

Just a wee bit of fish.

Now, I don't mean watery sauces. I mean water having become separated from the sauce, and run, all but flavorless, onto the plate.

The masa of the tamale verged on being wet cornbread, but without the buttery appeal. The shredded pork inside was surprisingly dry and stringy.

The chile relleno was a chile pepper filled with goopy cheese, not in itself awful, but again a poor, thinly sauced version with a dried, husky crust.

The taco… leaked. I like'm sloppy, so I held out hope, but after the wateriness of the other dishes I wanted to add a little extra salsa. It's when I opened the not-very-homemade-seeming corn tortilla that I noticed the piece of fried fish was barely more than half the size of the tortilla. Not bueno, y'all.

Even when I hit the most run-down, hole-in-the-wall, 24-hour burrito stands, I can usually find something redeeming, feel some sense that the attempt has been made to make a food dish worthy of selling to a human being. At the Coyote, the only sense I get is it's there to sell beans, to capitalize on the compulsion of visitors from out of town to eat "authentic" Mexican while they're there. After all, they're surrounded by so many "authentic"-looking restaurants — it would seem foolish to pass on the opportunity to sit on a shaded patio eating enchiladas and listening to guys with giant guitars singing Guantanamera.

Except this despicable stuff's not Mexican food, not really. (And while we're at it, Guantanamera is a great song, but it's actually Cuban.)

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monaghan Aug. 21, 2014 @ 5:05 p.m.

You should have left the main drag and wandered north over to Juan Street and La Pinata, allegedly the oldest Mexican restaurant in town. It is an old bungalow with convenient parking all around it, an outdoor patio with a fountain and a charming pinata-strung interior with casement windows. The food is typically Cali-Mex but served piping hot -- and nothing leaks "wateriness."


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