Sometimes I crave the comfort of familiarity, and other times I’m eager to embark on an adventure with exciting flavor combinations. On busy days, I search for food that is fast and inexpensive, but now and then, when time allows, I prefer to sit back, take my time, and splurge on a high-end margarita. Fortunately, the versatile taco always satisfies. From casual to fancy, from familiar to foreign, depending on my mood, you’re likely to find me at one of the following taco pushers.
Carnitas Snack Shack
2632 University Avenue, San Diego
Carnitas’ Snack Shack
Slow-cooked pork is quintessential taco content. Chef Hanis Cavin loves the stuff so much he appropriated the name for both his restaurant and his pet pot-bellied pig, Carnitas.
At the shack, you can order one kind of taco, and you get two hefty handfuls for just $8. You’ll want to start with a fork, as the meat — tender, juicy, and crispy-on-the-ends — can barely be contained by the corn tortillas on which it’s piled, along with creamy guacamole and pico de gallo. Another option is to ditch the tortilla altogether and get the Carnitas Nachos ($8.50), which has all the fixings of the taco but atop corn chips and smothered in cheddar-cheese sauce.
Chorizo at City Tacos
3028 University Avenue, San Diego
Forget about straightforward combinations of meat and cheese. At this taquería, the pollo asado includes arugula, golden raisins, toasted almonds, and tamarind aioli. Who knew caramelized pineapple coalesced so lusciously with rich chorizo and Oaxaca cheese that has been melted atop a corn tortilla so thick it could be mistaken for a sope? The menu features around 15 unusual-but-delicious taco stuffers, such as sautéed bay scallops with leeks and bacon in a cayenne pepper cream sauce, or shredded pork with sweet & sour demi glace and fried rice noodles (both $3.50 each). To drink, choose from Mexican beers, local craft beers, and Mexican sodas, including one that is sangria-flavored.
Cantina Mayahuel's chicken street tacos
2934 Adams Avenue, San Diego
The space is small, and the menu is short, but the tacos are always on point, and the selection of tequila and mezcal is one of the best in the country. Monday it’s happy hour all night, with $5 margaritas and three street tacos for $7. Each trio is packed with a choice of one of the same griddled proteins found in their larger versions (chicken, pork, steak, shrimp, or fish) and fresh fixings, including cabbage, crema, chipotle sauce, and tropical salsa. To round out a meal for two or three people, share the chips and guacamole with serranos ($8.50). On Mondays, you’re also likely to see cooks, bartenders, and servers from other restaurants bellying up to the bar. That’s always a good sign.
Grandmas Tacos de Fideo at Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro
4346 Bonita Road, Bonita, CA
Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro
If he’s not the king of Baja California Cuisine, chef Javier Plascencia is certainly a member of the court. Romesco, led by Plascencia, celebrated its tenth anniversary last year and continues to serve up fare with influences from Mexico, Italy, and Spain. The three intersect deliciously in the Grandmas Tacos de Fideo (two for $6.30). In these lightly charred corn tortillas you’ll find Spanish chorizo and spaghetti. The tacos are folded tight, with fresh cream and queso fresco drizzled and crumbled on the outside of the shells, which rest on a bed of greens. A spicy salsa verde is provided for dipping or pouring.
Colima's Baja shrimp taco
459 C Street, Chula Vista
Colima’s Mexican Food
San Diego is rife with 24-hour Mexican food joints, many of which end in “berto’s,” but when it comes to the freshness of ingredients, especially the seafood options, Colima’s has them beat.
Colima's hard shell shredded beef taco
The shrimp Baja style (with tartar sauce, cabbage, and salsa fresca, $3.09) contains huge shrimp that are ocean fresh, with a hint of sweetness. The meats, such as the shredded beef and pollo asado, have very little seasoning, because here you add your own, with an extensive salsa bar that includes six kinds of salsas, radishes, scrumptious and fiery grilled padrón peppers, and even sautéed onions.
Ortega's poblano queso tacos
141 University Avenue, San Diego
This Mexican bistro is a pleasant oasis from the chaos and traffic congestion at Hillcrest’s west end. Here you can choose from 13 margaritas, including mango, tamarind, and pomegranate. The tacos come two (of the same kind) on a plate, topped with crema and a grilled cabbage-cilantro-jalapeño-onion mix. The poblano queso tacos ($9.99) already have so much going on that I forgo the cabbage mix. Savory grilled Oaxaca cheese, earthy sautéed poblano chiles, sweet caramelized onions, salty cotija, and black bean corn salsa on a house-made corn tortilla make for mouthwatering bites.