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For outsiders, it’s easy to pigeonhole San Diego as a sun-soaked, surfer’s paradise of fish tacos and signature California burritos stuffed with steak and fries. To a certain extent, that myth holds true—and that’s a good thing.
But the coastal town 20 miles north of the Mexican border and 120 miles south of SoCal’s hyperregional Mexican food mecca is where you’ll also find reputable Tijuana–based outposts like El Gordo and El Poblano, and an emerging chef-driven taco scene, thanks to the star-studded resumes of Javier Plascencia and Trey Foshee.
As a result, San Diego offers some of the best carne asada in the U.S., a glorious array of seafood tacos expertly finessed by Sinaloans, exceptional beef birria, the most esteemed lamb barbacoa taquero in the country, Top Chef-worthy tacos on heirloom corn tortillas, rolled tacos, and, of course, those ubiquitous gut-bursting cylinders of doom, the California burrito. Overall, there’s plenty to love about the San Diego taco shops (a term coined by natives), taquerias, and trucks, and it all happens under the glow of some of the best weather on the planet.
From masterfully marinated pork to pit-roasted barbacoa, here are 10 essential tacos from San Diego.
Fish taco at TJ Oyster Bar
Address and phone: 4246 Bonita Rd, Bonita (619-267-4577)
There’s much to love about this hybrid Tijuana-themed oyster bar, cevicheria, and taqueria that was born on the streets of TJ and eventually made a home on the other side of the border. San Diegans love their fish tacos delicious and cheap, and no one hits that mark like TJ Oyster Bar, which serves a $0.99 fish taco made with a tasty batter—yielding a perfect golden exterior—and dressed with cabbage, pico de gallo, and cream. It’s a textbook fish taco that delivers all the elements of flavor, crunch, and wetness you need on those days you can’t make it down to Ensenada.
California burrito at Juanita’s Taco Shop
Yes, a burrito is a regional name for a taco de harina, or a taco made with a flour tortilla, and San Diego’s California burrito is a noteworthy contribution to modern gastronomy. To taste it in its truest form, head to Juanita’s Taco Shop, which stuffs—and I mean stuffs—steak, a fistful of French fries, and yellow cheese into a tortilla and moistens the whole package with sour cream and guacamole. This regional specialty is universally beloved by locals, and it undoubtedly appears on every out-of-towner’s list of things to do when visiting SD. Eating the one at Juanita’s will make you understand why. (Photo: Yelp/Shane W.)
Casa Plascencia’s beef-cheek tacos at Bracero
Address and phone: 1490 Kettner Bl, b/t Beech St & Ash St, Little Italy (619-756-7864)
Having one of Mexico’s most celebrated chefs in San Diego is one of the great things about your taco prospects in San Diego, and chef Javier Plascencia always makes sure to have some tacos at his restaurants. At his newest spot, Bracero, in Little Italy, he has imported the Casa Plascencia beef-cheeks taco, which is an exercise in restraint and simplicity. Beef cheeks are braised until they’re ultra-tender and drizzled with some flavorful au jus, but not too much so that it spills out of the tortilla. Go easy on the salsa and fixins because it’s good enough on its own. (Photo: FoodSpotting/Tony Bubbles)
Grilled SD Avocado at Galaxy Taco
Address and phone: 2259 Avenida De La Playa, La Jolla (858-228-5655)
This new venture for chef Trey Foshee—a top American chef and leader in California cuisine thanks to his landmark restaurant, George’s at the Cove—is founded on an important principle: using Mexican heirloom corn tortillas as a base for the finest local products. A grilled California avocado rests on a rich puree of fragrant black beans and is topped with a creamy corn salad; add some salsa and this taco serves as both a savory bite of local products, and a tribute the founding foods of pre-Hispanic cuisine. (Photo: Yelp/Wes G.)
Rolled tacos at Las Cuatro Milpas
Address and phone: 1857 Logan Ave, Barrio Logan (619-234-4460)
Rolled tacos are what we call taquitos here in L.A., and in Mexico they are known as flautas, or sometimes simply tacos. At one of San Diego’s Mexican-American institutions, Los 4 Milpas, in Barrio Logan, ground meat is packed inside of a rolled corn tortilla, which is deep-fried and dressed in Mexican tradition: shredded lettuce, a crumble of cheese, and sour cream. Along with the California burrito, these mouthwatering rolled tacos achieve a balance of flavors and temperatures that justify its place among the iconic plates of San Diego gastronomy.
Taco de adobada at Tacos El Gordo
Address and phone: 689 H St, Chula Vista (619-691-8848)
One of Tijuana’s most famous taquerias isn’t even one of the best in Tijuana, but place it on the other side of the border and you get a move up in weight class. The Chula Vista branch of Tacos El Gordo brings an expert team of taqueros with experience running a high-volume establishment that is rare in the U.S. The adobada is lightly sweet and well-seasoned marinated pork on a corn tortilla with chopped onions, cilantro, a mild salsa, and a creamy avocado spread Tijuana taquerias are known for. The game-changer is that highly skilled taqueros are employed to maintain perfectly trimmed trompos (vertical spits) so that the right amount of char is present—a few quick slicing motions down the mound of meat, and within seconds you have a taste if Tijuana on a tortilla. (Photo: Yelp/Justin L.)
Tacos de barbacoa at Aqui es Texcoco
Address and phone: 1043 Broadway Ste. 108, Chula Vista (619-427-4045)
What more could be said about the best barbacoa restaurant north of the border? Well, a lot. Owner and pit-master Paco Perez is the hardest working barbacoa man in the game, regularly visiting Mexico to taste barbacoa in Mexico’s pit-roasting centers. He is an innovator in terms of cooking barbacoa in a restaurant: Using a custom-built oven and Mexican aromatics, Perez cooks pit-roasted lamb, legally, in a restaurant kitchen. The result is super tender, and oozing with lamb flavor and natural oils that’ll make you think twice before crossing the border. (Oh yeah, he has a branch there, too.) (Photo: Yelp/Bill C.)
Carne asada at Tacos El Poblano
Address and phone: 885 E H St, Chula Vista (619-216-0155)
Another wrecking crew of taqueros from a legendary Tijuana taqueria has brought expertise to San Diego, as well as something rarely seen in the U.S.—real carne asada cooked on mesquite. Without mesquite and fire, there is no carne asada, period. As in Tijuana, the tacos here feature a blend of steak cuts simply salted, finely chopped, and finished with chopped onions, cilantro, a tomato salsa, and creamy avocado; each one is then wrapped into a cone. The steak is delicious, and when its juices mix with the avocado and salsa, it’s over: You’ll never go back to flat-top cooked carne asada again. (Photo: Yelp/Tim S.)
Taco gobernador at Mariscos German
This food truck has been a San Diego favorite for a long time due to its amazing Tijuana-style seafood cuisine, with roots in Sinaloa—one of the largest states represented in Tijuana in terms of population. Besides seafood cocktails, tostadas, and a killer fish taco, this truck is best known for its signature taco gobernador, or governor’s taco (named after a governor of Sinaloa). The gobernador here comes with large slices of sautéed vegetables (purple onion, celery, tomato, bell peppers), shrimp, and melted cheese that resembles an Asian stir-fry rather that a traditional guisado. (Photo: Yelp/Mikey P.)
Vegetarian tacos at Puesto
Address and phone: 1026 Wall St, La Jolla (858-454-1260)
Part of the new wave of mainstream taquerias in San Diego, this franchise is all about fresh, sustainable local products tossed inside a tortilla—and what could be more San Diego than that? There are a variety of great tacos to choose from Puesto’s menu, but the vegetarian one made with zucchini, corn, and cactus hits all the right notes of taste and place. Did I mention that it’s also a quesataco? Yes, the vegetable blend is rolled inside of a fried-cheese envelope—the same one first introduced by Tijuana’s Tacos Salceados a few years ago—and placed on a quality corn tortilla. It’s the new face of tacos in San Diego, and it goes beyond the standard taco shop. (Photo: Yelp/Heather W.)