March 5 2012 04:56 PM

Mexican street food arrives in La Jolla

Photo by Jenny Montgomery

Until recently, I'd venture to say that most Americans' knowledge of Mexican street food was limited to the now-ubiquitous “street tacos” found at every taco shop from Rubio's to Royberto's. The just-opened Puesto aims to change that perception by bringing Mexican street food to the savvy San Diego market.

Located in the heart of La Jolla village, down the street from the tony Athenaeum Music & Arts Library on Wall Street, Puesto's named after the Mexican stands that sell all kinds of creative street foods. It's an exuberant and terribly friendly atmosphere. You step into an explosion of color and, since it's brand new, everyone's enthusiastic and happy to see you and educate you in the ways of guisados, or grilled items.

In terms of layout and dining style, imagine the fanciest Chipotle you've ever been to—with far tastier eats. Casual eatery or no, this is still La Jolla. I marveled at the gentleman in the seat next to me debating the merits of yacht size. In between bites of taco, I heard him mention, “If I were buying a boat in the South of France, I'd buy one that was 150 feet.” I think we all know that goes without saying.

But back to Puesto's food.

The three main delivery mechanisms at Puesto are the taco, the bowl and the salad. Approach the colorful counter and hold up your order form against the glass for the folks behind the plancha to read. Pick from grilled meats and exotic veggies and then move down the line to sauces and toppers. Chicken and grass-fed beef are represented, as well as fish and shrimp. But from there, things start to get really fun—Puesto offers a veritable garden of earthly delights not previously found in a casual and quasi-fast-food environment.

There's huitlacoche, or corn truffle, an inky black concoction that's rich and savory. Don't be afraid of the cactus—the nopales asados are bright and earthy. And be sure to try the signature flor de Jamaica—hibiscus flowers with chipotle spices that pack a smoky, floral punch, as well as a bit of heat. I wanted to spoon this over every bite of protein—it goes so well with mammal, bird or sea friend.

I'm particularly smitten with the bowls at Puesto. The portions are hearty, and the jasmine rice (brown is available as well) goes well with the meaty black beans. When you approach the counter, ask the plancha master to make your bowl with cheese. Then watch in awe as they melt a handful of mozzarella on the grill, creating a gooey disc that's then wrapped around the rest of the grilled treats that will be put into your bowl. Imagine eating a shrimp-and-pineapple taco with a shell that's nothing but a chewy, crispy caramelized cheesy pocket. Yes, and thank you.

Be sure to experiment with the unique sauces—the pistachio and jalapeño sauce is creamy and quite potent. It's not the spiciest sauce on the menu, but it definitely warms the tongue.

The only dessert on the menu is what they call a Mexican Street Cup. Spears of fresh carrot and jicama are joined by a few seasonal pals—mango and papaya, for example—dressed with lime juice and a bit of chile and salt. Don't expect sweet-tooth satisfaction. The cup is crisp and refreshing but very veggie heavy.

Whether it's casual dining in a funky-chic environment or joining meats with unexpected veggies, Puesto has a knack for varied combinations.

Write to and Follow Jenny on Twitter @jennymontyinsd.


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