The South Bay area of San Diego is home to an array of street food spots, restaurants, and bakeries that bring the flavors of Baja California, Mexico, to this side of the border. From a traditional Mexican breakfast of machaca and café de la olla cafe to transcendent antojitos and pozole surtido hidden in a strip mall, use this guide to discover the neighborhood’s culinary delights.Read More
Where to Eat Mexican Food in the South Bay
These are the neighborhood standouts
Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro
Black- and white-checkered tile flooring, dark wood accents, and tufted booths mark this classic-feeling restaurant owned by Martha Plascencia and her husband, Luis Daniel Peña. Have a taste of the famed Caesar salad, originally invented in Tijuana, or the classic beef cheek tacos. They both pair perfectly with a glass of wine from Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe.
TJ Oyster Bar
This once-tiny seafood spot has expanded to a few different locations in the South Bay. It is known for its seafood cocktails, as well as its classic Baja fish tacos, made with battered and fried swai fish and sold for 99 cents apiece. Round out your Baja experience by ordering a half dozen seasonal Baja oysters, and be sure to experience the original, at 4246 Bonita Road, which is tiny but full of love.
Lolita's Mexican Food
Joaquin and Dolores “Lolita” Farfan opened their first Lolita’s restaurant in Chula Vista in 1984. They pride themselves on their ingredients, delivered fresh every day. Although it’s a causal taco shop, each item is made to order. “Patience is the essence of Mexican food” is written on the walls at Lolita’s, and you can taste this ethos in the menu. Joaquin developed his own carne asada recipe for the restaurant, a dish that’s seasoned carefully. As such, Lolita’s is at the heart of the taco shop scene in South Bay. You can’t go wrong with the carne asada fries and California burrito, either.
Tijuana-style street tacos are traditionally charcoal-grilled steak (carne asada) on a fresh corn tortilla, topped with cilantro, onion, freshly squeezed lime juice, and generous dollops of creamy guacamole and salsa. This business came to be when co-owner and San Diego native Emilio Támez, who grew up in the South Bay, united with his friend, fellow cook and co-owner Jeremy Sosnoff, to bring this traditional style of tacos to San Diego. The name Taqueria Revolucion takes after the infamous Boulevard Revolución, also known as “La Revo” in Tijuana. This place is popular enough to have three different locations around the South Bay. Order up tacos, tostadas, and mulitas (in which your choice of meat and melted cheese are sandwiched between two tortillas) to your heart’s content.
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La Concha Bakery
You can find pan dulce (a wide-ranging category of Mexican sweet breads) at most of the local grocery stores, but some of it is mass produced. Conversely, the quality of sweet bread that comes from La Concha Bakery is pretty tough to beat. All its items are made daily, and the sweet smell of sugar and butter lingers in the air. You can’t go wrong with a concha, a sweet bread roll that has a crunchy sugar topping. The name “concha” comes from the bread’s round shape, marked by broken stripes on top to resemble the swirl of a conch shell.
The Curiel Family family from Tijuana own this restaurant in Downtown Chula Vista. Here, traditional Mexican breakfast favorites like chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, and machaca reign supreme — all served with beans and fried potatoes (a Tijuana thing). A cup of the cinnamon scented café de la olla, coffee made with ground coffee, cinnamon, and piloncillo (unrefined Mexican sugar) , is a great start to any morning. The Curiels also run the well-known restaurant La Espadaña in Tijuana, serving traditional Mexican dishes that are very similar to those at Talavera Azul.
Aqui Es Texcoco
This sit-down restaurant pays homage to the city of Texcoco in Mexico, where lamb barbacoa originated. This traditional dish is slow-roasted for several hours in an underground fire pit and covered in the leaves of the Maguey plant. Owner Francisco Perez replicates the barbacoa-making process using a specialized oven, making his South Bay lamb barbacoa incredibly close to what you would enjoy in Texcoco. Grab your family and friends and share an order of cuts of lamb barbacoa alongside handmade corn tortillas, fresh limes, and garnishes. The Baja-style grilled quail and squash blossom quesadillas are also standouts.
Tacos El Gordo
This Tijuana-born taqueria is now an institution for TJ-style tacos in San Diego. The aromas of the grills hit you as soon as you walk in, and the carne asada and adobada tacos (filled with pork marinated in red chile [achiote paste], guajillo chiles, vinegar, and oregano) pair superbly with a hibiscus agua fresca.
Birrieria Don Rafa
Don Rafa offers some classic Jalisco-style Mexican dishes, like menudo and carne en su jugo (beef simmered in its own juices, flavored with bacon, in a tomatillo flavored broth), but it’s the birria (stew), available with goat or beef, that you must order. Also try the quesadilla ahogada, which consists of a fresh flour tortilla piled high with the tender stew and melty cheese, placed on a plate of beans and covered in the broth that the birria has simmered away in for hours. Be careful, because the salsa — a secret recipe made from between 12 and 15 different types of chile — is definitely on the high end of spiciness. The restaurant even has warnings on the wall.
Tortas Ahogadas El Gallito
This little food cart is parked in a Chula Vista parking lot, and its Guadalajara-style tortas ahogadas — which translates to “drowned sandwich” — pack a real punch. The owners fly in their birote from Guadalajara, Mexico: The rolls have a thicker crust, meant to stand up to the sauce they’ll be drenched in. It’is filled with carnitas and then slathered in chile de árbol sauce and topped with pickled onions. Choose your spice preference when ordering and prepare to get messy.
Tocumbo Ice Cream CV
Open since 2004, Gerardo Ramirez’s one-stop snack shop is named after the small town of Tocumbo in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. Many of the family-run businesses in Tocumbo make thick, old-fashioned ice cream that can be mixed with chunks of nuts, fruits, and chocolate. Ramirez follows suit in San Diego proper with ice cream flavors from classic Oreo and strawberry to exciting flavors like corn and rose. You should try one of the mangoneadas — sweet mango sorbet with chunks of fresh mango mixed into it, drizzled with chamoy (a bright red pickled fruit sauce) and sprinkled with chile powder. The tostilocos are also a huge hit. Salsa verde-flavored Tostitos are dressed with diced cucumber, jicama, crunchy Japanese-style Mexican peanuts, chewy tamarind candies, plenty of lime juice, chamoy, and spicy hot sauce. Pickled pig skins are a very common finishing touch. Don’t knock it til you try it.
Mariscos El Pescador
Conveniently located in the same parking lot as Tortas El Gallito (just in case you would like to plan a little food crawl), this seafood food truck always has a line at meal times. Its fish tacos are definitely a stand-out: whitefish, l battered and fried to golden-brown perfection, then tucked into a corn tortilla and loaded up with shredded cabbage and pico de gallo. Be sure to slather on some of the chipotle cream sauce before taking the first bite.
Carnitas Las Michoacanas
Ah, carnitas. At this little eatery tucked into a strip mall in Chula Vista, you can taste the rarity of freshly made pork carnitas here in the South Bay. Think: a table loaded up with a big plate of Morelia-style pork carnitas that have been simmering away for hours, sides of beans, corn tortillas fresh off the griddle, and even red rice to please the San Diego crowd. Come with a group, order family style, and let everyone make their own tacos in between sips of creamy horchata.
Pozoleria Dona Maria
This small chain from Tijuana, in a Chula Vista strip mall, specializes in Guerrero-style pozole blanco (pork and hominy stew in “white broth,” which is actually a clear soup with accents of garlic and onion) and antojitos (quick, casual snacks that are often corn-based and fried). It also offers a pozole surtido, made with a mixture of pork jowls, ears, and tongue. One of the best parts about ordering up a piping-hot bowl of this flavorful soup is topping it off with all of the fresh fixings. Don’t be shy with the squeezes of fresh lime juice, sliced radishes, onions, and cabbage. A crunchy tostada can serve as a vehicle for scooping up the grains of hominy and tender pork. You also can’t leave without trying the crunchy potato tacos.
El Cacho Fish Tacos
“El Cacho” is owner Carlos Robles’s nickname, and his food truck, parked in Chula Vista, is named as such. The truck serves up mouthwatering curbside-style mariscos, otherwise known as ceviche tostadas. Make sure to order the spicy Sinaloa tostada, topped with shrimp ceviche and drenched in serrano chile sauce, and the Tia Juana tostada, piled high with fresh red snapper.
El Ranchero Taco Shop
This taco shop serves up burritos, tacos, and fries, but it’s the raspados (snow cones) that truly shine through. Top your large cup of shaved ice with syrup in flavors like mango or tamarind, and then choose add-ons like lechera (condensed milk) and chamoy.
Otay Farms Market & Mexican Food
This is Chula Vista’s first Mexican market, owned and operated by the Tamayo Family since 1962. It sells South Bay produce, meat, hot food, and beer. Purchase tasty guisados (stews) and side dishes for quick meals at home from the hot bar at the market, or stop in for a large burrito with your choice of filling during the lunch rush. After waiting in line for your number to be called, you most definitely cannot leave without a dozen of its fresh-off-the press flour tortillas. There is nothing like them. Other must-try items include chicharron en salsa verde (pork rinds in green salsa), beef barbacoa, and pints of various salsas and guacamole.
ED Fernandez Restaurant & Catering (Birria de Res)
Fernandez Restaurant is packed on the weekends, for good reason. Most consider birria a Sunday staple, whether to cure a hangover or just to curb an insatiable weekly craving. The menu is limited and consists of Tijuana-style birria, made from beef in a broth of dried chiles, spices, and beef juices. The meat can also be ordered inside a crispy taco, as a quesataco (a tortilla filled with grilled, melty cheese and topped with the stewed beef), or as a family-style portion served with warm handmade corn tortillas, chopped cilantro, and onion for do-it-yourself tacos. It’s true comfort food, without any frills. Take note that the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
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Tropi Frutas trades in tortas de lomo, soft bolillo rolls slathered with mayo, then filled with juicy shredded beef prepared in a chipotle sauce, with lettuce, tomato, and pickled jalapeno peppers. It’s incredibly similar to the tortas you’ll find served during the late-night border crossings from Tijuana to the U.S.
One of the most recent openings in San Ysidro is Tuétano Taquería. The kitchen is run by chef Priscilla Curiel, formally from Talavera Azul. While she grew up in the kitchen of her family’s restaurant in Downtown Chula Vista, she regularly made Tijuana style birria — rich in spices, and stewed in a red broth — at her catering side job. Her version of the slow-cooked meat is nothing short of amazing. While the tacos are filled with clove-scented stew, it’s the addition of tuétano (bone marrow) that adds a fabulous richness to the overall dish. The homemade salsa macha is the perfect accompaniment, adding an ideal level of heat.