Tacos El Rorro
The thing about Rolando, El Rorro’s owner, is he gets his shrimp from the ocean, not fish farms. These little guys have exercised, lived real lives of chase, chomp, and run. Not fat farm feeders. And you can tell. The camaron a la plancha — grilled shrimp taco — is juicy, vibrant, and cooked to an edge of sautéed crispiness. And then get doused in a to-die-for creamy garlicky sauce. You get two for $8. Also really good, the gobernador, with shrimp, cheese, and veggies (2 for $8). Regular meat tacos (carne asada, adobada) are 3 for $8.
703 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
There are lots of Oscar’s. This is the original. An actual hole in an actual wall. Hard to find? Around sunset, you just have to follow the crowd of North PBians and Baja Jollans. Every age, rich, poor, some guys pulling up in Porsches, others screeching in by skateboard. Why? For one taco, the taco especial. It’s stuffed with smoked fish, shrimp, scallops. Or octopus. Plus avo and tons of other fixin’s. Costs $4.90. Too much? For $1.99, your straight but filling battered-fish taco. And don’t even think of not eating it right here, seated shoulder-to-shoulder on stools at the narrow plank sidewalk tables. Lunge in. Feel the flavors. Drip shamelessly. Conversation opener? How about “Mmmm”?
2401 Highland Avenue #104, National City
Birria Chivos & Cheves
Your go-to goat fix. Birrias (stews) are famously good in Guadalajara, where the chef (and owner’s wife) learned the art. And they get their goat from New Zealand. It’s the purest goat meat because the goats are taken from the wild. Wild forest flavors in the meat. Not greasy. And tender. Especially after six hours’ slow cooking. And the killer thing: it tastes less gamey than farmed goat. You don’t get that goaty smell. Best add: the homemade sesame sauce (ajonjoli). Basic cost: $1.89, but Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, $1.50 small-taco specials. Always busy. And, because goat is considered the party meat, you often see quinceañeras, birthdays, weddings. Makes for great atmos.
3561 University Avenue, City Heights
Come here at night. It feels like ol’ TJ. Also, say, Cambodia. The huge, ghostly-lit ficus trees make it look like a jungle clearing. Even though University Avenue is just a parking lot away. Cross to the bright-lit yellow, green, maroon deck, tiny under the trees. Smells of meat sautéeing, but no menu. Just ask the ladies flipping tortillas on the hot plate with their fingers what they have. Probably adobada, carne asada, and maybe birria. Things to love: the double-wrapped, slightly crisp corn tortilla, fried with oil on the hot plate; the slightly crunchy, super tender carne asada and the tons of salsas (and hot? Pile in plenty of guac to temper it). Most tacos, $1.50 each. Shrimp tacos, $2.50.
317 Dewey Street, Logan Heights
It don’t get realer than here. Chiquibaby's is a little cantina, family-style. Lots of karaoke, pool, soccer on TV, laughs. Mostly Spanish conversation. List of botanas includes tacos. Carne asada, chicken, adobada, of course, and look for chicharron: interesting in a taco. They cost $1.99 each. For $3.99, you get their scrumptious tostadas de ceviche. More expensive, but how expansive! Generous piles of camarones, and crisp chopped veggies like jicama, cucumber, tomato, avo. But if you ask, you can get extras from Mexico’s deep south, flavorings like chamoy (pickled plum), deep-fried Japanese peanuts (actually Mexican), and chacachaca, spicy tamarind candy chunks. Try and come Monday or Thursday nights. Why? Karaoke. Time to practice your “Aye-yi-yi-yi!”