I don’t eat in Old Town. At least not within the confines of the historic park, where tourists and locals can spend an afternoon learning about the pueblo’s origins and milestones.
There are a number of restaurants offering reasonable food and a Disney-like co-opting of Mexican culture, filling hacienda courtyards with brightly painted furniture and the music of charro-suited mariachis. And by reasonable, I mean a marked-up expression of cheap ingredients made palatable by salsa and simplicity. You’ll find such awful spots a block or two over on San Diego Avenue, but within the park these experiential restaurants manage to satisfy customers without setting a high bar, food wise.
5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa
I would not have expected to find this touristy Old Town Mexican experience in a shopping mall parking lot in La Mesa, but there it was, at Grossmont Center. Casa de Pico started out as an Old Town restaurant, logging more than three decades there before setting up shop in La Mesa ten years back. Why it moved I cannot say, but I’m certain there’s less immediate competition for its vibrant take on a theme restaurant in East County, unless you count the Old West affectations of parking-lot adjacent Claim Jumper.
Looks wise, Casa de Pico has it nailed down, with boldly colored murals contrasted with pale stucco construction, copious patio seating, talavera tiles, and papel picado strings hung throughout. There’s even a hand-made corn tortilla station where customers may watch as a member of the kitchen staff presses and griddles fresh masa within a glassed-in booth.
The menu covers just about every standard, from enchiladas and chile relleno to burritos and tamales as well as tourist-friendly fare including flautas, fajitas, and quesadillas. It reads deep and long, with crispy tacos in addition to proper soft tortilla takes and the always-fun-to say chimichanga. There are healthy diet and vegetarian options for those avoiding lard.
I went straight for the combinaciones menu so I could sample a few dishes. I found my mark with the number 2, which serves a taco, tamale, and cheese enchilada with rice and beans for $12.75. I upgraded the enchilada to chicken verde for two dollars, while going for a green chile and cheese tamale and what turned out to be a crispy beef taco.
I have to give it up for that crispy taco. I have a tendency to get snobby about such things, but I really enjoyed the shredded beef and lettuce with cheddar cheese and tomatoes in crispy hand-pressed masa. I won’t go talking it up in any best in town list, but considering I’m fondly derisive of the gringo taco in general, this won me over.
The enchilada and tamale were less thrilling. The tomatillo salsa on the enchilada didn’t stand out as I’d hoped, and the presence of soggy corn in that tamale cut into my enjoyment. I will say that although the food came out of the kitchen remarkably fast, nothing about it seemed rushed or re-heated and none of it tasted any worse than unremarkable, other than the fact that everything was smothered in melted cheese.
I’ll call it satisfying, and it helped I got a sweet caramelly flan dessert. Geography aside, this could actually be Old Town’s best theme-Mexican dining.