4253 Palm Avenue, La Mesa
It’s another of the sheet metal, recycled-wood, chalkboard-beer-menu kind of places that are popping up everywhere. The menu features shrimp, lobster, mahi mahi, and tuna tacos ($5 each), but I like the two “street” tacos. Why the quotation marks? Because that’s what they call them, not what they are. Street tacos to me mean four-inch tortillas, grilled meat, sprinkle of onions, and cilantro. These are gourmet tacos, and a bargain at $6. The menu says beef and chicken. Expect carne asada and pollo asado on six-inch grilled corn tortillas, a smear of frijoles, lettuce, cilantro, tomatoes, cotija, and plenty of guacamole, all served on a square white dinner plate. Thirty beers, mostly locals, on tap.
1015 Grand Avenue, Spring Valley
Emily’s Taco Shop & Birrieria
Places like this are the spiritual home of tacos. It sits on the ground floor of an oddly undersized strip mall/office building in a working-class neighborhood surrounded by self-storage lots, an iron works, nail salons, and barber shops. And you have to admire the chutzpah of the hip-looking young owners for opening this joint next to a more-established-looking Mexican restaurant. They named their venture after their daughter. As the rest of the name suggests birria — spicy Mexican stew of beef or goat — is the specialty here. The $4 birria taco comes on a six-inch grilled tortilla stuffed with juicy, slow-cooked meat. So often stewed meats are dry. Not here. The juice is in the meat, not the broth. The presentation is simple — tortilla, birria, onion, cilantro — and simply delicious. Enjoy a basket of warm house-made tortilla chips accented with one of the house-made salsas. Emily’s opened in January this year. I hope they are around for the 2018 taco issue. Judging by the full crowd of diners cramming the dining room on my last visit, they should be.
This place is a bona fide food pilgrimage site, at least for me. It’s a 6-by-12-foot hut sitting on a sidewalk pop-out at the corner of Castillo and Calle Quinta, five blocks inland from Ensenada’s waterfront. They serve two things here: shrimp tacos and fish tacos. The fish are the main attraction. Patrons crowd the corner watching their diminutive $1 tacos being crafted one at a time. The chef batters, fries, and plates — in a little cardboard caddy — each taco with fresh cabbage and crema. You can choose from a dozen or so homemade salsas in reused water bottles sitting on the counter. Though I love a good salsa, I never use them. They would only distract from the perfection of steamy white fish inside of golden crunchy battering. One ought not gild a lily.
7287 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
My aversion to the word “factory” in restaurant names prevented me from trying this taquería for a couple of years. That’s two years of satisfying taco scarfing in a funky, fun environment I will never get back. But I’m trying to make up for lost time. The adobada taco ($4) nears perfection. So often, adobada is an off-putting hyper-red color. Here it’s smoky brown in appearance, the pork has a smoky chili flavor to it. It’s spicy but not to the exclusion of good pork flavor. The chicken chipotle taco ($4.75) combines the warm smokiness of chipotle with a fluffy creaminess supplied by crema and grilled cheese. It’s a revelation.
47th Street and Federal Avenue, Webster
I’ve watched with mixed feelings as the crowds outside this food truck around lunch time have grown over the last year or so. I’m glad they are doing well but a little bummed at having to wait longer for my favorite fish taco north of Ensenada. Still, some things are worth the wait, and this taco is one one them. For $1.75, they give you two good-sized chunks of fish on a corn tortilla with a little cabbbage and crema. I’ve eaten dozens of these tacos, and never once was the fish anything but perfectly battered and fried. Never oily, never scorched, always a delightful crunch followed by steamy white fish. The obligatory cup of seafood soup while you wait makes this a filling, satisfying lunch for under two bucks. The mix of eaters— from suit-clad executives to boot-wearing laborers sometimes lined up 20 deep— makes the people-watching in the makeshift eating area a big part of the fun.