947 E Street, Downtown San Diego
I'd actually never been to Pokéz, though I've heard about it repeatedly over the years. Everybody I know who went to college in this town seems to have fond memories of the "vegetarian Mexican eatery." Maybe I always got hung up on that word, vegetarian, and the fact I in no way need to venture downtown to find good Mexican.
While the latter holds true, now that I've had a chance to sit down and enjoy Pokéz, I realize it's not wholly vegetarian, it just skews that way by being lard-free. Which actually suits my frame of mind these days. I also really dig the interior – a cheap but (mostly) tasteful wood nailed to drywall construction decorated by skateboard art and a few more adventurous pieces, including the bizarre little plywood Aztec caricature that greets you within a door framed by hundreds of band, skate and clothing label stickers.
So yeah, some kind of collegiate welcome, backed up by a lengthy, varied and budget-friendly menu. I get why my State alum friends see it as hallowed ground. But I haven't aged out — I still love to pore over a healthy Mexican menu bolstered by a little friendly table service and complimentary basket of chips with salsa.
I crunched away on those chips while it dawned on me there were actually plenty of beef, chicken and chorizo options to be had. But I wanted to cherish the place as a veggie destination, so I decided to start by trying one of Pokéz's "unusual usuals." The green taco ($4.25) is described as "slices of avocado and cucumber wrapped in a lettuce leaf." Pretty apt description, except they served mine with cabbage, which I actually considered an upgrade. Still, aside from these ingredients, there was nothing — no pico de gallo or any sort of dressing. I grabbed some tapatio and dug in to what amounted to a handheld naked salad. Truth is, I finished it in pieces, as I preferred each of the (potentially organic) ingredients individually more than as a team.
Okay, so skewing extreme vegan isn't my bag. Nevermind, because I also picked out a perennial favorite, the chile relleno. The cheesy pepper and cheesy ranchero sauce adorning it were each mild yet flavorful. Not the best I've had, but a welcome and messy upgrade from the too-clean veggies of the green taco. Given the kooky ambiance of the place, the $4.50 relleno would be enough to lure me anytime for a cheap meal among friends.
Then I tried the fish taco. Even for mahi mahi, I thought 5 bucks seemed like a sort of spendy taco for a place so otherwise affordable. But I was judging against little four-inch tortilla street tacos. This soft corn tortilla measured more like seven or eight, packed thick with grilled fish, pico and cabbage. The mahi was moist, well-cooked, somewhere between flaky and chewy, and super tasty. This was the clincher that would've kept barely-legal Ian coming back here, and will probably still keep old-man Ian revisiting downtown in years to come. The place may be an institution of San Diego youth, but by my esteem, locals of any size may enjoy this ride.