4233 Spring Street, La Mesa
“One ($2.50) crispy carnitas taco, please.” “Crispy taco, or crispy carnitas?” Because when you’re this good with pig meat, it could go either way. I chose the taco, because nowhere else have I encountered soft carnitas this soft; it melts on the tongue like cotton candy. Rich, meaty cotton candy. The prep is ungussied — mostly lettuce, a smattering of cheese and tomatoes — because nothing else is needed. Except maybe the smoky chipotle salsa. Weekend pork bonus: 99-cent tacos al pastor, Friday-Saturday-Sunday, 5pm to close.
9683 Campo Road, Spring Valley
Ranas Mexico City Cuisine
Bright and slightly upscale, Ranas is more restaurant than taco shop: you get waiters and an interesting wine list, and there are no à la carte tacos on the menu. Two carnitas tacos with rice and beans costs $10, but it’s easily lunch for two, and it’s worth the expense. Tender (really) corn tortillas surround strandy strips of roasty-firm meat with caramelized edges, moist interiors, and crackly fatlings. All the flavors — corn, meat, guac, cilantro, onions, etc. — remain distinct even as they harmonize.
9906 Campo Road, Spring Valley
Sarita’s Taco Shop
The justly successful (granite tabletops! stainless counters!) 24-hour standby for (among other things) adobada tacos ($3.39). The quantity is heroic; using the two tortillas to make tacos for two just makes sense. And the experience is similarly unsubtle, which makes it perfect late-night fare. (This is not a secret; the after-hours crowd is watchably eclectic.) The main thing here is the interplay of salty spice and crispy, curling meat against the cool smoothness of the guacamole. It’s enough to make a body thirsty all over again.
9914 Campo Road, Spring Valley
La Posta De Acapulco
Just two doors down from Sarita’s, the adobada taco ($3.25) here is a more complicated and, yes, more delicate affair. A smaller serving, with smaller chunks of pork. Less crispy-salty, more smoky-charry. And more clearly porky. Lettuce plays a part. If Sarita’s is perfect for late at night, the apple green, high-ceilinged, air-conditioned interior of La Posta is just right for a blazing East County afternoon. Even a single taco rates you a platter of substantial chips while you wait and watch the world go by.