10 Mexican Restaurants That Serve Up Casual Eats in San Diego
By Katie Dillon
San Diego Local Expert
If you can't get to Mexico, finding a Mexican restaurant in San Diego is the next best thing. We're a border town, after all, so it's not surprising that Mexican food is done well here—primarily in family-run taco shops. Mexico is a country with hundreds of regional cuisines so keep in mind that in San Diego you are most likely to find tacos, burritos and "3 rolled with guac", which is what the locals call a standard taquito order.
Old Town San Diego is famous for Mexican food and for being the birthplace of California. While some might argue the food isn't authentic enough, eating here is a must-do when visiting the historic area. Try Cafe Coyote for the handmade tortillas pounded and grilled daily on the patio.
Puesto brings a colorful, casual dining experience that's unlike any other in county. Specializing in Mexican street food made with locally-sourced ingredients and sustainable seafood, this restaurant has been busy since its opening. There are two locations now: one in La Jolla and the other downtown at The Headquarters.
Lolita's Restaurants are casual taco shops located across the county with favorite orders including tacos and carne asada chips. Because it's probably the location visitors to San Diego will frequent most, we mention the East Village restaurant in downtown San Diego.
Pair whatever entree you choose with a fish bowl-sized margarita, if you wish.
10 Las Olas
A Cardiff staple for over 30 years, Las Olas is a festive, popular place to enjoy Mexican food and a good margarita. Las Olas translated means, "the waves" which is appropriate given its location directly across the street from the beach. They claim to have invented the now-famous fish taco and pride themselves of always serving healthy fare from trans fat-free oil to locally sourced, fresh ingredients. Take advantage of the Puerto Nuevo Style lobster served from October through March. Should you be hosting an event, Las Olas caters. Go early on weekends in order to avoid disappointment though dining during sunset here is truly special. (760-942-1860)
9 Rudy's Taco Shop
Rudy's Taco Shop is near a zone in Solana Beach called Eden Gardens that's famous for Mexican food restaurants. With all of this choice, it's still a favorite with locals and tourists. Go for take-out as there are only a few places to sit. Prices are reasonable with the carne asada burrito as the most popular order, because the meat stands out as quality with superb seasoning. Mix with fresh guacamole and salsa. Horchatas, street tacos and breakfast burritos are available, too. All is served in a no-frills environment. Rudy's Taco Shop also offers easy catering should you be throwing a party. ((858) 755-0788)
This is the first Miguel's location in San Diego. It has a resort-like feel loved by tourists and residents. Miguel's has been around for over 30 years, making a name for itself by serving reliable Mexican-American food in a fun, kid-friendly atmosphere. Chips and salsa arrive as soon as you're seated, along with a dish of pickled vegetables and a bowl of jalapeno white sauce, which earns raves from just about everyone. You'll find a broad menu with plenty of options such as albondigas soup, ceviche, carnitas, fish tacos, pollo asado, calamari-wrapped chile rellenos, enchiladas suizas, and lobster or shrimp fajitas. Servers are affable and efficient while Sunday brunch is popular. ((619) 437-4237)
7 Cafe Coyote
From tortillas to tamales to salsa, Coyote Cafe makes everything from scratch every day, on the premises. Start the day with a Breakfast Margarita, chilaquiles, menudo, or a chile relleno omelette. For lunch, try the chile verde, a quesadilla, tortilla soup, or a taco salad. If your appetite is massive by dinnertime, this is the place to go. Hearty portions of traditional and gringo favorites arrive steaming and flavorful: tamales, tequila-lime shrimp, carnitas, California burritos (huge tortilla stuffed with carne asada, cheese and French fries!), and enchiladas. They have good margaritas, a decent selection of tequila, pitchers of sangria, and ice cold cerveza, too. (619-291-4695)
6 Ponce's Mexican Restaurant
Ponce's Mexican Restaurant in the Kensington neighborhood is owned and operated by the Meza family for over 40 years. It's loved for fantastic Mexican food but also for overall community spirit as the restaurant supports local organizations and prides itself on being a good to employees. It's tough to isolate just a few items because the entire menu is good, but try the chicken enchiladas, carnitas, green salsa, and flan. People even rave about the rice and beans. Due to popularity, the restaurant can get quite busy but they do take reservations for parties of 6 or more. Ponce's has a special children's menu and can cater your next event. (619-282-4413)
5 Lolita's Restaurant - Downtown
Lolita's opened their first location over 20 years ago in Chula Vista. Since then, this family-owned and operated business has expanded to 5 locations including this one in East Village near PETCO park and the Convention Center. Locals love the hearty favorites such as carne asada fries, carne asada burrio, Tsunami burrito (shrimp and carne asada mix) as well as the tacos. Hot sauces are firey and flavorful. Note that portions are big so prepare to go home full or share. It's casual and quick so either order and take it to go or sit down in the restaurant to eat. (619-269-6055)
4 La Puerta
If you're looking for Mexican food in the Gaslamp, La Puerta is your place. La Puerta is famous for street tacos that can only be made better by pairing them with a freshly-squeezed margarita (no mixes here). Over 100, 100% blue agave tequilas are on offer complete with tasting notes to help diners select which is right for them. Happy hour runs daily from 3:00pm-7:00pm, usually with 1/2 drinks and appetizers like the carne asada fries. After 3:00pm (and when musicians are playing) you must be 21 years and older to enter. The kitchen is open until 1:00am so stop by for late-night eats. (619-696-3466)
3 Oscar's Mexican Seafood
It hasn't been around that long but some are already claiming that Oscar's Mexican Seafood is the best Mexican in San Diego. A hole-in-the-wall near a smoke shop and a dive bar, this gem is casual with a to-go atmosphere and very little seating. The tacos, which can be upgraded to a burrito for just $1 more, are worth the wait--and there is often a wait. Portions are huge with the tacos heaving with meat, cheese and avocados. Double the avocados if you like for just 50 cents and grab an agua fresca with free refills. Parking is usually OK on the street. ((858) 488-6392)
Puesto Mexican Street Food, located in downtown La Jolla, is an upscale fast-casual eatery that serves authentic Mexican food made from whole, wonderful ingredients. All meals are made to order and are uniquely curated based on the diner's tastes and desire. The menu focuses on a variety of Guisados (grilled foods) that include fish, shrimp, chicken al pastor, carne asada and gourmet Mexican vegetarian items like zucchini flower, corn truffle and soy chorizo potatoes. Guisados can be mixed and matched and are served in tacos with stone ground corn tortillas that are layered with crispy hot cheese, Guisado Bowls and Salad Bowls. (8584541260)
1 Las Cuatro Milpas
Barrio Logan isn't really one of San Diego's tourist hot spots but some locals argue that Las Cuatro Milpas is the one place to take out-of-town guests for Mexican food. There is almost always a line and it can take up to an hour at lunch. The menu is small as it's a you-get-what-they-serve type of place. That's just fine with locals who have been eating here for over 20 years with some driving miles and miles for a Las Cuatro Milpas fix. Menu items usually include tamales, tacos, burritos, rice and beans with delicious homemade tortillas. The only meats are pork, chicken and chorizo. ((619) 234-4460)
About Katie Dillon
Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as expats in London and Hong Kong. After traveling the world, they returned to the La Jolla sunshine, with a young daughter in tow. Katie now writes a lifestyle site called La Jolla Mom and is the author of a book called, “Flying With Kids.” Her work can be seen on NBC San Diego, Red Tricycle, Yahoo! Shine and Have Family Will Travel, a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts blog.
Read more about Katie Dillon here.