The main reason San Diego is better than LA comes down to the fast food of choice: San Diegans have so many options for tacos, they never have to eat the same place twice. Los Angeles has donut shops. Lots and lots of donut shops. Tacos loom so large in San Diego lore that even non-Mexican restaurants are inspired to include them on the menu. Luckily, locals are discerning taco eaters so even the tacos from non-Mexican restaurants are usually first rate, so it’s not like trying to order steak at an Indian restaurant. But it goes both ways: many Mexican restaurants are being inspired by non-Mexican places, which means the taco is growing, adapting, and will continue to be the vehicle for food innovation it has always been.
560 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
One of downtown’s newest restaurants, El Chingon is definitely trying to mark itself as edgy. Case in point: The Trump-hinting “Making Mexican Great Again” banner over the bar. I disagree with banner — when has Mexican food not been great? — but I can’t argue with the fact that El Chingon makes high quality tacos. The al pastor taco with marinated pork shoulder and grilled pineapple is simultaneously sweet and spicy, while the classic fish taco tastes like it was just pulled out of the Gulf of California. For an extra kick, upgrade the tacos by having the filling topped with fried cheese.
2933 Adams Avenue, University Heights
This unpretentious restaurant specializes in seafood, not Mexican, but does serve two styles of seafood tacos — grilled and fried — and it does it very well. The grilled tacos come with a choice of mahi mahi, shrimp or the catch of the day and are topped with grilled pineapple and tangy kimchi. The batter used for the fried fish, shrimp, or calamari taco is slightly spicy and brings out the flavor of the fish nicely. And, yes, there is lots of beer on the menu at Beerfish (and, if you’re lucky, Gilligan’s Island reruns on the restaurant TVs.)
8583 Aero Drive, Serra Mesa
CARVE is more of a daytime deli catering to local businesses and residents than a full-blown restaurant, but it smokes its own pastrami. Even better: It puts that cured meat on tacos topped with cabbage and Russian dressing. It sounds like it wouldn’t work. Trust me: it works beautifully, proving once again that a tortilla is the perfect canvas. Besides making its own pastrami, CARVE makes its own potato chips and its own soda. That makes diners like me very happy. (See full review of CARVE this Friday on Reader website.)
527 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Gaslamp’s newest Mexican restaurant can seem a little pricey if you’re not used to the downtown upcharge, but the quality is high — especially the carne asada taco, which seems inspired more by Korea than, say, Cabo. The chile-rubbed octopus is also on my crave list thanks to its combo of spicy mayo and tangy pineapple and tender octopus. The Spicy Hacienda margarita is a nice cocktail for food, but the Mezcal-enhanced Smoking Jacket” is a perfect after dinner drink.
3422 30th Street, North Park
This upscale-but-still-casual restaurant doesn’t specialize in Mexican food, but the braised beef cheek tacos on the appetizer menu are worth a double order. Tender and juicy with lots of umami, this taco trio is meant to be a starter dish, but don’t be surprised if you order extra — they’re that good. The Smoke Signals cocktail with Mezcal and citrus is a nice accompaniment.
4130 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Not a Mexican restaurant but it’s hard to top the quality of the cod in their classic fish taco: nice and fresh you can taste the sea. No need to cover it up with salsa (though do so if you choose). It’s a stretch, but if you want to call one of their tangy Bao buns an “Asian taco,” they are definitely worth pairing up. Make sure you ask the bar to make a Fernet con Coca, a cocktail made with tequila, Fernet Branca, and Mexican Coca-Cola — the perfect drink.