My post on our local Mexican boy Sancho’s set me thinking about the closest I got to Mexico. That would have been the rather lovely city of San Diego, quite literally on the Mexican border (it’s so close, the local tram system ends in Mexico).
San Diego in 2005 was boomtown, with property prices going skywards and general well being oozing out of the economy. It was, in general, a great dining city – the downtown full of nice restaurants that never seemed to be very crowded. And while at the start of my blog San Francisco introduced me to the adequately authentic budget tacqueria, it was left to San Diego to give me my first real taste of both hole-in-the wall and high-end Mexican food.
First the hole in the wall – actually a shed attached to a parking lot and car workshop right behind my workplace. Prominently signed in bright red, Taco Express is a pair of cheerful women and an old man behind the counter that used to open only for lunch. They served us soft tacos, quesadillas and general Mexicana that, while not on any Michelin list, was cheap and hugely satisfying. I stumbled upon it by accident, but most recent reviews seem to put it at the top of the budget taco places in San Diego.
Not so far away as crows fly, on a street named after out very own India was Indigo Grill. The distance in cuisine was considerably more – Indigo Grill came with fancy seating, a name-brand chef and a hefty price tag aimed more at the hip than the crowd. The food was uniformly good, and occasionally outstanding. Chef Deborah Scott did not confine herself to Mexican dishes (the restaurant advertises as “New Western Cuisine” and even sports the odd tofu or kaffir lime) but there is enough Inca in there to satisfy. Familiar names like tamales and tortillas find mention on the menu. Plenty of other dishes survive substantial brushes with things from south of the border such as the pipian and jalapeno topping a baked brie. And some of the best things come free; the thick, flame-toasted country bread slices or the vanishingly thin, fennel-sprinkled beetroot chips.
Candelas in the much tonier Gaslamp district was, appropriately, much tonier. Part lounge, part restaurant, all candlelit, Candelas is squarely targeted at sleek couples and sleek couples alone. Chubby. backpacked me getting off a bicycle wasn’t entirely their idea of ideal customer, but they nevertheless plied me some very nice cocktails and otherwise served me enthusiastically. Other visits yielded a very nice wine list. The food, though hard to see, is usually very good – elevated, sophisticated modern Mexican food not meant to suggest any mama’s kitchen. The stuffed squid starter was a favourite, the poblano chile soup worthy of repeat (yes, I really do remember these dishes) and of course, a tres leches to finish.
Still in the Gaslamp, right outside the ballpark was the Tin Fish – a bar and taco joint with outdoor seating that persuaded me to fall for fish tacos. San Diego’s balmy weather makes the outdoor seats at Tin Fish the ideal place for pretty much everything from romantic date to writing the Mein Kampf, but please ensure that any and all activity is supplemented by a generous stream of fish tacos. Tin Fish is a chain that originated in San Diego with an Italian seafood Chef from New York, but they do some of the best fish tacos I have ever had. The place even allows you a choice of the fish in the taco (halibut was my favourite).
My favourite Modern Mexican restaurant in those days was closer home; a short walk from our offices in New York led us to the very fancy Dos Caminos – a chain owned by a corporation that ran restaurant chains (just teaches you not to judge). There are multiple Dos Caminos in New York but the massive Murray Hill one is the earliest and most often favoured by us. Try some of that incredible guacamole served tableside, ceviche worthy of note, lots and lots and lots of tequilas to choose from and a chipotle eggs benedict that rocked our socks on Sundays.
I last visited any of these places half a decade ago, but the Internet is a wonderful thing. Yelp tells me that Taco Express, Tin Fish and Indigo Grill are still going strong, while Candelas now has a second outlet. Dos Caminos has prospered too, having expanded much beyond the hill.