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Tuétano Taqueria: Old Town has good bones

Cool cognoscenti sit under the heaters, scraping away at marrow

Birria taco with tuetano, marrow-filled shank.
Birria taco with tuetano, marrow-filled shank.

Honestly, I walked up through Old Town without a lot of hope. These have been tough days, specially for Congress, and I don’t mean DC. I’m talking about the Cinderella street, the one that always plays bridesmaid to San Diego Avenue’s bride. Everybody makes a beeline for the Avenue, with its line of tourist traps like Casa de Fred’s and Old Town Mexican Cafe. (Me too. Because, yes, they can be tortilla-slapping fun.)

Place

Tuétano Taqueria

2548 Congress St., San Diego

But. I’ve just come from a bunch of disappointments. Places that promised Happy Hour and didn’t deliver. Last was the Guadalajara, which goes as far as a happy hour with free food. It’s one of those traditionally merry places like the Rockin’ Baja Lobster, the one in the old hacienda on Twiggs street. Problem? I get to the Guadalajara, and no happy hour. “Can’t get enough staff,” says the guy.

I feel bad for him, but now I have this other idea. I’m back on Congress. It’s early evening. Not too many places open, some closed for the Big Sleep, victims of these hard times. Hmm. Sure feels like Cinderella after the clock has struck. But what’s this? At the corner of Congress and Twiggs, fresh paint, murals! A big sign: “Hola!”  Another: “Urban Market.” “A curated Food Hall experience.”

Taqueria Tuetano in new Old Town quarters on Congress.

So we’ll forgive them using the World’s Most Annoying Word, “curated,” mainly because I look above the stairs, and it’s buzzing with peeps! Oh yeah! So this is the place. Its chef, Priscilla Curiel, got recognized by the Michelin Guide, no less. Man! My attitude changes. I try to act dignified. I climb the nine steps and it’s like a secret society’s discreet get-together. Cool cognoscenti sit under heaters, scraping away at marrow bones while they look deep inside the bone to catch every last globule, and then deep into their novias’ eyes. Heh heh. So this is Tuétano Taqueria. I thought that was down in San Ysidro! That cute little yellow shopfront they had. Seems it’s closed, and this has replaced it. Tuétano (“Too Wett’eno”)? Bone marrow pulp. Bone marrow is actually the most dee-lish gunk you have ever slurped, or laid down on your taco. And it’s full of good energy. Think about grandma’s bone broth cure!

“Welcome,” says this guy, Cesar. He hands over a menu and reminds me that the tuetano bones come with a birria taco. “Birria?” I always forget.

“Stew. The slow-cooked braised meat, the shoulder. We cook it in an adobo sauce with dried up chiles, spices like cinnamon, garlic, and onions, for 36 hours, and then we strain it and cook the meat in that same sauce for 12 hours. It’s slow-cooked, braised and shredded. Then we put it in a tortilla and call it a birria taco. With the marrow, totally delicious.”

Grace, Maribella (10), Abby (12), Eli (13, JJ (14), Carolina, drove miles for their tuetanos.

Hmm. He’s almost persuaded me. But first, I need to check out the alternatives. I see ceviche bowls run about $22, two fish tacos are $16, two and smoked marlin burritos cost $16. I’m tempted by the “birri” torta, partly because it’s on a bolillo, a kind of bread I love, and it has avo, salsa, onions. But it costs $18. So maybe the best deal if you’re strapped is a cheese quesadilla for $5, or a birria quesadilla that runs $10. But what I’m looking for is the $11 birria. Meaning a birria taco with a big tuetano. (Also, there are other tacos, and hey hey! Most around the $6 mark. A simple birria taco is $6, $6.50 with cheese.) And you know what? I enjoy pickin’ at the bone, but it is that birria meat (plus the corn tortilla) that wins my heart. Dang but it’s good. And the thing that puts it over the top is the matcha hot sauce that they make here. It’s a beautiful taste add.

I see they have plenty of Mexican beers, and Mexican beers are starting to make waves. I get a nice stout from Cervezeria Rrey. Yes, two r’s. Short for Monterrey, Mexico, where the company started 7 years ago. Costs $9.

“But that’s not all,” says Cesar. “We’re part of the Old Town Urban Market.” And he takes me outside to different spaces around the deck. It reminds me of National City’s Market On 8th (see last week’s column). “We have Mar Rustico, our seafood cafe,” says Cesar. “There’s going to be a wine house, a salsa maker, a Mexican cookie and candy place, a coffee dessert place… We’re just getting started!”

Serious business: owner Francisco has built a rep on his tuetano tacos. Now expanding.

So I’m sitting, chewing away in one of the couch areas, listening to the whisssh of the 5 freeway, as daylight fades and drivers switch on their headlights, when I notice next door, two women and their four kids, all chewing into their tuetanos. They’re kind of model moms and kids, speaking Spanish, then English, then Spanish again. Polite as they come. Turns out one of the moms, Carolina, is involved with a winery, Altissima, in Temecula. She had heard about this place up there.

“Our customers follow us up from our San Ysidro location,” says Francisco, the owner. I avoid asking about the Michelin, but I have to ask about “tuetano.” “It means ‘bone,’ maybe like ‘flute,’” Francisco says. “But nobody really knows.” I finish my stout and head on out. Man, I’m hoping this is going to work for them. For starters, it’ll be a great place for folks wanting to escape the whole standard tourist craziness next door. Maybe, specially with the Michelin Man’s help, this is where Old Town finds its feet again.

  • The Place: Tuétano Taqueria, 2548 Congress Street, Old Town, 619-856-7013
  • Hours: 11am-7pm, daily (till 8pm, Friday thru Sunday)
  • Prices: Birria Taco, $6; birria taco with cheese, $6.50; cheese quesadilla, $5; birria quesadilla with beans, $10.50; birria with cheese on a handmade tortilla, $6.75; birria torta, $18; ceviche Sonora (octopus, shrimp, aguachile), $23
  • Buses: All Old Town buses (8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 83, 84, 88, 105)
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Old Town Transit Center
  • Trolleys: Blue Line, Green Line
  • Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town
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Birria taco with tuetano, marrow-filled shank.
Birria taco with tuetano, marrow-filled shank.

Honestly, I walked up through Old Town without a lot of hope. These have been tough days, specially for Congress, and I don’t mean DC. I’m talking about the Cinderella street, the one that always plays bridesmaid to San Diego Avenue’s bride. Everybody makes a beeline for the Avenue, with its line of tourist traps like Casa de Fred’s and Old Town Mexican Cafe. (Me too. Because, yes, they can be tortilla-slapping fun.)

Place

Tuétano Taqueria

2548 Congress St., San Diego

But. I’ve just come from a bunch of disappointments. Places that promised Happy Hour and didn’t deliver. Last was the Guadalajara, which goes as far as a happy hour with free food. It’s one of those traditionally merry places like the Rockin’ Baja Lobster, the one in the old hacienda on Twiggs street. Problem? I get to the Guadalajara, and no happy hour. “Can’t get enough staff,” says the guy.

I feel bad for him, but now I have this other idea. I’m back on Congress. It’s early evening. Not too many places open, some closed for the Big Sleep, victims of these hard times. Hmm. Sure feels like Cinderella after the clock has struck. But what’s this? At the corner of Congress and Twiggs, fresh paint, murals! A big sign: “Hola!”  Another: “Urban Market.” “A curated Food Hall experience.”

Taqueria Tuetano in new Old Town quarters on Congress.

So we’ll forgive them using the World’s Most Annoying Word, “curated,” mainly because I look above the stairs, and it’s buzzing with peeps! Oh yeah! So this is the place. Its chef, Priscilla Curiel, got recognized by the Michelin Guide, no less. Man! My attitude changes. I try to act dignified. I climb the nine steps and it’s like a secret society’s discreet get-together. Cool cognoscenti sit under heaters, scraping away at marrow bones while they look deep inside the bone to catch every last globule, and then deep into their novias’ eyes. Heh heh. So this is Tuétano Taqueria. I thought that was down in San Ysidro! That cute little yellow shopfront they had. Seems it’s closed, and this has replaced it. Tuétano (“Too Wett’eno”)? Bone marrow pulp. Bone marrow is actually the most dee-lish gunk you have ever slurped, or laid down on your taco. And it’s full of good energy. Think about grandma’s bone broth cure!

“Welcome,” says this guy, Cesar. He hands over a menu and reminds me that the tuetano bones come with a birria taco. “Birria?” I always forget.

“Stew. The slow-cooked braised meat, the shoulder. We cook it in an adobo sauce with dried up chiles, spices like cinnamon, garlic, and onions, for 36 hours, and then we strain it and cook the meat in that same sauce for 12 hours. It’s slow-cooked, braised and shredded. Then we put it in a tortilla and call it a birria taco. With the marrow, totally delicious.”

Grace, Maribella (10), Abby (12), Eli (13, JJ (14), Carolina, drove miles for their tuetanos.

Hmm. He’s almost persuaded me. But first, I need to check out the alternatives. I see ceviche bowls run about $22, two fish tacos are $16, two and smoked marlin burritos cost $16. I’m tempted by the “birri” torta, partly because it’s on a bolillo, a kind of bread I love, and it has avo, salsa, onions. But it costs $18. So maybe the best deal if you’re strapped is a cheese quesadilla for $5, or a birria quesadilla that runs $10. But what I’m looking for is the $11 birria. Meaning a birria taco with a big tuetano. (Also, there are other tacos, and hey hey! Most around the $6 mark. A simple birria taco is $6, $6.50 with cheese.) And you know what? I enjoy pickin’ at the bone, but it is that birria meat (plus the corn tortilla) that wins my heart. Dang but it’s good. And the thing that puts it over the top is the matcha hot sauce that they make here. It’s a beautiful taste add.

I see they have plenty of Mexican beers, and Mexican beers are starting to make waves. I get a nice stout from Cervezeria Rrey. Yes, two r’s. Short for Monterrey, Mexico, where the company started 7 years ago. Costs $9.

“But that’s not all,” says Cesar. “We’re part of the Old Town Urban Market.” And he takes me outside to different spaces around the deck. It reminds me of National City’s Market On 8th (see last week’s column). “We have Mar Rustico, our seafood cafe,” says Cesar. “There’s going to be a wine house, a salsa maker, a Mexican cookie and candy place, a coffee dessert place… We’re just getting started!”

Serious business: owner Francisco has built a rep on his tuetano tacos. Now expanding.

So I’m sitting, chewing away in one of the couch areas, listening to the whisssh of the 5 freeway, as daylight fades and drivers switch on their headlights, when I notice next door, two women and their four kids, all chewing into their tuetanos. They’re kind of model moms and kids, speaking Spanish, then English, then Spanish again. Polite as they come. Turns out one of the moms, Carolina, is involved with a winery, Altissima, in Temecula. She had heard about this place up there.

“Our customers follow us up from our San Ysidro location,” says Francisco, the owner. I avoid asking about the Michelin, but I have to ask about “tuetano.” “It means ‘bone,’ maybe like ‘flute,’” Francisco says. “But nobody really knows.” I finish my stout and head on out. Man, I’m hoping this is going to work for them. For starters, it’ll be a great place for folks wanting to escape the whole standard tourist craziness next door. Maybe, specially with the Michelin Man’s help, this is where Old Town finds its feet again.

  • The Place: Tuétano Taqueria, 2548 Congress Street, Old Town, 619-856-7013
  • Hours: 11am-7pm, daily (till 8pm, Friday thru Sunday)
  • Prices: Birria Taco, $6; birria taco with cheese, $6.50; cheese quesadilla, $5; birria quesadilla with beans, $10.50; birria with cheese on a handmade tortilla, $6.75; birria torta, $18; ceviche Sonora (octopus, shrimp, aguachile), $23
  • Buses: All Old Town buses (8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 83, 84, 88, 105)
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Old Town Transit Center
  • Trolleys: Blue Line, Green Line
  • Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town
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