In 2019, my 12-year old and I went for tacos at a hip new taqueria in our San Diego neighborhood. We ordered a variety to sample as it was our first visit. After only his second taco, Wolfgang slumped in his seat and sighed, “We’re not in Mexico, are we?” As the son of a writer reporting on Mexican cuisine, he’s had tacos from Oaxaca to Tijuana. He knows what he likes. And he was right.
These tacos weren’t “spit it in your napkin” bad. But they were insipid. Uninspired. The fish taco was gingerly battered and fried in canola oil. That’s great for health-conscious San Diegans. But it made me miss Ensenada — where beer’s in the batter and filets are fried in decidedly unhealthy, decadent pork fat.
The carne asada (marinated and grilled steak) didn’t have the smoke of woodfire or the flavorful crust acquired from a well-seasoned grill. Salsas ranged from embarrassingly to laughingly mild. Tortillas were flaccid and flavorless. They were tacos engineered by gringos for gringo tastes. Fashioned from the blueprint of similar native-friendly taquerias in San Diego.
Fortunately, we live in a border city with a large Mexican population who demand the authenticity of home. They’re not frequenting spots like those mentioned above. Conversely, there are scant gringos at most of these places in my top ten. Which is usually a good sign that what you’re about to eat is fairly close to the Real Deal.
Quesabirria tacos at Tacos el Gallo
Tacos el Gallo
I was thrilled when Tijuana’s Tacos el Gallo opened shop in El Cajon last year. When I close my eyes and tuck into their succulent tacos of birria de res (spiced and stewed beef), tangy adobada (marinated pork from the spit) and superb carne asada, I’m transported to Tijuana’s streets.
569 North 2nd Street, El Cajon, CA 92021
Campechana taco at El Prieto
El Prieto Food Truck
The friend who introduced me to El Prieto in Chula Vista wasn’t happy when I began recommending his “secret spot”. The birria’s sublime. Tacos of tripa (beef small intestine) are pleasingly seasoned and fried until crunchy. Can’t decide? The overindulgent taco Campechana combines carne asada, cabeza (beef head), adobada and tripa.
3031 Main Street #3029, Chula Vista, CA 91911
Barbacoa taco at Aqui es Texcoco
Aqui es Texcoco
Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista specializes in Barbacoa (pit-roasted mutton). One can order perfectly roasted barbacoa or an entire sheep’s head. They also serve quesotacos — a griddled round of cheese in place of a tortilla filled with moronga (Mexican blood sausage), sesos (beef brain) pancita (sheep stomach) and more.
520 Broadway, Chula Vista, CA 91910
Fish Tacos from Casanova Fish Tacos
Casanova Fish Tacos
Hector Casanova’s mastery of Baja California style fish tacos is evident in every fried filet. He follows Ensenada tradition by using angelito, thresher shark, opah and yellowtail. You have to be nimble to catch the best fish taco in town — Casanova caters and does pop-ups at microbreweries, wineries and events.
Visit their Facebook page for pop-up locations
Tripa, tongue and birria tacos from La Fachada
Barrio Logan is always on the edge of gentrification. Fortunately, there’s still a lot of local charm and food to be discovered. La Fachada’s patio and order window in Logan Heights make me feel like I’m at a Mexico City stall. It’s nothing fancy, but their tacos of tripa and lengua (beef tongue) are totally legit.
20 25th Street, San Diego, CA 92102
Beef bone marrow and birria tacos from Tuétano Taqueria
Chef Priscilla Curiel stews playfully seasoned birria with grilled tuétano (beef bone marrow) at her San Ysidro-based Tuétano Taqueria. Several tacos on the menu here are difficult to find elsewhere in San Diego – including rajas (Poblano pepper strips bathed in cream) and conchinita pibil (shredded pork in achiote and citrus).
143 W San Ysidro Boulevard, San Ysidro, CA 92173
Cabeza, birria, al pastor and machaca tacos from BXB Taqueria
Barrio Logan’s Border X Brewing crafts Mexican-inspired cervezas like Horchata Golden Stout. Their beers pair perfectly with tacos from BXB Taqueria. Al pastor is juicy with the right notes of chiles, achiote and citrus. They also have tacos of delectable machaca (shredded and dried beef), hard to find even in authentic San Diego taquerias.
2181 Logan Avenue, San Diego, CA 92113
Carnitas Taco at Nacho’s Taco Shop
Nacho’s Taco Shop
One can be a total gringo and order the California Burrito at Nacho’s in La Mesa. But the quality of ingredients is beyond what’s available at other San Diego shops. Corn tortillas are warm and pillowy. And they don’t skimp on fillings — carnitas, carne asada or chunky cuts of tender lengua.
7589 University Avenue, La Mesa, CA 91942
Chicken birria tacos at Corazón de Torta
Corazón de Torta
Corazón de Torta is Tijuana chef José Figueroa and gadabout gourmand Antonio Ley’s love child. They serve guisados (stewed meat or vegetables) from their truck, which pops-up at breweries, dispensaries and events around San Diego. Order the dirty carne asada, chicharron (fried pork skin) in salsa verde or chicken birria.
Visit their Facebook page for pop-up locations
Chavez Especial taco at El Tío Pepe Food Truck
El Tío Pepe Food Truck
Chula Vista’s El Tío Pepe is another Tijuana transplant. Pepe moved to the border city from Guadalajara in 1994 and sold tortas ahogada (pork sandwich in salsa) and carnitas. I love the Chavez Especial taco — surtida (a combination of pork meats) heaped onto a warm, house-made corn tortilla and topped with griddled cheese.
3740 Main Street, Chula Vista, CA 91911