Baja Cuisine in San Diego

| December 4, 2008 | 9 Comments
  • 9 Comments

juanitasLast week my family and I went to San Diego for Thanksgiving, but instead of focusing on the turkey, I was obsessed with Mexican food. When I’m in San Diego, I crave rolled tacos with guacamole, carne asada burritos, and fish tacos. I grew up in North County San Diego, the land of Baja taco shops. When I was growing up, fast food didn’t mean McDonalds or Jack in the Box. It meant Juanita’s and Roberto’s, two local chains that specialize in Baja street food.

When I moved to San Francisco, I was surprised, and a bit outraged, that the Mexican food was so different. I couldn’t comprehend why everyone put beans and rice in their burritos and was appalled that the rolled tacos not only had a different name — taquitos — they tasted completely different. The Mexican food in the Bay Area is influenced by the foods of central Mexico, while in San Diego they serve Baja food, which is really the only type of Mexican food I crave.

If any of you grew up in San Diego, went to college there, or visit on a regular basis, I’m sure you’re familiar with the type of restaurant I’m talking about. They go by many different names. Juanita’s and Roberto’s are part of a larger family of Mexican appellations:

Aliberto’s, Filiberto’s, and Alberto’s, to name a few. These taco shops are in pretty much almost every strip mall in San Diego County, and run down Highway 1 on the coast. Most are open until the wee hours of the morning and are the go-to place for anyone staying out late. It is not uncommon to see a line in these restaurants at midnight. They’re also open bright and early, serving some of the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever had. And, as if all this weren’t enough, the food is ridiculously cheap. Yesterday I fed my extended family for pennies on the dollar compared to what it would cost in the Bay Area, buying 3 orders of rolled tacos with guacamole, 2 bean and cheese burritos, 1 carne asada burrito, 1 fish taco, and 2 quesadillas for $27. This all came with free helpings of vinegar and jalapeno-marinated carrots and onions.

The décor in these shops is spare: usually a few heavily stained formica tables and plastic booth chairs set next to a big counter where you order. But who cares how it looks. The food is amazing. As far as I’m concerned, there is no carne asada burrito I’d rather eat than the one that can be found at Juanitas on Highway 1 in Leucadia. A soft flour tortilla stuffed chock full of perfectly seasoned carne asada. Other than some added guacamole and salsa, there is nothing else inside–no pinto beans, rice, sour cream, vegetables, or anything else to distract from the full meat flavor of beef seasoned to perfection with the most incredible Baja salsa.

rolled tacos

But as much as I love the carne asada, I adore the rolled tacos even more. This dish is a staple of Mexican taco shops in San Diego. Everyone here knows what a rolled taco is. No one calls them “taquitos” and they always come with a slather of fresh guacamole and melted cheddar cheese on top. I spent every Friday and Saturday night eating these for less than $2 when I was a teenager.

Another favorite, the fish taco, is simple and perfect. Cod covered in a mild batter flawlessly fried. It’s served with some cabbage, a white sauce and fresh salsa. My husband, who could eat fish tacos daily, goes to Juanita’s when we’re in North County (where my family lives), but craves the ones served at El Cuervo, a little Mexican restaurant near our old house in the Hillcrest neighborhood downtown.

I have tried quite a few Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area, and although I like a select few, I haven’t yet found a restaurant in the Bay Area that can even come close to my old buddies Juanita, Roberto and Alberto. If you know of one, please pass on the information — my time between rolled tacos stretches too long.

Juanitas Taco Shop‎
290 N Coast Highway 101, Encinitas, CA

Roberto’s Mexican Food‎
274 N El Camino Real # B, Encinitas, CA‎

Roberto’s Mexican Food‎
445 N Highway 101, Solana Beach, CA‎

El Cuervo Taco Shop‎
110 W Washington St, San Diego, CA‎

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About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • http://www.livegreenwearblack.com jenn

    Chica, I am totally there with you – I really don’t like Mexican food in the Bay Area. It’s pretty boring.

    I love the Mexican food in San Antonio/Austin and even in New Orleans (pre-Katrina, at least) where there was a substantial Caribbean/Mexican population making crazy flautas filled with shrimp and cheese. Here – if you ask for a flauta with cheese – you hear “it would melt out” – so I don’t know how they did it at Taqueria Corona. :)

  • http://www.livegreenwearblack.com jenn

    One other recommendation – El Cachanilla $1.25 taco stand.

  • Missy

    My favorite San Diego taco shop is La Casita on N. Magnolia in El Cajon. I hadn’t been back in ten years and they still remembered me. There are some good sit-down restaurants in the Bay Area, but the only decent taco shop is Los Panchos in San Ramon. http://www.lospanchosrestaurant.com/ It comes close. (Or my memory is just fading.) They do have the junked-up super burritos, in case you have any Northern Calis along, but the regular is pure meat. And they have rolled tacos.

  • http://www.happenstance.net Maureen Forys

    Oh how I miss thee border taquerias…I have never gotten over the expense and difference in Norcal Mexican cuisine. Probably comes from having grown up in San Diego and being used to feed oneself for next to nothing at all hours and having said Mexican food rock the deliciousness. Nice report, but how I could go for an Alberto’s or Cuca’s veggie burrito right now!

  • http://teenagechowhound.blogspot.com/ Faineg

    We have a San Diego style place called Adalberto’s here in Sacramento. I too have many happy memories of those rolled tacos! They also do their burritos sans rice and beans, which I endlessly appreciate. They’ve also got those California burritos with carne asada and french fries…kind of an acquired taste if you ask me. Unfortunately their fish tacos are only okay….can’t seem to find a decent one in Sacramento.

  • Denise Lincoln

    Jenn — where is El Cachanilla?
    Missy — San Ramon is pretty far, but I may have to try it anyway if they have actual rolled tacos.
    Faineg — Sacramento is just too far. Too bad.

    Thanks everyone for your suggestions, although I’m still hoping someone miraculously comes up with one in Oakland!

  • Kevin

    Man, I thought I was only ex San Diegan who who can’t find good Baja/San Diego style Mexican food in the Bay Area. I don’t want taqueria food either. I really miss the carne asada, and mixed burritos as well as the awesome tacos and,rolled tacos that El Indio specializes in. I am in the East Bay now,I’ll check out the place in San Ramon. I just think people in SF don’t know good Mexican food, period. Lol.

  • jacob

    man ,i live in santee and Guadalajara’s mexican taco shop is the best ive ever tasted .ive lived in santee for my entire life and i love san diego!! anyways its on mission gorge road in santee , next to santee pioners t ball field its worth the drive trust me !!!!

  • Allen

    I lived in chula vista, and national city. and every word is true ..there is nothing like So Cal Baha style mexican food… there are so many people that have never had it and its hard to describe but its not possible to substitute anything else in its place . I live in south carolina now …and you just cant get it here… nice article.