By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
The first visit I made to City Tacos was several years ago at the original San Diego location in North Park. At the time, scoring a carnitas or carne asada taco was out of the question. They were too mundane for the shop’s envelope-pushing concept.
Founder Gerald Torres has since added them, but with the imaginative twists inherent to his entire menu. He also branched into La Mesa village several months ago, sparing his East County fans the 10-mile trek.
For the second location, Torres partnered with Aaron Dean, owner of nearby Sheldon’s Service Station (a charming cafe housed in a circa-1920 automotive business). It opened in Dean’s former short-lived BLVD Noodles, a ramen house planted also on La Mesa’s main commercial drag. A basic makeover was given to the space and the inviting back patio was kept.
Unique to this shop are lobster and surf-n-turf tacos, as well as the La Mesa shrimp taco that mingles celery, garlic, Oaxaca cheese and cilantro aioli with the medium-size shrimp. There’s also grilled corn on the cob smeared judiciously in mayo, cotija cheese, lime and Tajin spice. It was the sweetest and most luscious ear these teeth have gnawed through in a long time.
Customers order from a colorful menu hanging behind the order counter. Unless you have 20/20 vision or good prescription glasses, you’ll be hard pressed reading the creative descriptions of the tacos. The font is painfully difficult in the absence of handout paper menus.
The “taco code” at the bottom of the menu displays illustrative keys indicating which tacos are spicy, vegan and paleo, and whether they’re made with homemade corn or flour tortillas. With the help of a chipper cashier, who offered me samples of house-made tamarind and cucumber aqua frescas while helping me decipher the menu, I became sold on four different tacos.
The “borrego” features a chic union of pulled lamb, wild mushrooms, fried leeks and cotija cheese. Tucked within is a squiggle of chipotle cream sauce. It’s earthy, daring and wildly delicious. Good luck finding anything that remotely resembles it anywhere in the area.
The chorizo asado strikes a natural pairing between pork and caramelized pineapple. Oaxaca cheese comes into play, adding a nice savor to what is the sweetest and least complex taco on the menu.
I was smitten with the carnitas taco — and a little confused when first laying eyes on it. The meat is cut into small, julienne pieces and coated in orange glaze, thus resembling pork you’d find in Chinese stir fry. But when the guacamole, onions and cilantro surfaced, I was sent to Mexico’s breadbasket, the Sinaloa region (as the menu indicates), where slow-cooked meats and seafood are commonly paired to fresh produce.
Pueblo-origin squash, known as calabacitas, appears with sauteed shrimp in the camaron taco with fresh corn, cilantro, red onions and green tomatillo salsa. The menu promises a “serrano chile egg batter” on the shrimp, which I didn’t detect. But the combination of seafood, grilled squash and tangy tomatillo made for a scrumptious experience.
The eatery has a salsa bar that promotes dawdling. It’s stocked with cucumbers, jicama, carrots, sauteed peppers and other taco-friendly sundries. There are also several sauces in squeeze bottles that need labeling. I learned from a passing employee that one is cilantro mayo and another is serrano chili sauce. The rest are anybody’s guess since I didn’t try them.
And that’s because the fare at City Tacos really doesn’t need salsas and sauces. Most of it comes dressed with either or both. Add to the equation micro herbs, garlic, onions and well-seasoned proteins, and your taste buds are in for a ride of kicked up flavors and luscious textures.
Just as Torres pointed out to me in an interview when he first opened in San Diego, “Everything in our local tacos shops tastes the same. Things are very different here.”
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.