Tasting Menus: San Diego Mexican Food in Restaurants, a Diner, and a Market

Hola. It's been a while, eh? Well that's what a couple weeks in the California sunshine will do to a girl, dazzle her and then leave her feeling jet lagged and grey upon return to an English January. I've been eager to share my San Diego dining recommendations with you; we tried a range of Mexican food, in restaurants, a diner, and at a market. The following picks won't be found in the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego's bustling tourist area, where many of the big hotels are located. But don't worry you only need to make very short trips to get your mouth around this fine Southern California Mexican food...

Gourmet Tamales-
Little Italy Mercato

Every Saturday a colourful market lines a street that slopes gently towards the harbour in San Diego's Little Italy district. A fantastic variety of vendors hawk food and drink, a cornucopia of farmers' market produce, and non-edible items such as jewelry and kitchen accessories. The atmosphere is as sunny as the weather, as visitors peruse and snack on the ample samples with glee. One stall grabbed my attention with just two little words: Gourmet. Tamales. As I moved in closer I spied the steam rising up from the huge pot where the little bundles were steaming.

A tamalera - big pot used to steam tamales

Obviously I was eating one, the only question was which filling to choose? Tamales are corn husks stuffed with a mix of masa (corn dough) and other fillings, then wrapped up and steamed. Traditional fillings include pork and chicken, but at Gourmet Tamales vegetarians and vegans are well catered for.  The masa here is even made with olive oil instead of lard. I chose a tamale featuring black beans and cheese, which I then topped with a couple of their lip-tingling salsas. Perfect street food.

El Indio

This family owned and operated restaurant got its start in the 1940s, as a hand-made tortilla factory. During WWII local factory works requested ready-made lunch items, and they created the 'tacquito' (little taco) to satisfy demand. El Indio's founder created a tortilla-making machine and moved the business to a premise nearby, where they still trade today, as a restaurant.

The neon signage, corner location and diner vibe sure make you feel like you're stepping back in time as you join the crowds piling in here to feast on fast, cheap, fresh Mexican food favourites. The owner even stopped by every table to ask diners if they were enjoying their food. That's something you don't see much these days!

Step inside and get in line to order at the counter, the time will go by quickly as you'll spend it panicking about what to choose from the seemingly endless options on the menu boards above. In addition to the restaurant items, El Indio also sells plenty of prepared food to go. Metal pails overspill with bags of freshly-made tortilla chips, flour tortillas, and shelves heave with ingredients (and even a tamale steamer!) to make your own dishes at home.

Chilled items for sale include a variety of salsas,  masa, and prepared enchiladas and tamales for heating up at home. If you're eating in the restaurant you'll see the 'Salsa Bar' where you can fill little cups with several different types of salsas. We bought a tub of the hot salsa from the fridge and were glad we did as this wasn't available on the bar, and it was our favourite; smoky and spicy. The salsa verde here was the best of its kind I ate in San Diego. So zingy FRESH.

After paying for our hot food platters and some to-go items (which didn't go much further than our table and into our stomachs) we grabbed a table and chowed down. We went for an early, post-San Diego zoo trip dinner so we didn't have much trouble scoring a seat, but the queue seemed longer when we left. El Indio is open all day (wish we'd had time to try breakfast) but doesn't do late nights.


This 'Baja Med Bistro' was recommended to me by two different San Diego based food writers. Located in Bonita, CA, Romesco is only about a 15 minute drive from the main tourist area in San Diego. Yet this distance alone probably puts it out off the map for most tourists, and they certainly wouldn't be guided there by the concierge at our huge hotel, who had never even heard of it. So I'm here to help spread the word - if you are in the San Diego area you need to go eat at Romesco!

Ignore the strip-mall location. As soon as you step inside you are ensconced in a warm, buzzing space, with the feel of a well-loved neighbourhood restaurant. There were several groups dining here, laughing, drinking, and sharing food. Everyone sat near us spoke in Spanish. Surely a good sign. The white and black chequered floors, dark wood furniture, and dimmed lighting create a cosy, classic decor. A 3-piece acoustic group in the corner provides a live Latin soundtrack. Why, oh why, aren't there more neighbourhood bistros like this?!

Do not come here hankering for a big ol' burrito platter. The 'Baja Med' menu is influenced by many different types of cuisine and offers lots of small plate options in addition to main courses. You'll find a selection of Spanish, Greek and Mexican inspired tapas, Italian and Corsican pasta and meat dishes,
paella, salads, and more.

We were on a quest to try different Mex influenced dishes, so we opted for several of the small plate choices. I even ordered a glass of Mexican red wine, which was very smooth and decent. The tapas items embody the diversity of the menu, offering a range of flavours and textures perhaps not traditionally seen together, but wow — they work. They work overtime.

Spaghettini Tacos with fresh cream, Spanish chorizo, fresh salsa verde, greens and cheese.
Ahi Tuna Tostada: topped with guacamole, fresh cream, mixed tender greens, lettuce, habanero salsa, olive oil.
Pulled pork in a smoky, spicy sauce served with corn tortillas.
Shrimp and mozzarella grilled tacos with habanero sauce.

George's at the Cove 

How many times have you been to a restaurant or bar for the view, and been horribly let down by the food or drink? George's will reassure you that it is possible to eat well while gazing upon stunning scenery. Here you look out on the shores of La Jolla - which means 'The Jewel'. This stunning area of San Diego is about a 15 minute drive from downtown. There's a lovely coastal path to wander along, where you can stop and watch the many resident seals, sea lions and different sea birds. 

So go for a walk, take in the wildlife and then have lunch at George's. I recommend lunch as you want to be able to see the views of course. George's has three levels — their restaurant 'California Modern' is downstairs (dinner only) the 'Ocean Terrace' is up top, and 'George's Bar' is in between. The restaurant and the terrace take reservations.

We didn't book in advance so we waited for a table in the bar — it has the same views and menus as the terrace. We waited a bit longer to sit on the balcony near the window to soak in the gorgeous view of La Jolla Cove.

The lunch menu is comprised of categories you'd expect (Sandwiches, Salads, Pasta) but it was the Baja section that my eyes immediately locked on. Three mouthwatering Baja choices: Marinated and Grilled Fish Tacos, Ancho Chile Shrimp Tacos, or Mexican Style Shrimp Cocktail. I couldn't resist the fish tacos. Here, plump juicy pieces of grilled fish are tucked into tortillas and topped with mango salsa, jalapeno-lime creme fraiche, guacamole and shredded cabbage. Succulent with a bit of crunch.

If you visit San Diego I highly recommend renting a car, as the public transportation there is very limited, and obviously you need to get around to eat at all the places I've recommended above! Be sure to get out of the downtown area a bit and enjoy a variety of sunny, fresh, well-spiced Southern California Mexican flavours.


  1. Hmmm now I am really hungry and want some good Mexican food, looks like I need to book a flight!


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