Los Pinos Seafood's house-style octopus taco on the left. It comes with bacon. On the right is the mango habanero taco.
It’s been said that no Chinese restaurant will ever go out of business in New York because there’s enough people willing to try a place at least once. That’s how Mexican food is in San Diego. Offhand, I can remember only one spot that tanked within the first year.
The region’s main contribution to taco culture is the taquito, that compact-yet- packed-with-flavor meal that might be the most popular late-night lush rush foodstuff in the area. The taquito — not “rolled taco” — was invented in 1940 at El Indio in Middletown. Other places have adopted the dish and added their own style to it, usually making it crispier than the semi-al dente version favored by the creators.
Tacowise, San Diego isn’t an innovator as much as it is a first adopter, such as the fish taco, which immigrated here from San Felipe, or the mini “TJ-style” tacos that have popped up in the past 15 years.
That willingness to try anything as long as it’s in a (hard or soft) taco shell bodes well for the region’s future as a taco mecca.
3695 India Street, San Diego
El Indio Mexican Restaurant
This local landmark invented the taquito more than 75 years ago, and still keeps rolling them out every day. Unlike other places that make their rolled tacos perfectly circular, El Indio makes sure to leave a little bit of tortilla out — a lip, if you will — to make sure the salsa doesn’t roll off the edge. This place has been around so long that it has gone from underappreciated to overrated back to underappreciated again. That is, except by the tourists who make this place a last minute stop for chips and salsa for their plane flight home.
5575 Baltimore Drive, La Mesa
Los Pinos Seafood
This La Mesa hole-in-the-wall has some of the region’s finest seafood tacos. The house-style octopus has tender “pulpo” mixed with bacon along with cabbage and a peppery hot sauce. The grilled swordfish taco has a slight teriyaki taste while the garlic shrimp tacos have a nice tang to them. Tacos are between $3.50 and $4.50, but two is plenty — you don’t need the rice and beans. The place is tiny, but the tastes are big. Not to be confused with Los Pinos, a taco shop owned by a family a half-block away on Lake Murray.
8038 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Albert’s Mexican Food
El Indio invented the taquito, but Albert’s takes them to the extreme. They are huge. A typical order of three is twice as big as what you will get at other taco shops at only $2 more. They’re big in flavor too. The chicken rolled tacos are tender, but the potato ones — which use mashed potatoes — have a lot of flavor, especially when drowned in red and green salsas. Albert’s fries their rolled tacos very crispy, as opposed to El Indio, which likes to keep them a little chewy, but that’s a stylistic decision and not a flaw.
4050 Adams Avenue, San Diego
Perhaps Kensington’s longest-running restaurant, Ponce’s has those delicious hard shell, ground beef tacos that were once found all over San Diego — and in your mom’s kitchen. Those Americanized Mexican places died out in the early 1980s, right around when Rubio’s made the fish taco de rigueur. Yes, you can get tacos featuring carne asada, shrimp, or carnitas here, but, like Nati’s in Ocean Beach, an old school combo plate of two ground beef tacos, rice and beans is the way to go — especially when the cheese is melted to a delicious yellow paste atop the beans.
4918 Newport Avenue, San Diego
Nico’s Mexican Food
This Ocean Beach taco shop doesn’t seem like much from the outside, just your typical beach town taco shop, with red and yellow paint, and shirtless customers with sandy feet. However, the chicken taquitos rank with the city’s best. The chicken is tender, providing contrast to the crisp rolled corn tortilla. Topped with cheese, zesty guacamole, and lots of red or green salsa and you have a perfect mini meal. A friend of mine who moved to Texas used to have me freeze two dozen each month and send them his way because he loved them so much.
3910 30th Street, San Diego
Rancho’s Cocina is proof that vegan Mexican food can appeal to meat eaters as well. The restaurant serves standard items like shrimp and carne asada, but vegans and vegetarians are well taken care of here. The star of Ranchos’ veggie taco triumvirate is the nopales — or cactus — tacos. They have a pleasant green taste that is enhanced by garlic oil. The seasonal veggie tacos feature a pleasant crunchiness, but are even better if you ask them to substitute spicy carrots for the regular ones.