I don’t understand how someone can try to find “San Diego’s Best Taco.” That seems, not just impossible, but unwise. Like, you’re-probably-going-to-make-a-lot-people-mad unwise. Hence, this article is not about the best or favorite tacos, but rather the different tacos San Diego has to offer and the stories they tell about the people and places from which they come.
For this part of NBC 7’s food/culture series, we visited these local spots:
- Las Cuatro Milpas (1857 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113)
- City Tacos (3028 University Avenue, San Diego, CA 92104)
- Tacos Perla (3000 Upas Street Suite 105, San Diego, CA 92104)
Las Cuatro Milpas
Barrio Logan is one of the oldest and most culturally rich neighborhoods in San Diego and, in many ways, the same can be said about Las Cuatro Milpas located on Logan Avenue. Everything about this place is old school. The ladies behind the counter have worked there for years. The menu with only seven items has never really changed. Ladies make handmade tortillas in the back, not for show, but because the restaurant…actually needs tortillas.
The place opens early in the morning and closes at 3 p.m. There’s usually a line of people down the block. A few minutes there and my photographer and I were being told what to order from other customers left and right. People had their favorites and they wanted the world to know.
“The chorizo and rice. The beans and rice!” exclaimed one customer who said those items were so good her family catered them for her quincenera.
“The fried beef tacos!” said Sergio De Los Rios, who’s been coming to Las Cuatro Milpas since grade school.
Talk about a family-owned business, the restaurant has been owned by three generations of the Estudillo family at the same Logan Avenue location.
Natividad Estudillo and his sisters now run the restaurant. Natividad says his grandparents came to the U.S. in the early 1900’s fleeing The Mexican Revolution.
“It was our grandparents dream since they came to this country,” he said. “People like what they like, and if you keep it simple they come back.”
We asked Natividad’s sister, Manuela, why they don’t update their popular menu. She responded, “Too many things. It’s better to do the right thing.”
Owner Gerald Torres says when people try his tacos at City Tacos in North Park he wants them to taste the different flavors of modern-day Mexico.
“There are so many more recipes and flavors that people don’t know here,” he said. “Mainland Mexico, Guadalajara, Mexico City…”
Torres was born and raised in Mexico City. Since then, he’s lived in several places including other parts of Mexico, San Diego and Miami.
From bay scallops in cream sauce to seared mahi, City Tacos serves up affordable tacos with a gourmet twist. Not only do they highlight flavors from different regions in Mexico, they highlight North Park.
“North Park is great. It’s fantastic, vibrant and young; people here are very open-minded,” said Torres.
Located at 30th and Upas streets, Tacos Perla is another new taco shop in San Diego that’s taking the traditional taco to the next level.
Consulting Chef Oso Campos is from Tijuana. He spent seven years backpacking across Mexico’s coastline (check out his personal photos included in the gallery above and here).
In return for a roof over his head, he would help different families clean and cook. Campos says the flavors he learned from the mothers and grandmothers he met on his more than 2,000-mile journey appear in his taco and sauce recipes.
Campos is also not afraid to push limits. In addition to typical garnishes, you’re able to order roasted crickets, also known as “chapulines.”
“In my personal opinion, they’re great with flavor, protein and no grease,” said Campos.
Roasted crickets are commonly eaten in certain parts of Mexico. In fact, they’re eaten all around the world where other sources of protein can be difficult to come by.
Although the practice of eating bugs, or “entomaphagy,” is harder to digest psychologically for Westerners, crickets and insects are valued by other cultural communities for being high in protein and typically low in fat. They usually take on the flavor of whatever sauce or seasoning they’re mixed with.
In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report about the benefits of bug eating to our world’s food insecurity.
The food lesson this week: whatever your cup of tea is, there’s probably a taco out there in San Diego just for you. All of them are a little different. They tell a different story about the people who make them and the places that influence their flavors.
Check out the map below to pinpoint the taco spots mentioned in this piece, along with some must-try local Chinese food restaurants.
Candice Nguyen is a news reporter at NBC 7 San Diego whose career moves have taken her to several places around the world. She believes there's no better way to celebrate different cultures than to learn about their unique cuisines. In her personal blog, Off the Eaten Path, Candice writes about her favorite places to grub around San Diego and beyond.