El Chingon taco plate: beans and rice with baja fish, al pastor, and carne asada with fried cheese tacos
At a nearby table, a group of young women are discussing the weekend protests, which saw thousands of San Diegans demonstrate against police brutality. Primarily they express concern the message of peaceful protestors could be drowned out by the opportunistic destruction of those who only showed up to loot. The four women work in Gaslamp restaurants, but their jobs didn’t bring them down here today, and neither did this lunch at El Chingon. They came downtown this Monday morning to help the cleanup effort that followed a tumultuous Sunday night.
560 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
As I drove into the city center, signs of yesterday’s unrest were everywhere. Several blocks of Broadway were closed to traffic as police officers barricaded San Diego Police headquarters. Several retail storefronts exhibited broken glass; more had their windows covered with plywood — some since preemptively. Other businesses worked to get their own plywood barriers up ahead of sundown.
Current events may have dampened El Chingon's lively atmosphere, but it's still dishing up colorful and tasty Mexican food.
I chose El Chingon for lunch today, in part, because a Facebook friend had posted a photo of it this morning, with its own windows boarded up. But the plywood was down by time the Mexican restaurant opened for lunch, and from the outside things appeared relatively normal. But then, before I could enter, wearing a mask, my temperature was taken and my hands sprayed with hand sanitizer.
Gaslamp restaurant El Chingon, boarded up to prevent against riots
Oh yeah. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic. It’s tough to reconcile so many different, urgent matters taking place simultaneously. Some of the boarded-up downtown businesses have been that way since the shutdown started in March, and as their ranks grow, the prevalence of plywood recalls many a dystopian sci-fi film.
El Chingon re-opens following a weekend of civil disquiet.
Even for this food writer, it’s tough to think about food at a time like this. Following the highly publicized riots, looting, and arson that took place in La Mesa Saturday night — in La Mesa! — a number of downtown businesses chose to close shop as protestors swelled in number downtown on Sunday afternoon, and especially after police deployed tear gas and flash grenades in efforts to disperse them.
El Chingon was open Sunday, but from what I gather, it closed by 4:30 pm. Service staff helped board up the windows, and security staff stayed on to monitor the property.
After the weekend protests, police barricade the blocks around San Diego Police Headquarters.
It’s especially tough to reconcile a place like El Chingon with these confounding times. The place is built around colorful depictions of Mexican culture: it makes playful use of Día de los Muertos décor, pumps lively music through its loudspeakers, and specializes in agave spirit cocktails. More than anything, it’s a fun place, designed for fun and celebration.
Now, thick plastic sheets form ad hoc barriers between booths to prevent the spread of coronavirus. TVs tuned to news coverage display images of both protestors and looters taking to the streets of American cities large and small.
There are boarded up shops and restaurants around downtown, some due to pandemic, some to ward against looting.
The city is relatively calm this Monday lunchtime, and El Chingon still has a full menu to peruse, including take-out family meals of enchiladas, fajitas, and (thanks to sister restaurant Havana 1920), the classic Caribbean dish ropa vieja. For dine in, I’m at leisure to enjoy a $14 taco plate. For my three tacos I chose Baja-style fried fish, al pastor, and carne asada wrapped in fried cheese.
I can't imagine what the universe has planned next for the struggling restaurant industry, but I hope it's something great for a change. Because even though it feels like the world is falling apart around us, the next day these good folk of the restaurant industry are getting up, cleaning up, and continuing to provide welcoming spaces.