It's San Diego's indigenous comfort food, and we asked local chefs to demystify Mexican cuisine: where to find it, what to order and how to cook it at home.
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Mexican food. Its mere mention ignites a Pavlovian yearning in the hearts and stomachs of San Diegans. We crave it. We clamor for it. We’ve adopted it as our own, infusing indigenous ingredients and SoCal style to create something uniquely delicious and 100 percent San Diego.
The vibrant culture of Mexico is deeply engrained in a number of San Diego County communities — Chula Vista, Barrio Logan, National City, Vista and Escondido, to name a handful. Yet Mexico’s culinary heritage has spread even farther. It’s difficult to go more than a few blocks without passing a Mexican restaurant, bakery, market or tortilleria. From small, single-shingle outposts offering Southern California iterations of south-of-the-border street fare to white-linen restaurants presenting elegant gourmet interpretations of traditional Mexican dishes, San Diego has it all.
Or does it?
Comparing our local version to Mexico’s traditional cuisine, there are a number of significant differences. For starters, there’s the cheese. While queso is a primary component of the Mexican diet, that country’s denizens don’t heap it onto their dishes with the same reckless abandon Americans do, nor do they use the Cheddar and Monterey Jack combo that, while undeniably tasty, is in no way auténtico. There are some Mexican cheeses that melt, such as Oaxaca and Asadero, but the majority of Mexico’s fromage is hard, salty and served crumbled, like Greek feta. Queso fresco and cotija cheese, the varieties most commonly found in San Diego eateries, are fancied for the way they maintain their structural integrity under heat rather than melting into a mighty web of nacho-binding goo.
Speaking of nachos, they perhaps best exemplify the difference between traditional Mexican fare and Ameri-Mex inventions. With the exception of border towns, nowhere in Mexico will you find giant platters of tortilla chips topped with a towering buffet’s worth of accouterments. Yet for us, they’re a regional favorite, because just like the pizzas they so resemble, nachos combine half a dozen high-flavor, high-fat ingredients in one gluttonous, guilty pleasure of a dish. In Mexico, however, nachos are made only for tourists looking for behemoth American creations like chimichangas and flying saucers.
On top of that, a number of nacho toppings are U.S. substitutions for traditional Mexican ingredients. Again, there’s the cheese, closely followed by dollop after dollop of sour cream — which may be prominent in every taco shop from San Ysidro to San Marcos, but crema it ain’t. A tart, slightly fermented version of sour cream that’s similar to European crème fraîche, crema is thinner in texture than sour cream, and it doesn’t break down when heated. Because of this, it lends itself much better for use as a condiment as well as a recipe ingredient. Crema is available in many local grocery stores and a small percentage of restaurants and can be made quite easily at home, yet has failed to catch on in the States.
The same can be said for the vast majority of Mexican soups. Few are widely known in the United States, with the glaring exceptions of tortilla soup (which fits well into San Diego culture thanks to the availability of quality tortillas and our familiarity with the dish’s other garden-variety components) and menudo, which is mostly avoided by Americans due to their awful perception of offal — the chewy tripe that is this national treasure’s main ingredient.
And some dishes, omnipresent in their country of origin, are almost wholly absent here because the ingredients are either unavailable or quite different. A prime example is the chayote squash. In the southeast expanses of Mexico you’ll find chayotes two or three times larger than our common variety and covered with cactus-like thorns. This breed packs a much more sweetly intense flavor. Given this, it’s not surprising you don’t see many local chefs putting this veggie on their menus; most (particularly those from Mexico) view our chayotes as inferior and would rather avoid them than turn out a finished product that doesn’t live up to their standards or memories.
This philosophy has led to many of Mexico’s traditional dishes being in scarce supply mere miles from the country that spawned them. Sourcing the ingredients to produce them to the level of flavor and authenticity deemed “authentic” is often challenging, economically infeasible or simply impossible, as is replicating those national treasures by relying solely on local ingredients. They remain dishes that can only be experienced in their native land.
And there’s the shortsighted food snob’s snub of San Diego Mexican food: San Diego Mexican food isn’t real Mexican food. Yes, comparing it to the fare you would come across on an excursion through Mexico (save for touristy locales like Cabo and Cancún), it’s not the same. No country’s cuisine survives an international transplant unchanged, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when it comes to food, often that’s a great thing.
From carts, trucks and shops of all shapes and sizes selling every variety of taco, burrito and torta under the sun, to sit-down restaurants and neighborhood institutions serving up dishes both gringo-friendly and muy tradicional, to new and emerging haute spots fusing traditional Mexican techniques and ingredients with gourmet vision and cutting-edge California ingenuity, there really is something for everybody. Few other cuisines offer such crowd-pleasing diversity.
No, it’s not Mexican food. It’s our food!
While San Diego’s style of Mexican food is plenty tasty, it’s rewarding to get a glimpse —and a bite — of the genuine article. Many of the county’s most authentic spots are well under the radar, so we went to local chefs of Mexican descent to find out where they go when their hunger and heritage collide.
(Executive chef, Stone World Bistro & Gardens)
Favorite Mexican restaurant: Lourdes and El Nopal in Escondido. And Mazatlán is great for mariscos (seafood).
Favorite Mexican grocery store: In Escondido, Mi Pueblo and Esparanza Tortilleria; for tortilla chips, Mi Rancho is great. We source some of our ingredients at these places and get food for the kitchen’s pre-service “family meals.”
Favorite Mexican bakery: Pan Paulitas in Escondido. Favorite taco spot: Mi Ranchito in Vista. Something you can’t get in the States: Great, traditional mole. Most of the ingredients are not local, and this is why my search continues. There are many that come close, but until you have the real thing, you’ll never really know.
(Owner and executive chef, Isabel’s Cantina and Barrio Star)
Favorite Mexican grocery store: Northgate Market. It has a huge selection of all things Mexican. It is to Mexican what 99 Ranch is to Asian. It even carries squash blossoms when they are in season.
Favorite Mexican bakery: It’s not exactly a bakery, but my favorite tortilleria is Gabriel on Imperial Avenue. Great corn tortillas and masa. It also carries my favorite teleras (rolls).
Favorite taco spot: Mi Tierra in National City has great carne asada tacos. Something you can’t get in the States: Moles. There are so many types of mole throughout Mexico, but what I think about having all the time is a traditional Oaxacán mole Amarillo with chocyones (little balls of masa that are kind of like dumplings) in the mole.
(Executive chef, Alchemy)
Favorite Mexican restaurant: The Farmers Market building on Imperial Avenue in Encanto. It’s the best place to experience an array of flavors. Favorite Mexican grocery store: Food Bowl in South Park. It’s a fairly large store with everything you need from hard-to-find herbs and chilies to fresh cactus and sugar cane, but their butcher department is my favorite aspect of the whole place.
Favorite Mexican bakery: Panchita’s in Golden Hill. You have to try the calabaza empanadas!
Favorite taco spot: Tacos el Paisa in National City. Beautiful patio, grilled meats, hand-made tortillas. It has the best birria (stewed goat) and buche (pork jowl) tacos in my book. Something you can’t get in the States: Cochinita pibil — slow-cooked pork with a rub of achiote, sour orange and xcatic peppers wrapped in plantain leaves and cooked in a pit with river rocks.
(Executive chef, Cowboy Star)
Favorite Mexican restaurant: I never eat Mexican food out. My family and I always make it together at home.
Favorite Mexican grocery store: Northgate Market in National City and Bodego Hermanos Lopez in Chula Vista.