Dear reader: if you’re looking for an explanation of “rose meat,” please scroll to the bottom. It’s in the last paragraph and in the comments section that follows.
San Diego is known for its tacos. The city of San Diego, that is, and of course Tijuana across the border. Being an ignorant New Yorker, I didn't really fathom how big a county San Diego was. It’s big. Still, the nice people who had arranged for me to stay at Estancia La Jolla had also pressed a chef at its sister property, L'Auberge Del Mar, into the service of fulfilling my request for tacos.
So I was met yesterday afternoon at Estancia by Jesse Bajana, L’Auberge’s executive sous chef, who was charged with finding me good tacos in North County.
Jesse was initially flummoxed. He presented his dilemma to his friend and former colleague, Fred Estrada, the chef of Yellow Coyote Tortilla Factory in Carlsbad. That’s him in the first picture, holding some of his tacos.
“We have pretty good tacos,” Fred apparently told Jesse, and so off we went.
Jesse’s car had a Colorado license plate — it turns out that his mother is from Denver, and although Jesse was born and raised in southern California, he recently spent six months in Denver, in the Highlands neighborhood. A lifelong Broncos fan, he could walk to the stadium from his house and he attended every home game.
Part of his family is also Native American from New Mexico, and so he was quite familiar with the green chile of New Mexican cuisine, which is the sort of Mexican food I was raised on in Denver.
Anyway, that second picture obviously is of the Yellow Coyote Tortilla Factory. Below is a close-up of the dogs in front of it, which Jesse and I agreed made the restaurant look like it was in Mexico.
Jesse shared with me his philosophy about tacos, which was pretty straightforward: The tortillas must be fresh, the salsas must be good. And when it comes to fish tacos, the fish should be battered and fried. He said his step dad’s uncle used to have the best fish tacos in Tijuana, but he sold his taqueria.
Fred brought out a bunch of salsas, along with guacamole and a carrot-jalapeño pico. He recommended the arbol chile salsa as the best one for the tacos, although he also gave a nod to his spiciest salsa, which was a blend of arbol, roasted jalapeño and serrano.
Jesse and I each had a beer (Corona, with lime; it seemed appropriate) and eight tacos. We started with carne asada, chicken and carnitas tacos. The carnitas had some diced pineapple in it, which Jesse had explained was common in pastor tacos, which are made in a style similar to Greek gyros: The beef is stacked on a vertical rotisserie and slowly roasted. Typically for pastor tacos, a pineapple is placed on top of the roasting meat, slowly basting it, and some of that pineapple is also put in the taco. I don’t think I’d ever had that before.
Next we had two totally inauthentic tacos — tasty, but not authentic. One was made with braised short ribs, and the other with queso fundido — melted cheese with roasted poblano and red bell pepper rajas and chorizo. Neither Jesse nor I had seen such a thing before.
Jesse hadn’t seen shrimp tacos either. I’m not sure whether I had or not, but he went wild over them — breaded and fried, just like the fish tacos (made of pollock) were. We also had grilled mahi mahi tacos. All three of those were served with Fred’s signature chipotle aïoli and yogurt sauce.
Next Jesse wanted to take me to a little hole-in-the-wall at a strip mall in Oceanside, near his home, that had the best tacos he’d had north of the border.
“If you don’t mind the drive,” he added.
What did I care? He was driving, and the trip would give me some time to digest my eight tacos.
The name of the restaurant is Los Tacos (2183 Vista Way, suite B9, 760-757-8226, in case you have trouble finding it). It is, indeed, in a strip mall, next to an Einstein Bros Bagels.
There we had tacos made of tripa (which is to say intestine, not stomach lining), tongue and cabesa. Cabesa is the meat from the face of a pig. Quite tasty. In addition, we had tacos al pastor, with the pineapple and topped with an avocado sauce, and finally a taco suadero, which was unhelpfully translated into English as “rose.” The owner explained that it was the top part of the beef, just below the skin. Once the taco was brought to us — crispy fat on top of rich beef, I surmised it was like picanha, a Brazilian cut of meat that is the top part of the sirloin, with a thick layer of fat still attached. You can get it at many churrascarias if you ask.
Pictured are the pastor (in front) and the tripas.