Dec. 26 2011 08:15 PM

Northgate Gonzales Market, Tacos El Paisa and Churros El Tigre

Fried platanos
Photo by Amy T. Granite

It used to be that when Tony Bourdain veered from snarky, traveling food journo to political commentator on No Reservations, I'd boo and hiss at the television set—cursing him to get off the subject of how the U.S. government let New Orleans drown after Katrina and back to what he should be talking about: Bourbon Street and beignets. His tendency to guiltily lament the show's insignificance—in some cases over a divine-looking meal—drove me nuts. Just get back to the food, already!

Yeah, I'd sit in front of the television in my drawers, macking on something good, and Tony would fluff my appetite in one segment and turn it flaccid in the next. But the show's more than just food porn; inspired by its surroundings, it tells the tale of how food translates in different socio-economic climates and how people survive and thrive throughout the world.

The goal of this year-end piece was to reflect on 2011 grub, but it's impossible to ignore that many San Diegans—including me, and probably most of you—lack the disposable, dining-out incomes of years past. And, to get all Bourdainian on your asses, surely there's more troubling issues at hand than missing out on Brian Malarkey's latest restaurant debut.

Besides speaking to fiendish eaters looking for a fix, the intention of my column is to point readers in the direction of practical, comforting food, and out of everything I've covered, it's regional cuisine that's championed my broken budget this year.

Mexican food it is. Available close to home, at all hours, and often the price of change found between couch cushions, do explore what San Diego-style comfort food has to offer. Here are the top three places that filled my heart and stomach with love throughout 2011—and may 2012 be a year of culinary adventures, no matter how shallow or deep your pockets may be:

Northgate Gonzales Market (5304 University Ave. in City Heights): This mercado is a one-stop-shop grocery store and Mexican deli featuring everything from fresh and tangy ceviche to carnitas, on-site tortillaria and full-service butcher. I've cut my grocery bill in half shopping here versus mainstream market chains. I'm thrilled with the sixth county location that opened in a former department-store building this fall—the vast market is a wonderland of flavors and spices to stock your picnic basket or pantry.

Tacos El Paisa (2494 Imperial Ave. in Barrio Logan): My go-to 24-hour taco shop, and the most consistent cooked-over-coal carne asada I've found. Dine in, and a server'll greet your table with a complimentary, steaming cup of frijoles, chips and a tray of condiments with salsas, pickled carrots and more. I'm a sucker for shredded-beef tacos, and this version rules. There's a generous portion of juicy meat with crispy bits throughout—shed a tear for vegetarians with each crunchy bite.

Churros El Tigre (on University Avenue between 36th Street and Wilson Avenue in City Heights): When I was a kid, my family would take day trips to TJ, and I never forgot my first true churros experience. On this side of the border, they never tasted nor chewed the same—so when I discovered this (literal) sidewalk kitchen frying up the cinnamon-sugar-filled dreams of my youth at $2.50 a bag, I squealed. The experience is interactive as the jovial fry-cook talks through his method and the fried platanos, not as sweet as bananas, are equally alluring, fried until golden, then doused with sweetened condensed milk. 

Amy blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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