A trio of tacos: (front to back) carne asada, pollo pastor, carnitas
As indoor dining is still off limits, I didn’t expect to find myself at Tahona Bar. Old Town’s best modern Mexican eatery boasts a stunning rustic-meets-contemporary interior, punctuated by tastefully arranged bottles of its signature booze, mezcal (a tahona is the traditional stone wheel used to crush agave piñas in making the smoky spirit).
2414 San Diego Avenue, San Diego
As much as the creative food and craft cocktails, a romantic setting is the lure here, and shame as it is, I wouldn’t have thought the place could replicate the same level of charm while embracing the sidewalk and asphalt al fresco that dominates this ‘rona summer.
A carne asada burrito, with barley
And it hasn’t. But neither has Tahona withered in the face of covid restrictions. Instead, it’s made the most of the resources available to provide an altogether different experience that remains worth a visit.
For one, it’s switched to counter service, taking orders from a table crossing its entrance. Food prep, too, has been taken outside, to a plancha just off the sidewalk. The menu has been stripped down, losing refined takes on antojitos, moles, and aguachiles to focus on street tacos and burritos.
A donkey sculpture and outdoor seating at Old Town's Tahona Bar
Which isn’t to say the food has lost any luster. The $4 tacos include a pollo al pastor with pineapple, carne asada with a black bean puree, shrimp al diablo with Oaxacan cheese, and a vegan taco of cauliflower and maitake mushroom with black mole and sesame seeds. My favorite was the slow braised carnitas, far less greasy and salty than what you’ll find at the majority of local taco shops, yet every bit as satisfying. In all the tacos, the fresh corn tortillas were scrumptious: light, and slightly crispy at the edges, they set the tone for my whole meal.
The Tahona VW bus parked out front, with a small mezcal bar inside
Order a $13 “fuerte”, and your choice of above proteins are served on a plate, with tortillas on the side, along with black beans and tender kernels of barley. That barley almost makes a rare appearance inside the $10 burritos. As someone who tends to prefer casual dining, I enjoyed the food here better out on the sidewalk, minus the fuss and expectations of the beautiful interior.
Tahona's head ancho cocktail: mezcal, ancho chile liqueur, lemongrass, pineapple, vanilla, and serrano chile
As far as atmosphere goes, there’s not a ton to enjoy on San Diego Avenue, but Tahona sits next door to the historic El Campo Cemetery, which dates back to 1849, so we enjoyed people watching tourists explore the small graveyard and its mix of stone and wood markers.
Beside that, Tahona has proven its character with a couple of quirky touches. Sidewalk tables themselves are shaded by turquoise umbrellas, the seating bracketed on one side by a metal donkey sculpture, on the other by a blue VW bus. The back hatch of the bus is flipped open to reveal the restaurant’s mezcal selection inside. Tahona may have moved out to the street, but most of its tasty cocktail selection came with it, a bartender putting cocktail shakers to work, even during weekend lunch hours.