The Best Mexican Food this Side of the Border!
Drop that Chalupa and nobody gets hurt! If you've only had Mexican food from giant generic restaurant chains like El Torito or On The Border, you're in for a treat. No self respecting San Diegan would be caught dead in one of those anglicized and gringo-ized eateries, not when there's authentic Mexican food everywhere you turn. Ground beef tacos? Fake nacho cheezey sauce? Not on my watch!
Follow me to the best tourist friendly Mexican restaurants in San Diego, the ones that don't dumb it down to tourist trap level. And don't worry, I'm not going to send you to dive joints. You'll still get your mariachi band and pinatas, but only if they have Mexican food good enough to pass the Local Wally muy bueno test.
And if you really love Mexican food, don't be afraid to explore those away from the tourist spots. You won't find better Mexican food anywhere this side of the border.
2489 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110 / 619 297-4330
San Diego foodies can stop reading here. Yes, I know that Old Town Mexican Cafe, and Old Town in general, is considered by some to be a gringo tourist trap. But they forget that OTMC, as locals call it, still serves up some of the best carnitas - deep fried tender pork - in town. Add to it their signature "made in the front window" thick tortillas and you're set to go. Nearly always crowded, it's popular with both locals and tourists looking to get a taste of Mexico. The scene is lively, often with strolling mariachi bands blasting away in the small dining area (auugghhh, my ears!!) - wave them away like weasels unless you want them to hang around your table all night waiting for a tip. As for the food, it's way better than the corporate Mexican restaurants, the portions are huge, there's a reason why everyone from Rachael Ray (who calls this a secret find even though there are tour busses outside - LOL) to San Diego natives list Old Town Mexican Cafe as one of their favorite Mexican restaurants in San Diego. Is it worth the wait? You betcha!
THE LOWDOWN: Old Town has a ton of Mexican restaurants but the Old Town Mexican Cafe stands out as a long time favorite with both tourists and locals - carnitas is their specialty.
LOCATION: Old Town
LOCAL TIP: Ask for the spicier salsa to kick it up a few notches and skip the too sweet house margarita and get a beer instead.
WALLY SAYS: OTMC built its reputation with the locals first so don't shy away thinking this is a tourist trap - I still eat there and still love it as much today.
1251 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA 92037 / 858 454-2232
I've been coming to Alfonso's La Jolla since they opened in the 70's. It was here that I had my first carne asada taco, grilled pieces of succulent steak smothered with fresh guacamole and wrapped in two soft corn tortillas. I didn't know much about Mexican food back then but I loved these tacos. Over the years I've eaten hundreds of carne asada tacos from dozens of places but no one compares to Alfonso's. And while La Jolla has gotten fancier and more sophisticated, Alfonso's hasn't changed one bit, from their front patio cover that looks like the one I built at the frat house in college to the house margaritas that actually rock - no need to upgrade to a Cadillac or premium here, just get it on ice (never frozen, paleese!) with a salted rim. Wonderfully flavorful salsa and thick, crunchy chips to start, ask for a free cup of hot carrots and jalapeno's for a bit of "I dare you to eat that" before dinner (Warning: Have a margarita ready to go to avoid flames coming from your mouth!) The appetizer tray with garlic butter shrimp is terrific for an afternoon snack or split for some serious grazing. But get the carne asada taco - really, it's the best!
THE LOWDOWN: Casual Mexican restaurant in the middle of swanky La Jolla - a Godsend for those on a budget and even better since it serves up some of the best Mexican food in San Diego.
LOCATION: La Jolla, Prospect Street
LOCAL TIP: Best house margarita in town, better than most "premium" margaritas in other restaurants. The bartender gave me the recipe - 3 parts sweet and sour, 2 parts tequilla, 1 part triple sec - or was it 3 parts tequilla, I can't remember!
WALLY SAYS: Nothing better than watching the seals on the beach then getting a table on the sidewalk to watch the people while sipping a margarita.
2461 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110 / 619 291-4695
With over 120 different tequilas to sample (try them all!) you know this isn't like the crummy Chevy's back home. Cafe Coyote in Old Town takes their tequilas seriously enough to have a Tequila Sommelier, an expert who can help you find exactly what you're looking for. If doing Jose Cuervo shots is the extent of your tequila knowledge, get ready to be enlightened as to the many flavors and subtleties the agave plant has to offer. But unless you want a muy grande hangover the next day, it's best to eat something along your way to tequila heaven and thankfully Cafe Coyote has some of the best Mexican food in Old Town. Handmade tortillas to start, tons of taco options from fish to potatoes to carnitas to shrimp. The setting is festive with the strolling mariachi band and the outdoor patio is the place to be. Winner of Best Mexican Restaurant in San Diego for 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009, open Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
THE LOWDOWN: Great Mexican food in Old Town, outdoor patio perfect for the perfect San Diego day, tons of tequila options!
LOCATION: Old Town
LOCAL TIP: Don't miss the cinnamon tortillas made by the women in front along the sidewalk.
WALLY SAYS: Try not to gloat as you sip your tequila and watch the people go into Fred's Mexican Cafe across the street, a real tourist trap with the worst Mexican food I've ever tasted. They should have listened to Local Wally!
749 Genevieve Street, Solana Beach, CA 92075 / 858 755-5292
If you want to go on a Mexican food safari searching for some of the best San Diego has to offer, one of your stops must be in Eden Gardens, an old Hispanic neighborhood started in the 1920's by Mexican farmers who worked the fields in nearby Rancho Santa Fe. There are three Mexican restaurants here - Don Chuy's, a local's only place where Alice runs the bar and makes her family recipes, Tony's Jacal, the restaurant of choice for 40's and 50's movie stars that still packs them in, and Fidel's Little Mexico, the one time home of Fidel Montañez that he first used as a barber shop and later became his restaurant. The recipes are authentic, brought from Mexico via his wife Martha, and over the years the humble house took on room additions that surely can't be to code! Diners are seated wherever there's space, a short hallway, a noisy dining room, a room off to the side, you get the idea. Chile Rellenos (battered and fried chiles filled with melted cheese and topped with sauce) to die for, but everything here is delicious, starting with a basic shredded beef taco that's anything but basic to great tamales and my favorite, the tender and rich (fattening? don't think so) carnitas, tender slow cooked pork in a corn tortilla. There's no pretension here, no nouvelle cuisine, and thankfully no fusion anything, just some of my favorite Mexican food in San Diego. Good enough for the farm workers, good enough for me.
THE LOWDOWN: A local's favorite. Get ready for a food adventure when you pull out of Old Town and head north to Fidel's. Funky restaurant, mildly run down part of town, but some of the best Mexican food this side of the border!
LOCATION: Solana Beach, north San Diego
LOCAL TIP: Fidel's used to have another restaurant in Carlsbad but a family feud splintered the two and now the Carlsbad location is just called Norte's - and while the menu is the same, the food is not quite as good as at this original location.
WALLY SAYS: This is why we love Mexican food!
2655 S Hwy 101, Cardiff by the Sea, CA 92007 / 760 942-1860
THE LOWDOWN: Right on Historic Highway 101 across the street from the beach, it's part surfer dude and part Mexican restaurant. While not the most authentic Mexican food in town, the setting on the patio near the beach is pretty fantastic and has a great Southern California local vibe.
LOCATION: Cardiff, north San Diego
LOCAL TIP: Terrific Puerto Nuevo lobster when in season in Winter. They have a second location in Carlsbad but the food there is not up to snuff.
WALLY SAYS: Hard to argue with great Mexican food right across from the beach!
2836 Juan St, San Diego, CA 92110 / 619 297-1631
THE LOWDOWN: Off the beaten track in Old Town, a great pick if you want a smaller, more intimate and less commercial Mexican dining experience. Fun and lively with pinatas hanging from the ceiling and a glorious outdoor patio.
LOCATION: Old Town
LOCAL TIP: Parking in Old Town can be frustrating but La Pinata has their own lot. You'll be drinking margaritas while everyone else will be looking for a place to park.
WALLY SAYS: Locals who normally wouldn't be caught dead in Old Town love this place!
141 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92103 / 619 692-4200
THE LOWDOWN: An offshoot of the Ortega's restaurants in Puerto Nuevo, the lobster village an hour or so south of the border. Creative menu that offers more than tacos and burritos with plenty of fresh seafood, and of course, lobsters, Puerto Nuevo style!
LOCAL TIP: If you wanted to go to Mexico for the Puerto Nuevo lobster but afraid to travel south then stay in San Diego and dine at Ortega's Mexican Bistro instead for the same lobster cooked the same way they do down at their baja restaurants. Though the lobsters are smaller here than down south they're still delicious and reasonably priced at less than $30.
WALLY SAYS: Perfect for when you want Mexican food in a nice setting!
621 Valley Ave, Solana Beach, CA 92075 / 858 755-2274
THE LOWDOWN: Totally authentic and charming location, this is where the movie stars of the 40's and 50's used to go before they hit the scene at The Del Mar Racetrack. Not fancy, great patio,
LOCATION: Solana Beach in the Hispanic area of town. Don't let the location scare you off!
LOCAL TIP: Don't miss the carne asada tacos, some of the best in town, and the upgraded Perfect Margarita really is perfect! If you find yourself visiting the North County and craving Mexican food, you can't go wrong with Tony's.
WALLY SAYS: I really love this place. The food borders on some of the best in San Diego and the setting on the patio is like sitting in someone's backyard. Love it, love it!
4050 Adams Avenue, San Diego, CA 92116 / 619 282-4413
THE LOWDOWN: Away from the crowds but close to Mission Valley is a neighborhood eatery with crazy eclectic decor (old Mexican movie posters and record albums, spooky oil paintings of creepy women) but serving up authentic Mexican food and high octane margaritas. Nice setting, perfect for casual family dining, super spicy hot sauce.
LOCAL TIP: Try the Adobada tacos, marinated pork with cilantro, onion, and pineapple salsa wrapped in two soft corn tortilas.
WALLY SAYS: When the lines at the tourist places are too long, head a few minutes up Highway 15 and go straight to Ponce's for a local's favorite Mexican restaurant.
Think San Diego doesn't have a Chinatown? Think again!
People who say you can't get authentic Asian food in San Diego just don't know where to look. PF Chang's? No way!
COMING IN 2014: A new version of Local Wally's Guide to San Diego is on its way with more coupons, better discounts, updated reviews and the same great advice you can only get from a local. I'm also changing out the localwally.com url to SanDiegoTouristGuide.com soon but both will work.
Until then, it's not too early to start planning your trip to San Diego paradise. Stick with me and you'll not only get real advice from a real local but find cheap hotel and discount tickets as well. Local Wally is the oldest local website on San Diego and the only one left still run by a local guy.
And if you like beer, check out my newest site DrinkUpSanDiego.com, the complete guide to San Diego's breweries.
See You Soon,