Being on the border with Mexico, San Diego is loaded with Mexican restaurants. The Mexican food scene has something for everyone. However, it can be confusing for newcomers. This is Fun Diego Family’s guide to the best Mexican food in San Diego.
Categories of Mexican Restaurants
At Fun Diego Family we like to put things in categories. Mexican food is a broad category and in San Diego, it is best to determine what type of Mexican food you would like. To that end, we have created several types of Mexican restaurants. This is similar to what we did for pizza.
Our categories for Mexican food include:
- Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant/Taco Shop
- Mid-Tier Sit-Down Restaurant
- High-End Gourmet Mexican Restaurant
- Taco Stands/Street Tacos
- Seafood/Fish Tacos
While the first 3 categories are mutually exclusive, the last two categories can crossover with the other categories. For example, both a neighborhood Mexican restaurant and a fancy restaurant may serve fish tacos or street tacos. Therefore, we only use that designation when it is a specialty of the restaurant.
There are literally thousands of Mexican restaurants in San Diego. Thus, a truly comprehensive guide is almost impossible. The goal of this guide is to help people narrow their choices. This is regularly updated so we welcome any feedback.
Neighborhood Mexican Restaurant/Taco Shop
The large majority of Mexican restaurants in San Diego fall into this category. The neighborhood taco shop has been a fixture of San Diego for years. These places tend to be very casual. Similar to a fast food restaurant you order at the counter. Generally, the ambiance also tends towards a fast food restaurant.
The menu at many neighborhood Mexican restaurants can be pretty similar. Generally, you have your choice of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas, tortas (sandwich) and more. Meat selections include variations of beef, chicken, pork, and seafood. Vegetarian options vary but often are just beans, rice, lettuce, tomato, potato, and avocado.
The city of San Diego has 125 identifiable neighborhoods. If you add in the county that figure doubles. On average we estimate each neighborhood has 2 decent neighborhood Mexican restaurants. That means the San Diego area probably has over 500 restaurants that are pretty good.
Obviously trying to cover all these restaurants is not feasible. At Fun Diego Family we will focus on covering some of our favorites, but also highlight places that others recommend.
It should be noted that while neighborhood Mexican restaurants tend to have similar menus, they also tend to have specialties. One restaurant may be noted for its California burrito (carne asada with potatoes or French fries). Another restaurant may have great fish tacos, one has excellent carnitas etc. Our goal is to highlight some of the best menu options at any place we cover. We will also look at the salsa bar, a key fixture of many of these restaurants.
Also, because this category is neighborhood Mexican restaurants, we will focus on finding the best places in each neighborhood. With 200+ neighborhoods in San Diego county, this will obviously take a while.
Mid-Tier Sit-Down Restaurant
In theory, the sit-down restaurants with a menu and server should be a step up from the neighborhood Mexican restaurant. The reality is these restaurants are often just more expensive places serving the same food that is often better at your local taco stand.
That being said, when we have visitors they often want to go to these restaurants. The tourist area of Old Town specializes in these places and they provide an ambiance you will not find at the neighborhood joints.
Our coverage will focus on what we consider some of the best sit-down restaurants. However, it comes with the caveat that Mexican food is often best on a more casual basis.
High-End Gourmet Mexican Restaurant
With the growing foodie trend, there are more high-end restaurants serving gourmet Mexican dishes. Fun Diego Family will be highlighting some of these places. However, this is not our specialty. In most cases, we will defer to the opinion of others.
We will be throwing in our thoughts when appropriate. Our goal is to try and be positive and often we are disappointed in some of the high-end places. So take that with a grain of salt when we cover gourmet Mexican places.
Taco Stands/Street Tacos
A taco stand is a more casual version of the neighborhood Mexican restaurant. In many cases, these places lack seating. Street tacos are a growing trend in San Diego that comes from right across the border in Tijuana, Mexico.
Street tacos are mini tacos that come on small corn tortillas (often double stacked). Usually, they cost under $2 each, but there is a growing trend towards more upscale tacos. San Diego is famed for its Taco Tuesday when Mexican restaurants have specials. Often street tacos are the featured Taco Tuesday special.
Street tacos are popular because you can sample a variety without breaking the bank. While these tacos started at taco stands, they are now available at many types of Mexican restaurants. Gourmet Mexican restaurants often feature street tacos with some pretty wild combinations.
San Diego is known for its fish tacos. Almost every Mexican restaurant, no matter what type, will have a fish taco on the menu. However, fish tacos, and Mexican seafood varies in quality. Our goal is to highlight the best seafood Mexican places in its own category.
If you really want to get a true taste of the San Diego Mexican food scene you should 1) try a neighborhood Mexican restaurant, 2) eat a fish taco and 3) try street tacos, preferably with carne asada, carnitas and/or al pastor. If you are not watching your weight a California burrito or carne asada fries can be a treat.
Fun Diego Family will be extending its coverage of San Diego’s Mexican food scene over time. This guide will link to our growing coverage of Mexican places by category. Be sure and check back often! Any suggestions for great Mexican places are always welcome.
For a look at how Mexican food, including the taquitos, took the U.S. by storm check out the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.