If you’re visiting San Diego for a day or four and need a good old-fashioned tourist experience, visit Old Town, the bougainvillea-studded, Mexican-restaurant filled, historic center of San Diego.
You will want to eat, and it’s honestly impossible to choose which of the Mexican restaurants to dine in. I started with this list on the neighborhood website then start cross-referencing with Yelp and Chowhound, soon falling into a spiral of uncertainty that was neither helpful nor tasty. In the end we chose Cafe Coyote. It was highly recommended by cab driver and concierge types. Yelpers swooned over their delicious tortillas.
I didn’t understand until we arrived, thought, that those beautiful flour tortillas are actually handmade in full view of the street; lovely Mexican women in embroidered puebla blouses pulling off small handfuls from the mother dough, briskly rolling them into perfect, thin, pliable circles, then cooking quickly on a hot, hot grill. These aren’t delicious tortillas; they’re fabulous tortillas. You really have to try them. Even if you’re just wandering down the street on your way to or from the Sheriff’s Museum or looking for a quiet corner to sip a cold drink, you can pause and buy 2 for $1.00 directly from the cooks. Try them in cinnamon; they’ll work a spoonful of the spice right into the dough – then slather with a slab of butter and munch as you walk.
Wandering past the trompe l’oeil walls toward the restroom, I had a sudden memory blast of eating in the same restaurant almost 30 years ago – the summer I spent in San Diego as a mother’s helper for four very challenging young boys. I remember being uncertain about the food – Mexican cuisine was a bit exotic to my midwestern-raised mindset at the time. I also remember being completely taken by the painted walls. They still look lovely.
Thanks to twenty years of living in California, I’m no longer uncertain about Mexican food. I can tell you with complete confidence to forget about the chips and salsa the servers bring to the table. You have to save your appetite for the absolutely sublime tortilla soup: a savory tomato and chicken flavored broth studded with moist shredded chicken, salty melted cheese, tiny bits of creamy avocado, and colorful crunchy strips of fried tortillas. Order a side of fresh homemade tortillas and you’re golden. Best thing I’ve eaten on this trip.
If you want something heartier, try their pollo a la crema, moist chicken topped with jalapeño cream sauce. I’d never heard of such a thing before; it was spicy hot, rich, and definitely worth trying to duplicate. Sadly, it didn’t photograph very well. I suppose that means I’ll have to go back.