2494 Imperial Avenue, San Diego
Tacos El Paisa
There’s a lot to be said about a San Diego taco shop that is mindful enough to press fresh masa tortillas with every order. It speaks to a certain authenticity, one that cares to properly crisp a trompo of adobada rather than reheating shaved bits on the flattop, or prepare their own trio of salsas, which come gratis with chips and don’t shy away from the higher Scoville scale peppers. The carne asada is grilled over charcoal while the carnitas and birria tacos are more moist and nuanced. The shrimp enchilado and marlin gobernador tacos, when available, are a must.
20 25th Street, San Diego
Speaking of authentic TJ tacos, La Fachada has it down to an art. The food truck and patio even look like they were transplanted from a colonia somewhere beyond Cerro Colorado. The smoky charcoal grill cooks ten types of meat, including the regular cast of carne asada, carnitas, chorizo, and al pastor backed by the more esoteric offerings of lengua, tripa, and buche. Served on a small tortilla and garnished with cilantro, salsa, onions, tomato, and guacamole. At $1.80 each, the price is as close to TJ as you can get without crossing south.
2451 Jamacha Road #101, El Cajon
An inventory of San Diego tacos would not be complete without a crispy taco. Deep-fried in oil, the crispy taco is a Tex-Mex take on Southern California’s hard-shell tacos, pioneered by Glen Bell (who would later found Taco Bell) in the ’50s. Las Parrillas carries on in the gringo tradition with yellow cheese aplenty, iceberg lettuce, sour cream, sliced tomato, and a mild pico de gallo over shredded beef or chicken. The salsa bar touts five fresh sauces that span the heat spectrum (the green tomatillo is exceptionally good). The crispy taco: It’s greasy, it’s messy, it’s American.
Calle 4 and Avenida 5 de Mayo, Centro, Tijuana
Set on the edge of Tijuana’s prized Parque Teniente Guerrero, this family-owned taco stand boasts nearly three decades of parkside Ensenada-style tacos. That means fresh shrimp and fish (actually young angelito shark or corvina, depending on the season) fried in crisp, light batter on a concave comal. Top with cabbage, pico de gallo, and house chipotle crema al gusto. But the real MVP is the camaron enchilado. Unbreaded shrimp is flash fried, dunked in buttery chili sauce, and seared on the grill before being tossed on a couple of tortillas with ample melted cheese and all the fixin’s.
Calle 4 and Avenida Niños Heroes, Centro, Tijuana
Opening daily for the 4 a.m. workers’ breakfast rush, this urban birria stand is bustling from set-up to tear-down. Top round is slow-cooked in a broth of toasted chilies, garlic, onion, bay leaves, cloves, cumin, and other spices. The fatty beef is then chopped to order on an oak stump and served on a bright orange corn tortilla that has been drenched in an oily chili paste and crisped on the flattop (ask for your taco dorado). At 16 pesos, each of the Guadalajara-style tacos go for just over a buck. Walk-up and drive-by customers flock here constantly.
Tacos Don Esteban
Calle 6 and Avenida Sirak Baloyan, Centro, Tijuana
Don Esteban and family have spent the past half-century grilling thin-sliced New York strip steak over mesquite at the east end of Sexta. At 21 pesos a pop, think of these as a 50-cent upgrade from the tough flap meat found in most street tacos. The fresh-pressed corn tortilla and buttery, whole cuts of beef almost melt in your mouth. Other street meats go down like a barbecued belt in comparison. The green and red salsas are chunky and robust, complementing the substantial dish. Request your tortilla medio dorado to give the masa a slight crunch while remaining pliable.
Tacos El Yaqui
Mar del Norte 115, 011-52-661-612-1352, Playas de Rosarito
Dealing exclusively in tacos perrones, El Yaqui has perfected the Sinaloa-style taco. Take long cuts of arrachera (flank steak), fire over live oak, bathe in broth, and chop coarsely on a stump. Now toss the meat onto a lightly browned, homemade flour tortilla with melted white cheese. Top with pinto beans, onion, cilantro, a dash of chili salsa, and smother in fresh guacamole. That’s a perron. Its name is slang for “rad,” and rad it is. The hulking taco is just as tender as it is hearty. This celebrated shack has been grilling since 1984, and it shows with every bite.