Tacos may have been designed to be eaten on the go, but I prefer to take my time toggling between tacos and tequila, ideally a nice añejo. While I enjoy a compact street taco from a sidewalk vendor or food truck, I much prefer to enjoy my savory prize-packed tortillas while seated and served. Sure, there’s a surcharge for table service and a la carte tacos aren’t an option at all restaurants, but that’s a small price to pay for the ability to slow down and savor your tacos. Here are my standbys for tremendous tacos in a stress-free setting.
141 University Avenue, Hillcrest
A restaurant that looks and feels like it belongs a few miles over in Old Town, without all the frazzled looking tourists. Here I can relax beneath a canopy of bougainvillea on a quiet patio, sip on a tamarind margarita, and luxuriate in a plate of Poblano Queso Tacos ($10.99). For these cheese and veggie-centric tacos, Oaxacan cheese is melted onto soft, homemade corn tortillas and buried beneath a pile of sautéed poblano chiles, sweet and savory caramelized onions, earthy and refreshing black bean corn salsa, all topped with a blend of cotija and fresco cheese, with just enough saltiness to enhance the flavors of everything beneath it.
2934 Adams Avenue, North Park
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
You know a place has cred when it’s packed with restaurant industry peeps, as Cantina Mayahuel often is (especially on Mondays, the day off for many chefs). Extensive tequila and mezcal offerings aside, this cozy, always-crowded cantina continues to hold the title for my favorite tacos in town. Namely, the chicken ($4.50), which is grilled with tartly sweet pineapple juice and smoky chipotle sauce then topped with cabbage, tropical salsa, crema, and a sprinkle of a deeply rich hot sauce. It comes with ancho mayo, but this mayo-averse taco lover has hers without, and there’s still a pleasant mixture of flavors.
4141 Adams Avenue, Kensington
The only place on my list that is not all about tacos (or even Mexican food), Kensington Cafe still serves them up right. Though the dinner menu features carnitas (pulled pork, pickled onions, avocado, arugula, feta and crema for $13) and unique fish tacos (salmon, topped with seasonal fruit salsa for $12.95), my favorite is the lunch-only option, Pio Pico Tacos ($10.50) served with a side of black beans. In these soft flour tortilla tacos is savory soyrizo, creamy ripe avocado, and soft, chewy chunks of potato, topped with crema and green onions. Because this plate is on the brunch menu, you can add scrambled eggs for $2.50, though I prefer mine without.
4642 Park Boulevard, University Heights
This casual neighborhood joint serves quintessential Cali-Mex including an array of seafood taco options including shrimp, salmon, scallop, lobster, mahi-mahi, and calamari. Less greasy than our bounty of 24-hour ‘berto options, here I can rest assured that the fish will taste fresh, the veggies will be bright and colorful, and the chicken and beef will have been liberated from gristle. Most of the tacos are served with shredded cabbage, big hunks of tomato, shredded jack cheese, and a small stream of crema. And the best part? The battered and fried fish tacos are only a buck each.
1435 SIxth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Known mostly for its famous chilaquiles, this modern looking “old school Mexican” spot serves up tacos de guisado, which means that, just like when Mom is cooking, the braised meats and stew fillings for your tortilla change as regularly as suits the chef. You create your taco plate (3 tacos, rice, and beans, $10.50) by choosing handmade corn or flour tortillas and the guisado of your choice. Ideally, the house special, cocinita pibil, will be on offer. This slow-roasted, mixed spice pork is a rich, savory and sweet delicacy that hails from the Yucatán Peninsula, but tastes right at home in San Diego.
2706 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
As whimsical and colorful as a scene out of last year’s popular animated flick Coco, Barrio Star feeds your eyes as well as your stomach. Here there are ten taco plates to choose from, each carrying three tacos with homemade corn tortillas. Among my favorite are the carnitas tacos ($13.75), with oven-baked pork that is tender and not too greasy, avocado sauce, the mild chile guajillo, topped with fresh onion and cilantro. Whichever you choose, the carnitas, grilled chicken, or even the shrimp tacos with Thai slaw all pair well with the Roasted Jalepeño Blackberry margarita.