Sometimes I find myself in unfamiliar neighborhoods, and as I drive, I'm always on the lookout for interesting places to eat. El Cajon Boulevard, east of Interstate 15, is one of those areas with a trove of good international eateries that won't bust your budget. Along this diverse stretch, the dress code is casual and the neighborhood is a delicious mix of Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern foods. San Diego State students and those at nearby Hoover High likely know all about the eateries on the Boulevard roughly from 43rd Street to Seminole Drive. And for those of us no longer in school, the street is a destination for, among other ethnic eats, handmade tortillas, noodle soup, homemade hummus and kosher bagels.
Mexican food abounds, and two little places, barely a block from each other, face Hoover High. You'll find a number of El Rodeo restaurants in San Diego, but Taqueria El Rodeo has no other locations. In the simple room, six tables seating a total of 24 ring the perimeter, leaving a large open space as you walk to the counter to order. It's an over-the-border kind of place-without the over-the-border hassle.
Here they cook with 100-percent vegetable oil and make handmade fresh corn tortillas daily. Once you've eaten fresh tortillas, the prepackaged supermarket variety may not quite cut it for you when it comes to good taste. I have a soft spot for lengua (tongue) tacos, something few taquerias ever offer. The chopped boiled tongue taco is buttery and flavorful with just a sprinkle of cilantro, onion and a squeeze of lime. I love the melt-in-your-mouth carnitas taco finished with a splash of guacamole, chopped onions, tomato and cilantro. The meats can be made into tacos, burritos, tortas and chimichangas, and you can choose other fillings of fish, cheese, chicken and carne asada, to name a few. The chicken taco comes in a fried tortilla with the chicken having been stewed with tomatoes, onions and green peppers and topped with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. The barbacoa is again moist, the soft taco sprinkled with onions and cilantro. No dried-out meat here. Definitely worth a visit, considering tacos are filling at $1.75 each, and if you need an early Mexican breakfast fix, they open at 9 a.m. 4491 El Cajon Blvd., City Heights, 619-516-5256.
An even smaller place in the next block is Tacos El Panson, with a tiny menu of tacos, tamales, sopes and quesadillas, each for less than $2.85. The kitchen is in front with large picture windows that face the street so you can see the gals making tortillas and all the food on the menu. Seating is in the back; many patrons take out, as I did. My four-inch sope (a thick masa tortilla with turned-up edges) of carnitas, beans, lettuce and cheese is a meal by itself for $2.50. They also feature carne asada, tripe, carnitas and other meats and are open until 11 p.m. for late-night snacking. 4433 El Cajon Blvd., City Heights, 619-654-3193.
If Mexican isn't your taste, on the nearby corner of Highland Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, Saigon Restaurant will satisfy with very good Vietnamese food. The extensive menu lists pho (beef-based noodle soups), noodle and rice dishes and more than 300 others of varying combinations, including house specialties of eel, barbecued beef, whole fish and beef with vinegar-flavored sauce. I took a chicken and rice noodle soup to go, No. 42 on the menu, and it was terrific. Why? Well, many restaurants make soup and have all the ingredients in it, so if it isn't eaten immediately, noodles get soggy, chicken is tough and bean sprouts are limp. Saigon smartly packs broth separate from the noodles and chicken, as well as the herbs and bean sprouts. It was a cinch to reheat the soup, adding the ingredients for the couple of minutes of cooking. I shared with a discerning 16-year-old who loved the freshness and the flavors. And, most importantly, the beef broth was not over-salted. Start your day with anything on the menu; they open at 8 a.m. 4455 El Cajon Blvd, City Heights, 619-284-4215.
I was surprised to note that the area is home to a couple of completely kosher establishments. Lang's, in the big Vons shopping center at College Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, makes kosher breads, bagels and meals that you'll find in many of the area's top hotels, restaurants and even SDSU (bagels, in particular). They serve breakfast with many egg choices, and you can get salads and sandwiches all day long. The bagels are medium heft with a good texture and come in various flavors, including poppy seed, jalapeño and onion. For a good detailed explanation of kosher, check out their website. 6165 El Cajon Blvd., Suite F, College Area, 619-287-7306, www.kosherbread.com.
Further down the street at the corner of Seminole Drive and El Cajon Boulevard is The Place, a kosher market with a small deli area for sandwiches and some very good babaganoush and, my favorite, Moroccan eggplant seductively spiced with tomatoes and perhaps a hint of cumin. The salads are $4.95 a pound. All manner of Israeli and kosher products can be found in this market-from frozen meals, fresh meats and chicken to snacks, drinks, candy and more. Their dairy restaurant will soon open across the street, and they have a bakery in University City. 6499 El Cajon Blvd., College Area, 619-286-6499, www.sandiegokosher.com.
Write to marcie[at]5dollarchef[dot]com or editor[at]sdcitybeat[dot]com.