I know what I like. No matter what the cuisine, I go here for this, there for that, and somewhere else for a third thing. Up and down the coast, inland and outland, there are taquerias where I can get my favorite fish taco, my favorite carnitas, or my favorite adobada. Generally, if a place makes one thing great, they’ll at least do everything else well. But I know what I like, so let me share at least one of my jams from half a dozen of my preferred taco haunts.
820 Birmingham Drive, Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Volume. One word. It’s the key to El Pueblo’s greatness. People order fish tacos here 20 at a time, and the fryers never cease to pop and sizzle. When you’re making this many tacos, “piping hot” is the only option.
North County peeps know. They line up. They don’t care that El Pueblo hangs off the edge of a Valero; the taqueria equivalent of a Ruth’s Chris sharing a Kmart parking lot. They like it that way. They also like the fact that it never closes and that the breakfast burritos are surprisingly good no matter what time of day.
It’s okay, you’ve probably never heard of it.
Pepe’s is so underground, it only has four reviews on Yelp.
Pepe’s isn’t even a taco shop. It’s a Mexican grocery store (where you can get bomb tortillas whenever you’re “up the hill,” as they say) that used to be a Pizza Hut. There is one table and a few seats at the hammered-steel counter. A single cook serves up dangerously delicious pollo asado tacos and oodles of country charm. Go carefully with the extra-hot salsa and make sure to get cueritos (pork skin) if it’s available.
4404 Texas Street, University Heights
Every time I see a stuffed marlin on the wall of some restaurant or other, I think to myself, Damn, there go 400 marlin tacos nobody will ever get to eat. Smoked and shredded Baja-style marlin makes an amazing taco when it’s hot off the plancha with peppers and celery, some molten cheese, and a few squeezes of lime. Use caution with the notoriously spicy onions beneath the salsa bar, and plan to wait around if you go anywhere near peak hours. When the weather turns hot, clamatos, cocteles, and really good aquachiles will cool you back down.
689 H Street, Chula Vista
Tacos el Gordo
The tower of marinated pork loin adobada exudes a river of sensuous fatty juices. Cabeza (head meat), buche (pork stomach), tripa, lengua, and even sesos (pork brains, not always available) simmer in massive steam tables.
3265 Palm Avenue, Otay Mesa
Thankfully, I can order whatever I want, and, when the guy chopping the meat says, “You want everything on it?” I know to always say, “Yes!”
Pro tip: when the scene gets too packed at H street, slide on over to 3265 Palm Avenue and patronize a scaled-down (but still muy Gordo) location with a much higher parking-spot-to-table ratio.
3645 University Avenue, City Heights
Their sign features an anthropomorphic pig gleefully smiling as he prods at a smaller pig in a large cauldron. Porky is full-on cooking his own species, and they both seem pleased as punch. If that’s not hardcore enough (it should be), a greasy window right by the door is all that separates diners from a mountain of carnitas, ready to be chopped to order and served with hot tortillas. It’s hot, so resist the temptation to drool all over the glass. Just order a pound of the best carnitas, served of course with tortillas and salsa. Stack. Wrap. Grind. Repeat.
520 Broadway number 5 and 6, Chula Vista
Aqui es Texcoco
I could come here over and over again and never order anything other than the barbacoa. How could you improve on a huge plate of chopped, roasted lamb; hot tortillas; lamb broth for sipping; salsa; lime; onion; and cilantro? It’s build-your-own taco heaven. Of course, the huitlacoche quesataco (corn truffles rolled up inside a sheet of fried cheese) is glorious, and the barbecued lamb head (ripe for the pickin’!) scares the kiddies and yields tasty taco meat. Smaller appetites can order individual tacos made from the different cuts of barbacoa: rib, tripe, head, belly, or plain old meat.