Six Aspects of the Best Mexican Food in San Diego
“My doctor told me I had to stop throwing intimate dinners for four unless there are three other people.” – Orson Welles
Living in California for a couple decades, I have eaten some of the best Mexican food on the planet. One of the things about most Mexican restaurants is that you get a lot of food, and that is usually after you eat a ton of tortilla chips and salsa. One of the best things about Mexican cooking is the variety available in the cuisine. Growing up in the Midwest in the 70s, we did have Mexican food, but it consisted of “running for the boarder” for Taco Bell, or eating Mexican food at home, which consisted of homemade crispy tacos or canned tamales with hot sauce. Today, I have a much more refined palate around this category of food, and my kids have deep opinions about it as well. For me, there are six things that make the best Mexican food:
First is the quality of the food. This always starts with the freshness and quality of the ingredients. All truly best Mexican food is prepared fresh with the highest quality ingredients. However, despite that, the variety in flavors available in Mexican cooking makes it really difficult to say what is ‘best.’ For example, some people love mole sauce, and I really don’t like any variety I’ve ever tried. But usually, good is good.
The next key thing is really important for all restaurant experiences, but it needs to be specifically mentioned here since there is such a spectrum of this in the Mexican restaurant industry: service orientation of the servers, flexibility of the chefs, cleanliness of the restaurant itself, and a good menu at reasonable prices.
Third, all best Mexican food restaurants have a good bar that services very good margaritas, Mexican beer, fresh chips and salsa, and other small bites. I would be hard pressed to like a Mexican restaurant if it didn’t have a good happy hour and if it wasn’t a good venue for celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
With that in mind, the fourth key factor for me is what I call the two factor acid test of a Mexican restaurant. It must have very tasty, fresh chips and chunky salsa that has a little kick. It also has to have to have excellent margaritas that are not too sweet. It starts with the quality of the tequila, which must be 100% agave, sea salt on the rim, not too much ice, fresh lime juice, triple sec (ideally Cointreau), homemade simple syrup, a fresh lime slice, and I like Grand Marnier on top to make it a Cadillac margarita.
The fifth and final factor is the menu. Mexican rice and beans should be standard with nearly every dish. I like for a variety of beans to be offered: refried, pinto, and black beans along with freshly cooked tortillas. Also, at least the majority of this list should be on the menu: burritos, tacos (soft and hard shell), fajitas, enchiladas, chile relleno, chimichangas, and tamales. Some of my favorite places don’t have all these options, but they still have a really good variety.
Extras that I like are loaded nachos, tableside guacamole, and sizzling fajitas.
I looked at the Thrillist 21 Best Mexican restaurants in the US, and only one, Tony’s Jacal in Solana Beach, was in San Diego. It has a typical east-coast bias (my sportscasters do as well). Two of the places are in New York City. I had to laugh. I LOVE NYC, and it does have tons of great restaurants of all ethnicities and cooking types, but only one Mexican place out of 21 in San Diego…please! We have the best Mexican food I’ve ever found here in San Diego!
I also looked at USA Today Top 10 Mexican restaurants that serve up casual eats. It has one San Diego Mexican restaurant, but it is one of my favorites: Las Olas. We usually go to the one in Cardiff by the Sea because of the views, and my kids like to play on the beach while we wait for a table.
Our Favorite Mexican Restaurants:
- Casa Guadalajara in Old Town San Diego
- Barra Barra Saloon in Old Town San Diego (voted best margaritas in San Diego, and yes, they are very good!)
- Nico’s Mexican Food in Carmel Valley (my teenage daughter loves the California Burrito, which contains French fries)
- Tony’s Jacal in Solana Beach (this is on the Thrillist 21 list)
- Fidel’s Little Mexico in Solana Beach (across the street from Tony’s Jacal, locals are always arguing about which one is better)
- Las Olas in Cardiff by the Sea, but there is also one in Carlsbad
- El Callejon in Encinitas
- On the Border Mexican Grill in Mira Mesa
And for Mexican ‘fast food’ we really like Rubio’s and Chipotle. However, there is another place that is not in San Diego where my fiancée likes even better than Chipotle, but has the same style. It is called Café Rio. My fiancée swears they have the best Mexican food, but that’s to be challenged of course, by the rest of the family. We eat at Café Rio whenever we go to Vegas, LA, OC or Park City, Utah. For our favorite non-traditional margaritas that are not in a Mexican restaurant we like to go to Rancho Valencia!
We welcome your feedback on our list. I’m sure it is not comprehensive, but these are the places that we love, and all of them are kid-friendly. That doesn’t mean that your kids can run around the restaurant and be totally obnoxious, but people won’t look at you funny when you bring your kids, and you can have a fun and lively conversation that isn’t in a whisper.
We hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear about your favorite places for margaritas, for guacamole, and the best Mexican food!