Wednesday 7 March 2012

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - the Mexican food of San Diego

"I can't believe you didn't get to try any fish tacos!" was my sister's first thought on my return from San Diego all the way back in 2010. If this area of Southern California is famous for anything food wise, it's burgers (more - much more - on which later) and, thanks to its close proximity to the international border, Mexican cuisine, and yet thanks to little more than personal prejudice fuelled by a succession of mediocre Mexican meals in London, on my first trip to this part of the world I didn't go out of my way to eat any. "How good can a fish taco be?" I told myself. "Deep fried fish in a tortilla. Squeeze of lime. Boring. Mexican food is just the same 3 ingredients arranged in different ways, isn't it? I know what I'm talking about, I've been to Chiquito."

What a fool I was.

Of all the wonderful food we enjoyed over the course of the last few weeks in San Diego, it was Mexican that was consistently the most bold, exciting and - most importantly - good value. I was stunned not just by the quality of each individual thing we ate but also the sheer variety, making an embarrassing lie of any prejudice I may have previously held about Mexican cuisine. This is not an exhaustive list of the best San Diego/Tijuana has to offer (I was only there 14 days and had to squeeze some burgers in) but hopefully enough to demonstrate to any deprived Briton that there really is more out there than burritos.

Mariscos Germán Taco Truck, South Park

Of the Mexican food trucks that serve San Diego, a large number seem to specialise in seafood. I didn't really ever find out why this should be the case - perhaps their mobile nature makes it easier - or cheaper - to stock up daily on fresh fish than bricks-and-mortar outlets, or perhaps it's something to do with the cooking process that makes seafood easier to deal with than anything else. Either way, each neighbourhood in the city seems to be served by at least one of these large white trucks with a tiny serving hatch cut in the side, and I have it on good authority that most of them are pretty damn decent. Mariscos Germán certainly is.

We ate delicate, crisply-fried chunks of fresh fish in soft masa-flour tortillas doused in hot sauce, chunky fresh vegetables and coriander. We ate crispy fried tortillas topped with the most perfect, zingy, herby (thyme at least, amongst other things) fish and shrimp ceviche and vast slabs of buttery avocado. We also ate something called Aguachile, ordered blind but which turned out to be a chilli-spiked ceviche containing a bewildering variety of seafood ingredients. It was all unbelievably good and unbelievably good value - a vast meal for two with enough Aguachile left over for lunch the next day came to about $12.

Mariscos German on Urbanspoon

Super Cocina, Normal Heights

With not a taco in sight, Super Cocina specialises in a different style of Mexican cuisine - hearty, chilli-spiked soups, stews and the all-important mole. We queued up, canteen-style, with plastic trays and ordered by pointing at various of the bubbling vats of brightly coloured liquid, and again paid a pittance (about $6.50 I think) for a rich, gently chocolatey chicken mole, a soft quesadilla soaked in some kind of Mexican cottage cheese, rice and beans. I can't pretend we had an exhaustive range of the menu but judging by the queues and online reviews for this functional little cantina, their food has a loyal and enthusiastic fan base. And they can count me in, too.

Super Cocina on Urbanspoon

Misión 19, Tijuana, Mexico

A couple of paragraphs as part of a Mexican food roundup is probably doing this very serious (and very expensive) haute cuisine joint in Tijuana a great disservice, but I include it if only to show that Mexican food can do high-end as well as the best of them. Highlights of the multi-course tasting menu included a pretty glass of deconstructed shrimp salad containing wonderfully powerful guacamole puree; a crisp-fried octopus tentacle with garlic jam, pistachios and green chickpea; a silky risotto spiked with Mexican truffle (who knew?) and fantastic "heirloom" beans and wild mushrooms; and a meltingly tender portion of stunning Mexican beef (a first for me), cooked sous vide and served with crispy, flavoursome chayote squash and vanilla-infused olive oil.

You could probably get away from Misión 19 for less than the $200 a head we spent if you went a little easier on the wine, but I hadn't risked life and limb crossing the border into one of the world's kidnapping and murder hotspots to take it easy. In all honesty though, the border crossing was completely painless, there were plenty of smart yellow cabs waiting to whisk us to and from the restaurant and the evening was a lot of fun. If you go yourself, don't miss the interesting bar upstairs (Bar 20) where they do all sorts of fancy things involving molecular mixology (cringe, but that's what they say themselves).

Tacos el Gordo, Chula Vista

I save the best until last. We wouldn't have even found this place if it wasn't a clandestine tip from my sister's Mexican hairdresser, someone very much tuned into the San Diego food goings-on and who claimed this unassuming drive-thru in the border town of Chula Vista served the best tacos in the area. She was right, of course, but just how good they were is difficult to convey without dissolving into a heap of breathless superlatives. Beef mulas were like beef taco sandwiches, moist chunks of shredded beef inside two discs of soft, thick tortilla, accompanied by a slab of salty rubbery cheese of some kind and topped with fresh salad. Other tacos came in the form of asada, beef steak strips covered in smooth guacamole and chilli sauce, and the rather more challenging Tacos de Sesos - brain (el Gordo specialise in offal and serve tacos made with tripe, tongue and the disconcertingly vague "head") with tomatillo sauce which I tried for the sheer bragging rights but can't say I'd rush to order again.

But the spicy pork and spicy beef tacos - Tacos de Adobada, shaved to order off two revolving columns of marinaded meat and doused in a yoghurt-chilli sauce - would have been worth the trip alone. I can imagine, based on my shonky pictures and without being there to taste them yourselves, that it's hard to see quite what could be so special about them; they are, after all, "just" fresh soft tortillas topped with moist and crunchy spiced meat, fresh vegetables and coriander. But there's something about the combination of all the different textures, the spices, the earthy tortilla and the fresh dressing, that makes something that, like all great cuisine, is much more than the sum of its parts. Instantly smitten on our first visit, we made a special effort to go back on the last day to have them again. And even now, writing this up back in cold, drizzly London just thinking about them is enough to get me booking the next available flight to Lindbergh Field airport.

Tacos El Gordo on Urbanspoon

I will be back of course - having family there is only one of a number of reasons to visit this consistently charming and likeable part of the world. If you're not the kind of person who enjoys knocking back some of the freshest, tastiest craft beers in the world in the early evening Californian sun whilst snacking on ceviche tostadas and chilli sauce well, on the one hand I feel sorry for you but on the other, there's always the beaches, the mountains, the wildlife (Black Widow spiders aside though; I had quite enough of those), and many other kinds of food if you need any more reasons to visit. Oh, and burgers. They have a few of those. Watch this space.

Mariscos Germán 9/10
Super Cocina 7/10
Misión 19 8/10
Tacos el Gordo 9/10


Gregory said...

There is really something about well cooked meat, salad, crunch and spice in a bread (roll, wrap or whatever).

Your post reminds me of those Chilli Chicken rolls I used to devour for lunch every Friday from a Vietnamese Bakery Mascot (Sydney). The flavours, the spice and the crunch are still imprinted on the brain if it were yesterday ..... alas it was 20 years ago.

I am certain the San Diego tacos will live with you just as long.

Love the Work

Gavin said...

That was all sounding marvellous and I was just about to check the airline schedules - and then you go and spoil it all by mentioning spiders.

Hollow Legs said...

Those tacos look bloody great, even if I do have a slight aversion to corn tortillas - look, they taste of mud, okay? - especially the fish one.

Chris Pople said...

Gregory: There are some very good Vietnamese places in San Diego too - I'll try and visit some next time I'm over there.

Gavin: They're pretty docile things actually and tend to stay outside, albeit quite close to the house. Much bigger than I thought they'd be though :S

Lizzie: I prefer the word "earthy", but yes I know what you mean.

Nicky said...

I've taken to cooking my own Mexi-light* food and it's a bit of a revelation: the range of ingredients (and proper sourcing) needed to make really good Mexican food is surprising, but the tastes and textures of the end result are extraordinarily good. No restaurant near me comes even vaguely close to it.

*I still compromise on some of the tough-to-get components

Helen said...

Those tacos look incredible. The ones in the last picture I mean. I just tend to make my own Mexican food to be honest because it's hard to find anything that isn't disappointing in London or that isn't a burrito. Luardos do mean fish tacos but apparently every time they put them on, no-one buys them, even though people rave about them. Bloody annoying.

colorfulgiggle said...

Mmm I love the variety of colours of the food! I think I feel their smell here, in Poland!

Susan said...

The thing I miss most from the United States -- more than good barbecue, more than NY bagels, more than the spectacular sushi I used to get in the Pacific Northwest -- is Mexican food. IMO few foods can compete with a perfect taco. Well done you for pursuing San Diego's food trucks and taquerias with earnestness and heart.