Blackened shrimp taco : Pepper presence makes you think N’Awlins
“On this site in 1897,” says one of those joke plaques, “nothing happened.”
“Hey,” says Gary. “On this site in 2020 nothing happened either. This is the lamest Cinco de Mayo I’ve ever been at. There were more people here in 1769.”
2502 San Diego Avenue, San Diego
The three of us — Gary, Darrin, and I — are pretty much alone here in Old Town. Not a soul in sight. The huge plaza flagpole doesn’t even have a flag on it, Mexican or American. And this is last week, Tuesday, Cinco de Mayo itself.
I came across Gary and his brother Darrin sheltering under the trees from the punishing sun. They were sitting on a low wall outside the old Casa Aguirre, nursing plastic containers of, hey, an amber liquid. Ooh. Looks so delicious.
Natalie and Kristy: Sidewalk service only
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” says Gary. They’ll probably drink it at his home, nearby. “I grew up here,” he says. “I’d spend every Cinco de Mayo here as a kid. Place I loved was the Casa de Pico.”
When he was a teen, he got taken in hand by the Italian fishing community. He has been fishing ever since. Now he’s captain of a 260-foot fishing boat out of Pago Pago, Samoa. “Problem is I can’t get a flight back there,” he says. “I’ve got 25 crew waiting on me.”
Fish taco: probably cod, definitely not tuna, tastes great
Darrin is a diver. “I was in the military. Now I want a life of peace. You get that underwater. I mostly clean boat bottoms.”
“Uh, do they have any food where you got that?” I ask.
“Oh, sure,” says Gary. “We had this blackened shrimp taco. Costs three bucks today.”
“Because Cinco de Mayo?”
“Because Taco Tuesday. Usually they’re $6.50.”
He gets up.
“We’re going back there now, to resupply.”
So I hoof it along with them, through the trees, across Twiggs, past the blue-domed Immaculate Conception church, up deserted San Diego Avenue till we come to a place built on whitewashed adobe bricks. Sign says “El Antojo Mexican Restaurant.”
“Hungry guy here,” says Gary to Kristy, the gal with a menu in her hand.
“Good timing,” says the other gal, Natalie. “We just opened up this morning. First time since the lockdown.”
‘This building looks kind of historic,” I say. “Is that real adobe?” “I’m not sure, but this was the first Taco Bell in San Diego,” she says. “After that it became ‘Los Locos,’ and now it’s ‘El Antojo.’”
Gary and Darrin: They know fish
I notice Kristy keeps fiddling with her mask. “I have a thing about them,” she says. “I had cancer nine years ago, and masks remind me of that time. I’ll be glad when we don’t have to wear them any more.”
A car pulls up. Kristy goes to deal with their order. Natalie takes Gary’s and Darrin’s orders. Gives me a chance to check the menus. The board of specials has pints of Dos Equis Amber for $4. Oh boy. Then they have street tacos for $3, as Gary promised.
The main menu on their wall is big. And, okay, not bad prices for Old Town. Under “appetizers,” a chicken quesadilla runs $11.95, a shrimp quesadilla is $14.95, and a pound of Habanero wings goes for $12.95. But there are a couple of cheaper, interesting dishes: “Border Boats” ($8.95), is six raw jalapeño halves stuffed with carnitas and topped with tomatillo sauce and pico de gallo. And then “Mexican Street Cob” is two corn cobs rubbed with mayo, cheese, cilantro, and paprika ($8.95).
Then it’s back to the $3 specials. “We all want the blackened shrimp taco,” says Gary.
This used to be San Diego’s first Taco Bell
“Oh, right,” I say. “And I’ll add a fish taco, and the carne asada.” I mean, ten bucks for the three, not a bad deal. Gary and Darrin buy extra Dos Equis Ambers. “And one for my friend,” says Gary. Uh oh.
So ten minutes later we’re back at the low wall at the Casa de Aguirre. I lay out the feast.
The fish taco has this big golden slab of... cod? “Hey, maybe you caught this feller off Pago Pago,” I say.
“That little thing? I doubt it,” says Gary. “We catch Pacific tuna, not Atlantic cod.”
I take a chomp, and dip the flour tortilla into the salsa they gave with it. It’s more flavor than heat, but it adds to the pico de gallo and chipotle. Plenty of chopped cabbage and cheesy flavors too. And okay, yes, we take a sip of that delicious amber nectar, just to stop it slurping over.
“So you’re the guys with those huge bendy fishing poles?” I ask.
“No more,” Gary says. “We have purse seine nets, winches to haul them in. It used to be boats of wood, men of steel. Now, it’s the other way round.”
They laugh. I’m still trying to figure that out as I grab my carne asada taco. I slop some of the salsa onto it (they give you two large pots). I chomp into big chunks of beef — tender! — and onion and cilantro. It’s wrapped in a nice thick and fresh corn tortilla (I saw Maria rolling them out inside).
The guys certainly got it right on the blackened shrimp taco. That sucker is peppery, lemony. The flavor makes you think New Orleans for some reason.
It hits me, as we sit chewing the fat, new friends with whole lifetimes of stories we can tell again for the first time, uninterrupted by hordes of ice cream-slurping turistas, that this is turning into maybe the best Cinco de Mayo of all.
“So I wonder,” I say, “what does ‘El Antojo’ mean?
“‘The Craving,’” says Darrin.
“Talking of which,” says Gary, “better get home. Beer’s getting warm. Happy Cinco!”
“See you in Pago Pago,” I say.
Only problem now: where can I drink this XX, legally?
- The Place: El Antojo, 2502 San Diego Avenue, Old Town, 619-326-8222
- Covid-19 Hours: 12-8pm, daily (closed Monday)
- Prices: Street tacos (including fish, blackened shrimp, carne asada), $6.50 (Taco Tuesday, $3); chicken quesadilla, $11.95; shrimp quesadilla, $14.95; habanero wings, $12.95 lb; “Border Boats” (jalapeño halves, carnitas), $8.95; Mexican Street Cob (2 seasoned corn cobs), $8.95; “El Chapo” burrito (chicken, pork), $24.95; bowl of Diablo (green chili, ground pork, jalapeño dip), $6.95
- Buses: 9, 10, 30, 44, 88, 105
- Nearest Bus Stops: Old Town Transit Center
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town Transit Center