[Also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites]
Last week my family and I went to San Diego for Thanksgiving, but instead of focusing on the turkey, I was obsessed with Mexican food. When I’m in San Diego, I crave rolled tacos with guacamole, carne asada burritos, and fish tacos. I grew up in North County San Diego, the land of Baja taco shops. When I was growing up, fast food didn’t mean McDonalds or Jack in the Box. It meant Juanita’s and Roberto’s, two local chains that specialize in Baja street food.
When I moved to San Francisco, I was surprised, and a bit outraged, that the Mexican food was so different. I couldn’t comprehend why everyone put beans and rice in their burritos and was appalled that the rolled tacos not only had a different name — taquitos — they tasted completely different. The Mexican food in the Bay Area is influenced by the foods of central Mexico, while in San Diego they serve Baja food, which is really the only type of Mexican food I crave.
If any of you grew up in San Diego, went to college there, or visit on a regular basis, I’m sure you’re familiar with the type of restaurant I’m talking about. They go by many different names. Juanita’s and Roberto’s are part of a larger family of Mexican appellations: Aliberto’s, Filiberto’s, and Alberto’s, to name a few. These taco shops are in pretty much almost every strip mall in San Diego County, and run down Highway 1 on the coast. Most are open until the wee hours of the morning and are the go-to place for anyone staying out late. It is not uncommon to see a line in these restaurants at midnight. They’re also open bright and early, serving some of the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever had. And, as if all this weren’t enough, the food is ridiculously cheap. One day for lunch I fed my extended family for pennies on the dollar compared to what it would cost in the Bay Area, buying 3 orders of rolled tacos with guacamole, 2 bean and cheese burritos, 1 carne asada burrito, 1 fish taco, and 2 quesadillas for $27. This all came with free helpings of vinegar and jalapeno-marinated carrots and onions.
The décor in these shops is spare: usually a few heavily stained formica tables and plastic booth chairs set next to a big counter where you order. But who cares how it looks. The food is amazing. As far as I’m concerned, there is no carne asada burrito I’d rather eat than the one that can be found at Juanitas on Highway 1 in Leucadia. A soft flour tortilla stuffed chock full of perfectly seasoned carne asada. Other than some added guacamole and salsa, there is nothing else inside–no pinto beans, rice, sour cream, vegetables, or anything else to distract from the full meat flavor of beef seasoned to perfection with the most incredible Baja salsa.
But as much as I love the carne asada, I adore the rolled tacos even more. This dish is a staple of Mexican taco shops in San Diego. Everyone here knows what a rolled taco is. No one calls them “taquitos” and they always come with a slather of fresh guacamole and melted cheddar cheese on top. I spent every Friday and Saturday night eating these for less than $2 when I was a teenager.
Another favorite, the fish taco, is simple and perfect. Cod covered in a mild batter flawlessly fried. It’s served with some cabbage, a white sauce and fresh salsa. My husband, who could eat fish tacos daily, goes to Juanita’s when we’re in North County (where my family lives), but craves the ones served at El Cuervo, a little Mexican restaurant near our old house in the Hillcrest neighborhood downtown.
I have tried quite a few Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area, and although I like a select few, I haven’t yet found a restaurant in the Bay Area that can even come close to my old buddies Juanita, Roberto and Alberto. If you know of one, please pass on the information — my time between rolled tacos stretches too long.
Juanitas Taco Shop
290 N Coast Highway 101, Encinitas, CA
Roberto’s Mexican Food
274 N El Camino Real # B, Encinitas, CA
Roberto’s Mexican Food
445 N Highway 101, Solana Beach, CA
El Cuervo Taco Shop
110 W Washington St, San Diego, CA
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