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Chi Chi’s Mexican Cantina: new name in Old Town

A reminder of what a concentrated collision of tastes a taco can be

Looking into the inferno: my favorite taco.
Looking into the inferno: my favorite taco.

I think I’m in love.

Again.

With tacos.

I’ve been tramping the streets of Old Town. I can see it’s trying hard to get back on its partying feet. And yes, places like Cafe Coyote and Casa de Fred’s and Tahona Bar seem to be as crowded and sparkling as ever. But, well, the Casa de Bandini — now Cosmopolitan Hotel — and others, they just plain look like they’re still in the trenches.

Place

Chi Chi’s Mexican Cantina

2502 San Diego Avenue, San Diego

But I have an hour to kill and a stomach to fill — hey hey! I’m a poet! — and I’m heading west past the Whaley House (and Whaley’s daughters’ ghosts, who are sometimes out this time of night, dusk, I swear) and I’m looking for a really good Happy Hour deal. You’d think such things would be everywhere at this time. But in this covid economy, but not so much.

Newish sign outside old Antojo. Now the cheeky Chi Chi’s.

Then I cross Harney Street, and bingo! A sign. “Taco Tuesday. All Tacos $3.” “Corona Pints, $3.” “House Marg, $5.” “Pitcher of Marg, $20.” Now we are talking. I climb the steps of this place called “Chi Chi’s.”

“Just having fun with the name,” says Julio, the bartender. “We used to be ‘El Antojo’. But nobody could remember it! Nobody knew what it meant. So we gave it a name that was easy to say and easy to remember and they could laugh at.”

I guess it worked, because, even now, around eight, the place is pretty full. Natch, I start off with the $3 Corona. “Only have Dos Equis,” says Julio. “That okay?”

Absolutely. Like being bumped up to first class in a plane. (If you like Dos Equis like I do.)

Bartender Julio Antonio

I sit up at the bar, because it’s got a nice buzz going. Place has lots of dark brick and dark timber, but the whole front is open to the street below. And in case we forget that people have been traipsing this street for a long time, they have banners on lamp posts featuring dated figures like Father Junipero Serra (1769) and John Fremont, California military Governor (1848).

Meanwhile, I look at the menu. Oh man. It is huge. The whole panoply of Mexicania, from steak quesadilla appetizers ($14.95) to Mexican street cob (two ears of corn, rubbed with Mayo, cheese, cilantro and paprika) for $9.95. In between, we’re looking at burgers (not bad for $10.95), to the El Chapo burrito (“Don’t let this one escape!”) stuffed with chicken and pork, $24.95. Oh, and tacos for $6.50 each, or $19.95 for three. But you get rice and beans with the trio.

I mean I understand: this is tourist land. Things ain’t supposed to be cheap.

Except hey hey once again! We’ve hit this place on Taco Tuesday. Tacos, three bucks each. Any taco. I go through them: fish, shrimp, chicken habanero, ground beef in a hard shell, veggie, fried avocado — interesting! — “street style,” (whatever that means), chicken mole, shrimp enchilada, shark, and seared ahi. Three bucks each!

Behind the cabbage leaf - hot and juicy grilled shrimp.

“Corner!” shouts this server, Catalina. She’s warning other servers coming out of the kitchen. Now she’s waiting on me while I dither. She says the Baja fish taco is popular, as is the blackened chicken or “El Inferno” taco. So, to get things rolling I go for the beef, just because it’s in a hard shell. And when I get it, the ground beef has a strong umami flavor, a good beef extract taste that goes well with the crunchy shell. And while I’m crunching, I’m looking for the next two I wanna have. So far I’ve spent all of six dollars, including the beer. Plus, Julio brings me corn chips and hot sauce to keep me going. “El Inferno is one of our best,” he says, “if you can take our very spicy enchilada sauce.”

Hmm. Sounds like a challenge. So I go for the shrimp enchilado taco: It comes on a flour tortilla with grilled shrimp “tossed in our spicy creamy sauce, cabbage, pico de gallo, and avocado slice.” I already have a bowl of hot salsa for the chips. But now Julio, who sees I have the hots for genuinely hot salsa, brings me a little bowl of habanero sauce. “Habanero chilis, butter, onion, it’s all in the mix,” he says. And man, it truly ups the ante, just a perfect add to the already nicely garlicky-flavored, I’m guessing, grilled shrimp. The cabbage and the ark of avo make it all more interesting, and luckily I’ve ordered a second pint of Dos Equis — heck, only $3 — as a kind of fire hose.

But I have to say, it’s El Inferno that takes the prize. It’s also on a flour tortilla with “ghost pepper cheese blackened chicken, black beans, corn, topped with our spicy enchilado sauce, and pico.”

The cheese, the blackened chicken, the black beans are so-o tasty. It helps that the blackened chicken is ha-ha-hot with its Ghost Pepper. 

Oh man. Ghost Pepper? I remember now. Guinness Book of Records named it the world’s hottest pepper in 2007. It’s 170 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. (Actually “ghost” is a mistaken translation of the name for the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, one of the countries where the “Bhut” pepper is grown. But people latched onto to a near word that also means “ghost.”)

Whatever, in this mix, the sauce is no way unbearably hot. But is it still hot-hot? Oh yeah. Only thing unbearable is that it disappears so quickly.

Actually, I think both of these tacos are outstanding. And they remind me what a concentrated collision of tastes a taco can be.

And tonight, it has cost me all of $15.70, including two beers and tax. 

I’ll definitely be back for more. On a Tuesday, natch.

  • The Place: Chi Chi’s Mexican Cantina, 2502 San Diego Avenue, 619-326-8222
  • Hours: Mondays, 12 noon till 5pm; Tuesdays, 12-9pm; Wednesday, Thursday, closed; Friday, Saturday, 12-9pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm
  • Prices: Steak quesadilla appetizers, $14.95; Mexican street cob (two ears), $9.95; burger, $10.95 with fries; El Chapo burrito (chicken, pork), $24.95; tacos, $6.50, $19.95 for three with rice, beans; queso fundido (melted dipping cheese), $9.95; habanero wings, $14.99; platter of 3 tacos, with rice and beans, $19.95; 1-taco platter, $9.50
  • Taco Tuesday: all tacos, $3 each; 
  • Buses: 9, 10, 30, 35, 44, 150
  • Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street
  • Trolley: Green Line
  • Nearest trolley stop: Old Town
  • Train: Coaster
  • Nearest train stop: Old Town
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Looking into the inferno: my favorite taco.
Looking into the inferno: my favorite taco.

I think I’m in love.

Again.

With tacos.

I’ve been tramping the streets of Old Town. I can see it’s trying hard to get back on its partying feet. And yes, places like Cafe Coyote and Casa de Fred’s and Tahona Bar seem to be as crowded and sparkling as ever. But, well, the Casa de Bandini — now Cosmopolitan Hotel — and others, they just plain look like they’re still in the trenches.

Place

Chi Chi’s Mexican Cantina

2502 San Diego Avenue, San Diego

But I have an hour to kill and a stomach to fill — hey hey! I’m a poet! — and I’m heading west past the Whaley House (and Whaley’s daughters’ ghosts, who are sometimes out this time of night, dusk, I swear) and I’m looking for a really good Happy Hour deal. You’d think such things would be everywhere at this time. But in this covid economy, but not so much.

Newish sign outside old Antojo. Now the cheeky Chi Chi’s.

Then I cross Harney Street, and bingo! A sign. “Taco Tuesday. All Tacos $3.” “Corona Pints, $3.” “House Marg, $5.” “Pitcher of Marg, $20.” Now we are talking. I climb the steps of this place called “Chi Chi’s.”

“Just having fun with the name,” says Julio, the bartender. “We used to be ‘El Antojo’. But nobody could remember it! Nobody knew what it meant. So we gave it a name that was easy to say and easy to remember and they could laugh at.”

I guess it worked, because, even now, around eight, the place is pretty full. Natch, I start off with the $3 Corona. “Only have Dos Equis,” says Julio. “That okay?”

Absolutely. Like being bumped up to first class in a plane. (If you like Dos Equis like I do.)

Bartender Julio Antonio

I sit up at the bar, because it’s got a nice buzz going. Place has lots of dark brick and dark timber, but the whole front is open to the street below. And in case we forget that people have been traipsing this street for a long time, they have banners on lamp posts featuring dated figures like Father Junipero Serra (1769) and John Fremont, California military Governor (1848).

Meanwhile, I look at the menu. Oh man. It is huge. The whole panoply of Mexicania, from steak quesadilla appetizers ($14.95) to Mexican street cob (two ears of corn, rubbed with Mayo, cheese, cilantro and paprika) for $9.95. In between, we’re looking at burgers (not bad for $10.95), to the El Chapo burrito (“Don’t let this one escape!”) stuffed with chicken and pork, $24.95. Oh, and tacos for $6.50 each, or $19.95 for three. But you get rice and beans with the trio.

I mean I understand: this is tourist land. Things ain’t supposed to be cheap.

Except hey hey once again! We’ve hit this place on Taco Tuesday. Tacos, three bucks each. Any taco. I go through them: fish, shrimp, chicken habanero, ground beef in a hard shell, veggie, fried avocado — interesting! — “street style,” (whatever that means), chicken mole, shrimp enchilada, shark, and seared ahi. Three bucks each!

Behind the cabbage leaf - hot and juicy grilled shrimp.

“Corner!” shouts this server, Catalina. She’s warning other servers coming out of the kitchen. Now she’s waiting on me while I dither. She says the Baja fish taco is popular, as is the blackened chicken or “El Inferno” taco. So, to get things rolling I go for the beef, just because it’s in a hard shell. And when I get it, the ground beef has a strong umami flavor, a good beef extract taste that goes well with the crunchy shell. And while I’m crunching, I’m looking for the next two I wanna have. So far I’ve spent all of six dollars, including the beer. Plus, Julio brings me corn chips and hot sauce to keep me going. “El Inferno is one of our best,” he says, “if you can take our very spicy enchilada sauce.”

Hmm. Sounds like a challenge. So I go for the shrimp enchilado taco: It comes on a flour tortilla with grilled shrimp “tossed in our spicy creamy sauce, cabbage, pico de gallo, and avocado slice.” I already have a bowl of hot salsa for the chips. But now Julio, who sees I have the hots for genuinely hot salsa, brings me a little bowl of habanero sauce. “Habanero chilis, butter, onion, it’s all in the mix,” he says. And man, it truly ups the ante, just a perfect add to the already nicely garlicky-flavored, I’m guessing, grilled shrimp. The cabbage and the ark of avo make it all more interesting, and luckily I’ve ordered a second pint of Dos Equis — heck, only $3 — as a kind of fire hose.

But I have to say, it’s El Inferno that takes the prize. It’s also on a flour tortilla with “ghost pepper cheese blackened chicken, black beans, corn, topped with our spicy enchilado sauce, and pico.”

The cheese, the blackened chicken, the black beans are so-o tasty. It helps that the blackened chicken is ha-ha-hot with its Ghost Pepper. 

Oh man. Ghost Pepper? I remember now. Guinness Book of Records named it the world’s hottest pepper in 2007. It’s 170 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. (Actually “ghost” is a mistaken translation of the name for the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, one of the countries where the “Bhut” pepper is grown. But people latched onto to a near word that also means “ghost.”)

Whatever, in this mix, the sauce is no way unbearably hot. But is it still hot-hot? Oh yeah. Only thing unbearable is that it disappears so quickly.

Actually, I think both of these tacos are outstanding. And they remind me what a concentrated collision of tastes a taco can be.

And tonight, it has cost me all of $15.70, including two beers and tax. 

I’ll definitely be back for more. On a Tuesday, natch.

  • The Place: Chi Chi’s Mexican Cantina, 2502 San Diego Avenue, 619-326-8222
  • Hours: Mondays, 12 noon till 5pm; Tuesdays, 12-9pm; Wednesday, Thursday, closed; Friday, Saturday, 12-9pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm
  • Prices: Steak quesadilla appetizers, $14.95; Mexican street cob (two ears), $9.95; burger, $10.95 with fries; El Chapo burrito (chicken, pork), $24.95; tacos, $6.50, $19.95 for three with rice, beans; queso fundido (melted dipping cheese), $9.95; habanero wings, $14.99; platter of 3 tacos, with rice and beans, $19.95; 1-taco platter, $9.50
  • Taco Tuesday: all tacos, $3 each; 
  • Buses: 9, 10, 30, 35, 44, 150
  • Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street
  • Trolley: Green Line
  • Nearest trolley stop: Old Town
  • Train: Coaster
  • Nearest train stop: Old Town
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