Monday, January 05, 2009

Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina - San Diego

Since my cousin's wedding reception at Pearl Chinese Cuisine lasted pretty late, my siblings and I opted to spend the night in San Diego. We slept in so by the time we got to the house, we missed cousin Q's French toast. Apparently, he had all the burners going for hours so breakfast would be fresh for everyone.

After tossing around various ideas, we settled on Old Town San Diego because lil' sis said she remembered seeing handmade tortillas.

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I really wanted to see the Hotel del Coronado because it was constructed entirely of wood and was the inspiration for Richard Matheson to write "Somewhere in Time." (The "Somewhere in Time" movie, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, was filmed at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan.) Lil' sis said it was better to save it for summer. So perhaps I'll be back.

It was a bright, sunny day, although a bit breezy and chilly. The main street had plenty of tourist shops and Mexican restaurants.

Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina - San Diego 2

We were lured into Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina by seeing these tortillas being handmade. According to the website, they make 7,000 corn and flour tortillas a day. Actually, many of the restaurants featured handmade tortillas.

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I didn't notice until we were nearly done eating but birds flew around inside the restaurant. Eeek! Especially when there's bird poop on the rafters and diners were seated below. That can't be sanitary. Other than that, colorful kitschy decor with live music.

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Warm tortillas and salsa.

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My brother ordered the carnitas plate with freshly made tortillas for $12.50.

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The meat looked sparse, but we all picked from his plate and there was still some left over. The pork was fried crispy, but still juicy in the middle.

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I realize you can't see the meat so well in this photo, but you can see how thick the handmade tortilla looks. Mmm. So yummy. Eat fast! Handmade tortillas are lovely when warm and fresh, but once they cool down become thick piles of dough.

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My brother's wife got machaca con huevos (Mexican dried beef with eggs) for $8.75.

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Lil' sis got two Carne Asada (Mexican Grilled Meat) tacos for $7.95. These were good, but way overpriced since I get them for a little over $1 apiece in East L.A.

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I got a tamale and chile relleno combo for $8.50. I ordered a pork tamale and they gave me chicken. :( I didn't want to fuss so I ate it anyway, but it was dry, dry, dry. :( The chile relleno, actually the whole plate, was greasy, cheesy, and heavy.

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None of us finished our plates. We're just not used to eating such heavy food. I know it's a touristy area, but I expected something better. Or maybe I've been spoiled because I get cheaper and better in L.A.?

To redeem our meal, we wandered out to try handmade dessert tortillas, 2 for $1. We opted for Cafe Coyote just to try another place.

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I was going to order chocolate and cinnamon, but lil' sis suggested strawberry because it would look nicer for the blog. The tortillas had the cinnamon and strawberry incorporated into the dough. But while it definitely flavored the tortilla, it was like eating a plain, flavored tortilla. Rather bland. I was thinking it would be more like a crepe. Perhaps if there was sugar? Or maybe if we opted for the bunuelo instead so it'd be fried? We all tried a piece, then ended up tossing the rest. :( I hate wasting food, but none of us would have eaten the leftovers.

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We walked around a bit more.

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The Whaley House, built in 1857, was the first two-storey brick building in San Diego. It was home to merchant and community leader, Thomas Whaley. It also served as the town's courthouse and County Recorder's Office. It's also haunted!

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Yawn. We weren't up for touristy shops and the heavy lunch made us all tired.

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So long Old Town San Diego. Maybe some other day I'll wander your historic quarters and explore your haunted houses.

Other Mexican restaurants:
Carnitas Michoacan - Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights)
Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen - Orange
King Taco Restaurants #11 - El Monte (Garvey Ave.)
Los Cinco Puntos - Los Angeles
Senor Fish - Alhambra
Tacos Baja Ensenada - (East) Los Angeles
Taqueria Chihuahua - Los Angeles (Mar Vista)

Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina
2489 San Diego Ave.
San Diego, CA 92110
7 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Happy Hours 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and 10 p.m. until close.

Cafe Coyote
2461 San Diego Ave.
San Diego, CA 92110

Whaley House Museum and SOHO Museum Shop
2476 San Diego Ave.
San Diego, CA 92110
Winter Hours
Monday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Closed Wednesdays
Thursday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

1 year ago today, Mam Nem (Vietnamese Fermented Anchovy Sauce).
2 years ago today, I decried the overly salty dishes at Roy's - Newport Beach, and did a little primer on che at Thach Che Hien Khanh - Westminster (Little Saigon).


  1. I have to agree with you that this place is over-rated. There are much better places to eat in San Diego if you go again.

  2. We locals only eat in Old Town when we have friends and family in from out of town that we can't somehow lure to the real excellent Mexican spots. (Mama Testa Taqueria in Hillcrest, Lucha Libre in Mission Hills, right around the corner from Old Town.)

    Oh, and Coronado is really lovely to visit at any time of year. The Del itself has an ice rink at Christmastime:

  3. oh, hey, i've been here before! back when i just started dating don, he took me here. it's a fun date place, and their tamarind margarita is pretty gnarly. although, i learned later on that the carne asada burrito at cotija is much better! (in portion, in flavor, in everything)

  4. I would guess that the equivalent would be restaurants around Olvera Street. But I've never been there, so I wouldn't know.

  5. What a cute little town! The food looks delish, very authentic.

  6. Too bad about the heavy feeling left in your tummies! I had a chicken machaca the other night at El Farolito (Placentia) and my other friends had the carnitas plate. I don't think I've ever seen carnitas looking like chunks of deep-fried meat before...

  7. I rememmber feeling the same way with those dessert tortillas. There were no taste to them. Crepes are better.

  8. Kelly,
    I'm sure there are. One of the wedding guests mentioned a taco truck in the middle of nowhere. No other reason to go except for the tacos. But since I was playing tourist, I wanted to do something touristy too.

    Thanks for the suggestions! Darn! I should have talked my sister into taking us to Hotel Coronado after all! Especially b/c she was talking about wanting to go ice skating too.

    Oh yes, your burrito definitely looked tastier.

    Jan Frederick,
    I haven't been to Olvera Street in so long! I remember thinking the food was OK, if not spectacular. But prior to blogging, I didn't pay that much attention to nuances of food.

    It was for the tourists, that's for sure.

    I've had fried carnitas at a few places. They gave us two options for how it was prepared. I've also had to come out shredded.

    Just needed some sugar. Or fried. I should've just gotten a bunuelo. Or a crepe. ;)

  9. The tourist experience is worth doing once for sure, you'll have to check out the Gaslamp district next time, if for no other reason than to walk around. All of the good Mexican places are out of the way and usually not in the best neighborhoods anyway! I've been enjoying reading your blogs, but they sure do make me miss SoCal since I'm living in NC now!

  10. hi wc!

    sorry you didn't have a good experience with the food at the restaurant in old town. yes, it's pretty touristy. most native san diegans avoid it. well, at least i do, but i can understand why an out of towner might be interested.
    the last time i was in old town was for my daughter's 1st grade field trip a couple of years ago. did you know the Whaley House is one of the most haunted houses in the U.S.? that place gives the creeps.

    next time you're down in san diego we should meet with the other sd food bloggers. you can get better mexican food in the barrio logan area (los quatros milpas, porkyland) or on imperial avenue (in the hood) or down in chula vista.

  11. Ack! While Old Town is fun, if you want the best Mexican food in San Diego, you have to go to hole in the walls! Any *berto's will work find (Albertos, Robertos, etc).

    Definitely try the carne asada french fries (french fries, cheese, carne asada, guacamole) if you get a chance, I always crave them. San Diego Mexican food is so different than any where else, even Mexico and LA.

    Man, I'm hungry now!

  12. Kelly,
    Gas lamp is definitely on the agenda if I go back. Aw, man, NC!

    Canine Cologne,
    I was expecting it to be touristy, but also thought the food might be better since it is SD and so close to Mexico!

    I've heard of Roberto's carne asada fries!


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