One of my favorite taco shops is El Rey Del Taco in Loreto, B.C.S., a charming little town about two thirds of the way down the Gulf of California coast. It has no posted hours, and just a few tables and plastic chairs, or you can sit at the tiny bar and watch the owner slice and chop slabs of meat, huge sweet onions, and countless fresh chiles, pausing occasionally to sharpen his gleaming cleaver on the large, flat rock he keeps to the side. It’s always busy, the line is long but fast-moving, and the atmosphere chatters with workers, students, and families eating, shooting the breeze, and relaxing. And the tacos, oh, the tacos! Carne asada, tripitas, buche, lengua, cabeza and pescado, cremas, salsas and toppings so simple and fresh that you feel you could eat them every day. Which I did, as often as I could. And while I can’t make the fifteen hundred-mile round trip to El Rey very often, happily, I live in a city where tacos are a beloved and respected part of the food culture as well. Lucky me, lucky you.
4508 Cass Street, Pacific Beach
Open since just last September, Tacos Mimi, a cozy, unpretentious, family owned shop in the heart of Pacific Beach has quickly become a local favorite, garnering five-star ratings across the board on social media sites. Fillings run the gamut: asados, both carne and pollo, adobadas, birria de res, potato, shrimp, and, of course, Baja fish, made of sweet, thick pieces of cod, either grilled or fried. The birria, beef rather than the traditional goat, makes the memory of every dry, stringy birria de res I’ve ever endured fade blissfully into a pool of savory broth and meat stewed to melting tenderness and tucked into a soft, fluffy, made-right-before-your-eyes corn tortilla. Portions are generous and prices are low ($2.25-$2.95), plus extra points for the warm, attentive service. Taco Tuesdays are a steal at three street tacos for $5.
789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
1026 Wall Street, La Jolla
San Diego’s hometown guys turned tacoteurs continue to expand the Puesto empire without sacrificing the qualities that made them successful — handmade blue corn stone-ground tortillas, sustainable meats and seafood, slow-cooked guisados, scratch salsas and a bar program that delivers housemade agua frescas, refreshing margaritas, local beers and wines from the Valle de Guadalupe. Mix or match tacos are three for $16 and feature a taco of the month, carnitas, pollo, both al pastor or verde, veggie options include garlic braised mushrooms or zucchini and nopales, most incorporate Puesto’s signature crispy melted cheese. The filet mignon taco is well worth the slight upcharge, as is the spicy gobernador, but don’t overlook the especialidades, Baja fish, pulpo and my favorite, tamarindo shrimp, plump and succulent, flash fried, then lightly napped in tangy, spicy tamarind-chile sauce. If you can, save room for one of the desserts created by award-winning pastry chef Jessica Scott.
1023 University Avenue, Hillcrest
Libertad (liberty) is the key word at this not-for-profit establishment, where you’ll find unapologetically non-traditional combinations along with familiar favorites. Avocado, grilled or batter-fried achiote- marinated grilled fish, octopus, tempura-battered shrimp, pollo asado and arrachera are all scrumptious, but don’t be afraid to try the duck confit, Oaxaca cheese, blue cheese, caramelized onion, balsamic reduction, and arugula. Their signature taco, Caja China Pork Belly, pairs luscious grilled pork belly and sweet potato, nicely balanced by herbaceous cilantro aji crema and tangy salsa criolla, while the ¡El Tacubano! folds all the elements of a Cubano sandwich, queso suizo (Swiss cheese), pork shoulder, pork belly, mustard, pickles, and mojo Cubano into a warm, made-to-order corn tortilla. Prices run $3.50 - $4.50. Up the fun factor by opening the walk-in refrigerator door at the back and you’ll find yourself in Caché, the French-inspired speakeasy. Night owls take note: both ¡Libertad! and Caché are open till 2:30 am Wednesday - Saturday.
2196 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan
¡Salud! takes time-honored comfort food fillings, then tweaks them just enough to give them a modern edge. Standouts include crunchy beer battered catfish, nestled under mixed cabbage, cotija, pico de gallo and creamy chipotle sauce; Califas, a steak and french fry-stuffed riff on the beloved California burrito; or al pastor, grilled for maximum crispy char to contrast its soft, thick handmade tortilla and cool avocrema. Stop by on Mondays for Tijuana-style tacos, including campechano, cabeza, lengua, and suadero at a mere $2.25 each; or take advantage of the Taco Tuesday special, your choice of three tacos for $6. Wash it all down with a daily agua fresca, local beer, or one of their signature cocktails.
3030 Grape Street, South Park
You’ll find Mariscos Nine Seas food truck open daily in the Target Express parking lot in South Park, but don’t be put off by the line that perpetually snakes around the covered eating area, these guys know how to push the food out fast. My go-to is the Baja trio: a classic Baja fish taco, battered and fried to shattering crispness; a fried shrimp taco, bathed in cool crema; and a marlin taco, flaky fish and crunchy vegetables piled high, all for $7.90. Other popular choices are the gobernador, packed full of shrimp, cheese, and vegetables; or carne asada, savory grilled beef under a drizzle of crema and thick avocado slices. Several unlabeled bottles of tasty homemade salsas, from tongue-tingling to incendiary, are available, and prices range from $1.60 - $4.75 per amply filled taco.
3946 Illinois Street, North Park
Tucked into a cozy little corner just off University Avenue, family-owned El Comal has been serving North Park’s taco needs for nearly 20 years. They’re known for their smoked marlin, shredded and cooked on a comal alongside garlic, onion, bell pepper and tomato, then served atop a freshly made corn tortilla and a handful of gooey melted cheese. I especially love the barbacoa de chivo, big, tender chunks of slow roasted goat, dripping in delectable consommé, pure savory, messy pleasure, especially when paired with a refreshing margarita or mojito. Prices are in the $3 - $6 range.