San Diego tacos – good, bad, ugly

TJ street tacos, Lydia's Chuey's, Consuelo's, El India, Su Casa, Jack in the Box

I crave tacos. I once won a bet in high school by eating 24 of them at an international dinner sponsored by our language teachers. Every time I leave San Diego on a trip, I get a horrible hunger for them and can hardly wait to come back home to my favorite food. That's the nice thing about San Diego. On every corner a restaurant that serves tacos. Not even counting the fast-food stands, there are 103 Mexican restaurants listed in the San Diego Yellow Pages. So, in a way, tacos are to San Diego what bagels and blintzes are to New York, shrimp creole is to New Orleans, and clam chowder is to New England. But the important question for those of us who want to consider ourselves serious San Diegans is where the best tacos in town can be bought. Thus, I have attempted a survey — rough because it can't hope to be comprehensive, and rough because, after two weeks of eating nothing but tacos for lunch and dinner, I'm somehow losing my taste for this great food.

GOOD

One of the best buys I've dug up is the everyday Tijuana taco vendor. The one, for example, who stands on the corner of 7th and Madero Streets in a muffler shop parking lot just east of the Jai Alai Palace. He sells 20-cent tacos which include two (!) fresh, odoriferous tortillas wrapped around onions, mint leaves, lettuce, cheese, and — beef (uh, I think it's beef). They taste good and I haven't gotten sick on them yet.

For those who want to restrict themselves to north of the border, several places stand out. Lydia's Place on Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach is a must just because it is in Imperial Beach. A Navy officer once told me that Imperial Beach is "nothing but dopers, Navy enlisted, and lower-class Mexicans." A hippie woman I know calls it "Ethereal Beach." And a Coronado realtor tells me that "I.B. is really gonna boom someday." If it does boom, Lydia's may be one of the few places that could survive a boom. At Lydia's when you order a machaca taco (60 cents), you get a taco with an incredibly generous portion of shredded beef, stuffed under shredded lettuce and cheese. A free salad bowl of unsalted tortilla chips. This shredded beef taco isn't as easy to eat as the hamburger meat taco; sometimes if you get a hold of one strand of beef with your incisors, the whole chunk will slip out of the taco. But eating tacos is basically a messy affair anyway; I've only eaten one that didn't drip. One of the best things about Lydia's is sitting in one of the front booths and facing the seemingly juxtaposed portraits of John F. Kennedy (in color) on the left and Pancho Villa (in black and white) on the right.

Chuey's grabs your imagination in almost the same way as Lydia's. A green quonset hut set in the middle of the Mexican-American section at Crosby and Main Streets. Latin selections on the jukebox. Some uptown people with coats and ties at the tables, some Latins at the counter. A series of semi-obscene handbills tacked on the walls: "If you got a little last night, SMILE." And so on. A taco like Lydia's: lots of shredded beef, perhaps spicier, but only 47 cents.

Consuelo's in Ocean Beach, Hillcrest and Rancho Bernardo charges an outrageous 60 cents for a hamburger meat taco, but one can't complain too much because they serve a free quesadilla, a flour toritlla covered with a sizzling yellow-orange cheese.

The manager of El Indio (on India Street, just south of Washington, Ralph Pesqueira, says his family has been in the tortilla and taco business for 33 years. They make taquitos, that is, rolled or flauta ("You know, like a flute") tacos because so many of the nicely dressed secretaries come up to India Street from downtown on their lunch breaks, and flauta tacos don't drip on their nice clothes. Pasqueira claims that his family uses no preservatives in the tortillas ("that's why we can't sell them in supermarkets"). Like a very efficient factory manager, Ralph Pesqueira walks through the tortilla assembly line at El Indio, from the vats of corn being softened with lime powder ("the Indians used to use the ashes from their fires") through the corn grinder, with grindstones made from volcanic rock, to the oven itself, which bakes each tortilla three times. El Indio's flauta tacos are delicious and cost only 22 cents.

BAD

It's not that the food at La Jolla's Su Casa is rotten. Where else could you get a taco served on a piece of romaine lettuce with a red, white, and green paper Mexican flag-on-a-toothpick planted in it? And you get a nice saltine-cracker basket full of salted tortilla chips. But does that make up for the face that the tortilla is one of those preformed ones, or the fact that it takes 15 minutes to get served, or the 95 cents one is asked to pay for such a taco? I don't think so.

UGLY

I have a confession to make. I'm addicted to Jack in the Box tacos. It's an addiction I'm somewhat ashamed of, now that I know the people behind these tacos a little bit better. "is this for an underground paper?" the Foodmaker receptionist asked when I called. Foodmaker is the maker of Jack in the Box food. "Are you doing this story from a negative angle or a positive angle?" demanded Mr. Battenfield, Foodmaker's director of marketing and communications.

Before he even admitted the contents of the Jack in the Box taco, Mr. Battenfield got very defensive about soya beans. "you don't know what's in what you eat! Did you know you're eating soya beans in your ice cream?" Put on the spot, I had to admit that I didn't know. As if he were working for some political bureaucracy, Mr. Battenfield had to "staff out" my questions about Jack in the Box tacos and call me back. In his return call, he read a comically legalistic statement about Foodmaker not wanting to divulge the percentages of the taco filling's composition for fear of competitors copying the recipe. He read the list of 18 ingredients, graciously spelling "Worcestershite" for me, and said that although his legal people had said not to say anything about the percentage of soya bean in the tacos, he assured me that it is "nowhere near" 50 percent.

Asked if the tacos were fried in vegetable oil or lard (most of the restaurants I talked to said they used vegetable oil because of the cholesterol in lard), Mr. Battenfield read a statement that described the oil as "a combination of animal and vegetable fats that enhances the natural beef flavors."

Foodmaker makes their own tortillas in their plant on Balboa Avenue, the stuffing and tortilla are then frozen, and after the taco is allowed to thaw out at the individual Jack in the Box, it is quick fried for two minutes and complemented with a slice of cheese and some shredded lettuce. Jack in the Box tacos are 29 cents each. Because I'm such an addict, and thus an interested party, I won't describe the taco. Besides, a friend of mine has just finished a qualitative analysis of the Jack in the Box taco, is considering opening a similar fast food chain, and has asked me not to talk too much, for fear of other competitors copying the recipe.

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