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What makes a great taco?

City Tacos
City Tacos
Place

Grill House at Big Ben

108 East 8th Street, National City

Grill House at Big Ben’s

Big Ben’s is a 65-year-old grocery outlet famous for its carnitas tacos right in National City’s Old Town. A disastrous 2013 fire was good luck for us. They did an ambitious rebuild with a fabulous new deck, and tacos of every kind to munch on it. Good filler: The Big Ben ($5.99), with carnitas taco, steak fries, cheese, sour cream. Or three for $4.99. Fish, shrimp tacos ($2.97 each), or adobada ($1.66) and birria ($1.99) tacos are always reliable. But the best time has to be sunset, when happy hour (3-6pm daily) delivers “street” (meaning smaller) tacos for 99 cents.

Not So Fast! Paleo Food Truck

For location, check Notsofastfoodtruck.com, 619-924-9244

Better like your tacos wild, because these guys don’t do grains, sugars, salts, glutens, dairy, processed food, or anything our great-great paleo parents weren’t eating 400 generations ago. Owner Bob Montgomery’s Paleo theory is that our gut hasn’t had time to adapt after 2.5 million years of eating wild and then only 10,000 years on farm food. Ergo, allergies. Typical Bob fare: wild boar taco with grilled onions. Or spicy fish with avo and pico de gallo, or the Shroomie, with a big portobello peeping out. Not the cheapest. We’re talking $8, $9. But, hey, back to the future? Worth it.

Islander Coronado
Place

Islander

1166 Orange Avenue, Coronado

Islander Coronado

The “tacone,” a cone-shaped fish taco that this newish seafood restaurant invented could be the lushest taco you’ll ever have. You get to choose your fish from halibut, seabass, swordfish, yellowtail, salmon, pollock, and shrimp. Then you have it deep fried or grilled and thrown in a cone-shaped tortilla with smoked avocado purée, slaw, lime, pickled jicama, and cilantro. One’s way enough. Owners Lisa and Scott learned the technique from a First Nations (native Canadian) fisherman, who mixed traditional and Asian approaches. Result is trans-Pacific bliss. Specially at happy hour, when $8.50 for most tacones turns into around $4.

Place

Tejate Oaxacan Restaurant

205 West Mission Avenue, Suite R, Escondido

El Tejate Gastronomía Oaxaqueña

Grasshopper taco, anyone? Here are the facts: these noisy little leg-scratchers (chapulines) have more protein, ounce for ounce, than chicken or beef. Like, eating 31/2 ounces of grasshoppers in a taco is like eating a half-pound steak. And they taste, well, salty, vinegary, crunchy, okay. Lucy the owner is a missionary for these guys and maguey worms, another delicacy from way down south in Oaxaca. Her place is colorful, noisy, and always crowded. Also must-try: memelitas, bowl-shaped tacos stuffed with asiento (pork lard), black beans, cheese, and chorizo. Just watch for the chapulines’ back legs hooking in behind your teeth.

Place

Humberto's

1015 25th Street, San Diego

Humberto’s Taco Shop

I discovered this 24-hour place one night after too many brews in the Gaslamp. Someone said try their taco de cabeza. I swear, it helped. Yes, cow’s head sounds grizzly. And at some places it’s gristly, dry, tasteless, tough. Here, they cook it like a soup, or stew, so it comes wet, tender, and flavorful, specially with green salsa added. Their hardshell beef taco is pretty tasty, too. And popular? These guys chop up and cook over 180 pounds of beef every eight hours, even between midnight and eight in the morning. So, expect crowds. Friday midnight? Lines around the block.

Ruben’s Baja Palm Grill

  • Kilometer 46.5, Tijuana–Ensenada free road, 011-52-661-613-2371
  • Rosarito

We’re not borderlands anymore, down here. And Ruben’s, with its huge palm-thatch roof, is the evidence. It feels like the tropical south. Ruben has a big clientele among the 100,000 Americans who live in Baja. Which may explain the price of his tacos. You’ll pay $7.50 for a carne asada taco, or chicken, or beef, or pescado. Yes, they are classy-looking, super-rich tasting — specially the pescado — and come with generous sides. But mainly, it’s the location that you’re seduced by. This oasis makes you feel you must be eating the most exotic tacos of your life.

Place

Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar

1912 Coronado Avenue #105, San Diego

Baja Oyster Bar

Some places just have the right feng shui, good vibes. This is one of them. They have a great HH deal: $1.35 fish tacos (big piece of battered swai, cole slaw, mayo on corn tortilla), and “buy one, get one free” bottles of domestic beer for $3 ($1.50 each). Regular taco prices run from $2.75 (fish taco) up to $4.75 for spicy shrimp. Smoked fish taco ($3.75) has a haunting flavor. The $3.75 camaqueso (shrimp and cheese) taco is scrumptious. But the best? Ask for the off-menu Surf and Turf taco ($5.75). Shrimp and slices of filet mignon. Taco heaven.

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City Tacos
City Tacos
Place

Grill House at Big Ben

108 East 8th Street, National City

Grill House at Big Ben’s

Big Ben’s is a 65-year-old grocery outlet famous for its carnitas tacos right in National City’s Old Town. A disastrous 2013 fire was good luck for us. They did an ambitious rebuild with a fabulous new deck, and tacos of every kind to munch on it. Good filler: The Big Ben ($5.99), with carnitas taco, steak fries, cheese, sour cream. Or three for $4.99. Fish, shrimp tacos ($2.97 each), or adobada ($1.66) and birria ($1.99) tacos are always reliable. But the best time has to be sunset, when happy hour (3-6pm daily) delivers “street” (meaning smaller) tacos for 99 cents.

Not So Fast! Paleo Food Truck

For location, check Notsofastfoodtruck.com, 619-924-9244

Better like your tacos wild, because these guys don’t do grains, sugars, salts, glutens, dairy, processed food, or anything our great-great paleo parents weren’t eating 400 generations ago. Owner Bob Montgomery’s Paleo theory is that our gut hasn’t had time to adapt after 2.5 million years of eating wild and then only 10,000 years on farm food. Ergo, allergies. Typical Bob fare: wild boar taco with grilled onions. Or spicy fish with avo and pico de gallo, or the Shroomie, with a big portobello peeping out. Not the cheapest. We’re talking $8, $9. But, hey, back to the future? Worth it.

Islander Coronado
Place

Islander

1166 Orange Avenue, Coronado

Islander Coronado

The “tacone,” a cone-shaped fish taco that this newish seafood restaurant invented could be the lushest taco you’ll ever have. You get to choose your fish from halibut, seabass, swordfish, yellowtail, salmon, pollock, and shrimp. Then you have it deep fried or grilled and thrown in a cone-shaped tortilla with smoked avocado purée, slaw, lime, pickled jicama, and cilantro. One’s way enough. Owners Lisa and Scott learned the technique from a First Nations (native Canadian) fisherman, who mixed traditional and Asian approaches. Result is trans-Pacific bliss. Specially at happy hour, when $8.50 for most tacones turns into around $4.

Place

Tejate Oaxacan Restaurant

205 West Mission Avenue, Suite R, Escondido

El Tejate Gastronomía Oaxaqueña

Grasshopper taco, anyone? Here are the facts: these noisy little leg-scratchers (chapulines) have more protein, ounce for ounce, than chicken or beef. Like, eating 31/2 ounces of grasshoppers in a taco is like eating a half-pound steak. And they taste, well, salty, vinegary, crunchy, okay. Lucy the owner is a missionary for these guys and maguey worms, another delicacy from way down south in Oaxaca. Her place is colorful, noisy, and always crowded. Also must-try: memelitas, bowl-shaped tacos stuffed with asiento (pork lard), black beans, cheese, and chorizo. Just watch for the chapulines’ back legs hooking in behind your teeth.

Place

Humberto's

1015 25th Street, San Diego

Humberto’s Taco Shop

I discovered this 24-hour place one night after too many brews in the Gaslamp. Someone said try their taco de cabeza. I swear, it helped. Yes, cow’s head sounds grizzly. And at some places it’s gristly, dry, tasteless, tough. Here, they cook it like a soup, or stew, so it comes wet, tender, and flavorful, specially with green salsa added. Their hardshell beef taco is pretty tasty, too. And popular? These guys chop up and cook over 180 pounds of beef every eight hours, even between midnight and eight in the morning. So, expect crowds. Friday midnight? Lines around the block.

Ruben’s Baja Palm Grill

  • Kilometer 46.5, Tijuana–Ensenada free road, 011-52-661-613-2371
  • Rosarito

We’re not borderlands anymore, down here. And Ruben’s, with its huge palm-thatch roof, is the evidence. It feels like the tropical south. Ruben has a big clientele among the 100,000 Americans who live in Baja. Which may explain the price of his tacos. You’ll pay $7.50 for a carne asada taco, or chicken, or beef, or pescado. Yes, they are classy-looking, super-rich tasting — specially the pescado — and come with generous sides. But mainly, it’s the location that you’re seduced by. This oasis makes you feel you must be eating the most exotic tacos of your life.

Place

Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar

1912 Coronado Avenue #105, San Diego

Baja Oyster Bar

Some places just have the right feng shui, good vibes. This is one of them. They have a great HH deal: $1.35 fish tacos (big piece of battered swai, cole slaw, mayo on corn tortilla), and “buy one, get one free” bottles of domestic beer for $3 ($1.50 each). Regular taco prices run from $2.75 (fish taco) up to $4.75 for spicy shrimp. Smoked fish taco ($3.75) has a haunting flavor. The $3.75 camaqueso (shrimp and cheese) taco is scrumptious. But the best? Ask for the off-menu Surf and Turf taco ($5.75). Shrimp and slices of filet mignon. Taco heaven.

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