Although I spent my college years in San Diego (more than a decade ago <cough>), my current sense of familiarity with the city is distinctly off-kilter. I often feel that I know exactly where I should be going, but find myself two or three blocks from my destination driving in circles – as if the city had just nudged itself over an inch to make things complicated fun. It is therefore amusing to me that friends coming to visit often proclaim how excited they are to hang out on my ‘home turf’, despite the fact that, at this point, I might have a better sense of Boston, or Paris, than of the place I call home.
In each place I have lived, there are a few key places I am sure to take visitors such that they can see the city through my eyes (and tastes). In Paris, it was falafel, or maybe my neighborhood bistro, before hiking up the hill to take in the sweeping vista of the city from the Basilica Sacre Coeur. My favorite scenic views of San Diego have stood the test of time – La Jolla from the Torrey Pines gliderport, or the lights of downtown twinkling on the bay from Coronado. The restaurant scene, on the other hand, has changed (as have my tastes), so I am in the market for a few local favorites to show off the ‘essence’ of San Diego cuisine.
My first visitor happened to be one of my closest friends. We were roommates in graduate school and have seen each other through thick and thin, including many co-hosted, wine-soaked dinner parties in Boston. When I inquired as to her dining priorities for a very short business trip to San Diego, she replied simply, “Tacos.” Done.
We chose Cantina Mayahuel in University Heights based on multiple glowing recommendations from friends for both the tacos and the extensive tequila selection. The cantina was crowded and noisy, mostly laughter and talking over the sounds of meat grilled to order from the open kitchen. We nabbed a bit of bar space, ordered margaritas, chips and salsa and waited for two seats to open up.
We did not have to wait long, but it was plenty of time to study the menu, take in the mad dash for tacos at the grill and glance quickly at the tequila menu, noting that returning for a tasting flight in the near future should be a priority. Despite the temptation of a chicken mole special, we stuck to our taco plan. They arrived, sizzling straight off the grill. We each had ordered one carnitas taco, she chose an additional mahi-mahi taco, and I had a steak taco as my second. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, as two tacos each were definitely going to test our limits. We did our best. The tacos were so tasty that we ended up eating almost all of them, despite some significant (mostly figurative) bellyaching.
The meat tacos were the clear winners. Both the steak and the carnitas were extremely flavorful, well seasoned, moist and tender yet crispy around the edges. Unfortunately, the fish taco was overwhelmed by excessive condiment application, the flavor and texture of the mahi mahi lost under multiple layers of sauce.
So while I am not convinced that Cantina Mayahuel is my end all/be all for taco touring (it can’t be – I have too many places to explore!) I will be going back – hopefully soon. My plan is to order the street tacos, which will allow me to taste several of the taco fillings in much smaller, bite-size packages. Plus, I am looking forward to not being the driver, as that tequila tasting flight has my name on it, helping me to feel at home.
2934 Adams Ave (at 30th St.)
San Diego, 92116