Here’s what I was thinking: ever since Glen Bell ran with the hard-shell taco idea and created Taco Bell back in the 1950s, tacos have become part of our landscape. Except now the real taco culture has settled in, and chefs are starting to take a serious interest in what else you can do with tacos. Others have gone back to their roots to find ancient taco ways to revive. So rather than hit the usual suspects, I started looking beyond standard tacolandia. Here are some of my faves, including places that even I didn’t expect to like.
285 J Street, Downtown San Diego
Morton’s The Steakhouse
Okay, businessmen beside you are gnawing on $56 filet mignon steaks. But if you make Morton’s happy hour, you get your own gastro paradise cheap: lush short-rib steak tacos, normally $13 for two, cost $8. Think braised beef with chipotle mayo, generous avo, onions, and pico de gallo in a double corn tortilla. The shredded beef is wet, hot, and rich. Tuna tacos (two for $8 during HH), are good, too, with avo, pico, and wakame (seaweed). But the real thrill is leaning over your hot tortilla oozing drippy, garlicky meat, surrounded by black marble, Armani suits, and silk ties.
1301 Market Street, East Village
Oh My! Taco pop-up
Most often at Quartyard, East Village
Unique ancient tacos as made by the Huazteco people down Veracruz way. The corn masa tortilla is a rad mixture of peppers and other spices. Main result? Bright orange, flavorful tortillas! Mother, father, son team runs the pop-up. Mom squishes the nutty masa into tortilla discs, then — Huazteco tradition — cooks the tortillas in oil. Completed taco’s a combo of hot potato and chorizo, with beef, pork or soy. Cost $3 each (3 for $8), but they promise organic, hormone-free meat (best flavor: pork). Quartyard’s a great place to catch their orange tent. Combine with cerveza, chess, bean-bag tossing.
5091 Niagara Avenue, Ocean Beach
Wow Café on the Pier
Come to this little hang-off-the-pier shack for two things: fresh air and lobster tacos. The taco ain’t cheap. Costs $7, but the lobster flesh comes sautéed, grilled, wrapped in two big corn tortillas, with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, cheese, and white sauce. Want it more perfect? Shell out $4 for coleslaw and a delicious “bun o’ chowder.” The hot thick stuff oozes over two hamburger buns. Perfect combo. Is this the best lobster-taco deal ever? Chewing it out there amid the ocean winds, the waves, the creaking pier, and the croaking pelicans, how can you doubt it?
1031 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Tuesday outside Costa Azul
Every Tuesday around four, there he is: Marco Sevilla, laying out the electric-blue cloth on the salsa table, right on Orange Avenue. He sets up a hot plate, too, so no passerby can escape the smoke and its flavors. On the table, black volcanic molcajetes stand loaded with his green, red, and really dark salsas. “We make all of these fresh for the night,” says Sevilla. He marinates his pork in orange juice, braises his carnitas all day in the oven. Result: Sabroso flavor, juiciness. Salsas? Just remember, the red’s the hottest. There’ll be a line. Two for $4.95.
Cousins Maine Lobster
We’ve all heard the legend. Two cousins from Maine got a food truck to sell lobsters, went on Shark Tank in 2012, and now service ten regions around the country. But the thing is, they’re good, don’t skimp. Their lobster tacos are bulging with the red-and-white flesh in flour tortillas, with lime, pico de gallo and a kind of aioli. It’s a beautiful mess. Commercial? Sure. They’ve been on every TV food show there is, and the truck’s uber luxe for a food wagon, but no worries: they cover a lot of locations, countywide. $12 for three.
1900 Main Street, Barrio Logan
Mariscos El Pulpo
First off, they have 14 different tacos. Second, this place is Mexican style, with a U-bar open to the street. Third, they have three kinds of octopus taco. Pulpo enchilado, in seven-chili sauce; mojo de ajo octopus, sautéed octopus in garlic butter; and my current fave, pulpo ajillo, sautéed octopus in a garlic and ajillo chili butter. Other must-tries: short-rib taco (bone-in, flour tortilla, avo, salsa), and shrimporizo, sautéed shrimp meets chorizo. Most under $5. Main point: this is a squeeze-together fun joint. You start talking, chewing, drinking with whoever’s beside you. Qué vivo el barrio!