Star Chef Angelo Sosa Creates Something Special at Death by Tequila
The restaurant model is not groundbreaking, but the revelation is in Sosa's execution
Death by Tequila’s interior | Photo: Becca Batista
569 S. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas deathbytequila
“Name” chefs have historically found San Diego a tad inhospitable. Famed Mexican chef Richard Sandoval gave it a shot. So did Wolfgang Puck, a couple times. Their inability to plant a flag here was obviously not due to any lack of skill. It also wasn’t locals’ apathy or ignorance.
San Diegans’ shoulder-shrug to celebrity is highly intentional. It’s not a rejection of LA, but more of a corrective measure that brings metaphysical equilibrium to Southern California.
LA traffics in names—builds them, worships them, and destroys them with equal flair. LA is a thrilling city because everyone tries so hard to make that name. And LA is a loathsome city because everyone tries so hard. At max capacity in the idolatry department, San Diego became Southern California’s release from that, its antidote.
Names dropped here tend to fall unnoticed into the streets and clog our storm drains. We stuff tacos in the face of pretension. Many residents came here or stayed here to avoid the head shot, the hustle wink, the secret handshake, the deal, the come-on.
So the question San Diego always seems to ask celebrity chefs is: Do you live here, or just your name? Because the latter won’t work. Your name can’t just be on the sign; it must also be in the census.
Top Chef winner Richard Blais knows this. He found a steady stream of support for Juniper & Ivy because he put down roots and spends a decent portion of his month in the room. And now we can add fellow Top Chefer Angelo Sosa of Death by Tequila, who was lured to Encinitas by first-time restaurateurs Chad and Jessica Mestler. Both nights we’re there, Sosa is in the restaurant—whether on the line, expediting food, or charming guests.
The concept of Death by Tequila (or as they brand it, “DxT”) is not a revelation: farm-to-table, Baja-inspired cuisine (including many “street food” options) that borrows heavily from Asia, plus craft tequila and mezcal cocktails. This restaurant model, at this moment in this area, is as groundbreaking as a college essay on marijuana legalization.
The revelation is in Sosa’s execution. It’s notches above other restaurants. TV may have fueled his media reel and Instagram account, but he earned his skill set working through the ranks of one of the world’s top French chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He also consulted for Morimoto restaurants, as well as Alain Ducasse’s cookbook Spoon: Food & Wine. He’s a Dominican Italian, trained classically French, who ran a Chinese food restaurant in the West Village and, for the last few years, a trio of Mexican bistros (Añejo, Añejo Tribeca, Abajo).
So Death by Tequila is not a concept driven by market research and trends, but a natural culmination of where he’s been.
It’s a small menu, which makes it easy for the diner and the kitchen—small plates, tacos, ceviches, a few main entrées, and a mind-blowing dessert. The experience starts with the guacamole. I usually skip the guacamole, because I find it more ceremonial than inspirational. But one of the three DxT offers is exceptional: chunky-smooth Hass avocados topped with pineapples glazed with agave and chipotle. Often pineapple salsa makes guac taste too much like dessert, but the chipotle keeps it in balance. The trio of salsas with housemade chips is $15 for three small bowls.
DxT’s tacos are mostly on the right side of delicious. The fish taco is especially good, with guacamole, coriander, mustard aioli, and lime leaf salt. The carnitas have only Duroc pork (great pork, expensive pork) and that chipotle pineapple salsa—and don’t need anything else except lime. All of the tacos need a squirt of lime juice, because the pickled onions don’t quite up the acid enough. The beef cheek barbacoa taco is a shrug—the meat, marinated with warm, autumnal spices, is a tad too sweet. The only one that fails us is the Peruvian potato mole taco. You cannot mole part-time. It’s a dish that requires hours and days and months and years. And DxT’s has a sharp sweetness that tastes more like ketchup-heavy barbecue sauce than a deep, rich, long-simmered mole. The tacos are tiny, and $5 each.
If it seems like I’m mentioning price and size often, it’s because I am. It happens even with DxT’s most mesmerizing dish—an ahi crudo, with the sashimi-grade cubes of fish lying in a chilled broth of coconut milk that’s infused with turmeric and chiles. It’s eminently drinkable (do drink it), like a mix between gazpacho and a thin Thai curry sauce. But it is $19 and there are only a few small pieces of ahi.
The one complaint locals have heaped on DxT has been that it’s underportioned and overpriced. I don’t want to agree, for historical reasons. San Diegans have long refused to let Mexican food rise above the confines of “cheap food.” It’s time for this to end. There are unsavory racial undertones in not allowing a cuisine to be seen as worthy of higher prices when the restaurant has invested in the chef and ingredients and ambience—just as French, Italian, Japanese, and other major cuisines have done.
This is, after all, a restaurant that hired a man with Jean-Georges and Top Chef experience, bought good plateware, and paid for a full-service staff, a wall-size mural, and a fancy rope-based chandelier. Unless economics has halted its reign over the universe, their food is going to cost significantly more than Las Cuatro Milpas. Three-dollar tacos have their place in San Diego’s Mexican food canon, and this is not that place.
That said, even I find their portions on the small side (Sosa’s Añejo had similar complaints). Especially with a packed bar on a Friday for cocktails (a restaurant’s drink sales fund the food), they should tinker with the portions slightly. Not much, but some. The complaints are much louder than the crime.
About that bar. It’s a scene, which is good news for DxT and Encinitas. We found two routes to unleashing its best. First, the Los Muertos, made with reposado tequila, lime, mango, and chile ash. The ash turns the entire ordeal black, which makes it a pleasant shock that the drink is so sweet and bright from the mango-chile combo. The second is the Frothing in Puerto, with mezcal, lemon, vanilla, pineapple, and egg white, whipped into a creamy froth (a Baja riff on a sour) and not too sweet.
DxT feels like the new future of dining, in that it’s not a traditional service-driven, sit-down restaurant. There are seats. But the bar and dining space are one, with the tequila crowd dominating after a few sips. Chef Sosa runs food to tables. Everyone runs food. But the service is prompt, efficient, and very knowledgeable of the kitchen’s food.
Elote, or Mexican street corn, is one of the world’s greatest gifts. DxT makes a tostada of theirs, with both pureed corn and kernels sautéed in thyme and árbol chile, then tossed with pickled jalapeños and topped with Cotija cheese and micro cilantro. Sweet, soft, crunch, spice, it hits all the right buttons. Their Baja hot wings arrive looking like every bad experience I’ve had with Americanized Chinese food—heavily sauced and sticky. But the Korean-style wings (aka twice fried) are something special, too, the sauce tasting of lemongrass, ginger, red mole, and chiles. Be sure to squeeze the fresh blood orange atop for freshness and acidity.
The chimichurri on their Cedar River Farms sirloin strip makes everything on the plate a better version of itself. The big test of restaurants is their seafood. Cheap or old fish has a distinct low-tide flavor. And if a restaurant’s seafood is cheap or old, it’s an indicator that its budget trumps its excellence. Thankfully, DxT’s pan-seared yellowtail eats fresh and clean, with a light crust and tender middle, dressed with a bright Baja vinaigrette (basil, mint, cilantro, pineapple, and lime juice). The Spanish octopus is the same, sous vide for four hours, then seared in thyme butter for a crackling coat.
It’s a minor sin for a Baja-style restaurant to fail on their rice and beans, but DxT is guilty—they’re both bland and flavorless. The thought here is that those side dishes should merely “be there,” and not have a flavor that takes away from the main entrées. But minus dressings and sauces, every significant bite or side on the table should be able to stand on its own.
At the end of your meal, DxT will be loud. It has quickly won over the Encinitas crowd, and they show up in their loud good moods. But don’t let the din drive you out early or you’ll miss the star of their dessert menu: the tequila flan. The Latin custard dish is topped with tequila-spiked caramel sauce, and then a blizzard of manchego cheese is shredded on top tableside. The tequila brings a minor, pleasant bite to the caramel, and the manchego gives it the salty-sweet charm. It’s a sweet-savory cult hit that sounds odd to everyone until they order it, much like the East Coast tradition of melting cheddar cheese on apple pie.
You will have to invest some money at DxT in order to leave full. Their portion-size debate will last for a while. But Sosa’s skills are undeniable. It is elevated, local-farm Baja cuisine from a chef who made his name the hard way before making it the TV way. Is it worth it? I can’t speak for every pocket, but mine says yes.