When push comes to shove, I like food that tastes good. Although I prefer my meals to be seasonal and whole foods-based, not every meal works out that way. Sometimes this girl needs her queso (Make that. Maybe for the Super Bowl this weekend? It’s amazing). And, after more than a decade living thousands of miles away from Mexico, I have not had the privilege to be a stickler about authenticity in my south-of-the-border specialties. Although, it must be said that even in Paris there is a growing appreciation for quality tacos and burritos, although they are few and far between.
That being said, I’m an equal opportunity taco enthusiast. I don’t spend a lot of time assessing how traditional my meal is, as long as it satisfies that craving for well-seasoned meat, fresh veg, a heavy hand with the spice, all wrapped in a warm tortilla. So, I guess I have a few standards – this is definitely out. However, I am never going to turn down a chance to learn and eat the real thing. When I recently was invited to join a few local bloggers for some traditional, border-adjacent taco hunting, I could not have been more excited.
Kristin and Antonio, the vibrant couple behind Life and Food, suggested we meet at Fernandez restaurant on a Sunday morning to indulge in some of the the best tacos north of the border. We arrived at 9:30 (tacos for breakfast – yeah!) just as the church next door was letting out and filed over, en masse, with the same plan in mind. Luckily the four of us got our name on the list before the crowd hit and had us first dibs as tables started to turn over.
Before addressing the absolute awesomeness of the food (and company), let me just first mention to how amazing (and rare) it is to actually be able to follow my nose to a meal. Although I had caught sight of the restaurant, set back from a narrow, potholed side street in a building that looked to be more of an apartment complex than an in-demand, hotbed of taco magnificence, I had to drive past it in order to find parking alongside the church. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I could smell the deliciousness of what was about to be my breakfast (and, due to overindulgence, lunch). The scents of slow braising meat and roasting chilies were like a siren’s call. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see the cartoon-y steam drawing me down the sidewalk, feet barely touching the ground. However, potholes. So, I kept my eyes open – and my camera at the ready.
We were seated in a rambunctious dining area, crowded with families in their Sunday best, all engaged in rapid-fire conversations in between gobbling up the piles of tacos in front of them. My befuddled brain took a moment to register that almost everyone was speaking Spanish – I struggled to pull simple phrases out of my French-addled brain. It did not work. When I responded with a oui, rather than si, to our overworked waiter, he grinned at me as he walked away.
No matter. The menu was straightforward and despite a few different taco options, I went straight for their specialty, the birria. A traditional dish from Jalisco (one of 31 states in Mexico), birria is typically stewed in a roasted pepper broth and served with tortillas, onions, lime and cilantro. I did learn, after the fact, that it is usually made with lamb, mutton or goat, meats I often associate with a gamey taste and stringy consistency. It speaks to the quality of the meat (and other ingredients) and the low, slow heat of the braising process that I could not tell you which of these was featured, but only that I ate and ate and ate until I could not eat anymore. Each time I grabbed another tortilla, dredged meat dripping with broth from the bottom of the bowl, added the standard onions, cilantro, and lime with a few radish slices and scoop of house made salsa, I promised it would be my last. I lied. Several times over.
A few of us also indulged in a queso taco, the base of which was more birria but this time sitting atop a thick house made tortilla and a layer of gooey, melted cheese. Excessive, yes. But oh so good. In between bites of taco or roasted jalapeno, we got to know each other, exchanging embarrassing travel stories and trading restaurant recommendations (I mostly collected ideas, rather than contributing). These locals were warm and welcoming to my ‘newcomer on the scene’ situation in a way that made me feel like I was going to be just fine in the new friends department. We talked about the growing food and wine scene emerging in Tijuana and came up with a short list of other strictly traditional Mexican eateries north of the border. There was mention of a reunion to go scope out a little known barbacoa place in the New Year. I hope that happens, but in the meantime I’ll be looking forward to more birria, who’s in?
Update! I wasn’t the only one in my group that decided that Fernandez deserved a write-up – here is Marie’s (from MeanderingEats) take in San Diego CityBeat magazine. Her article even answers some unknowns from above – apparently this birria is Tijuana-style, meaning entirely beef. Delicious!
2265 Flower Ave.
San Diego, CA 92154