4105 Taylor St.
It's become a tradition in my office to host going-away lunches at Casa de Pico in Old Town. I've never been a huge fan of the food at the Old Town eateries that I've tried-with the exception of Berta's excellent Latin American restaurant-so I've never really been as happy about these lunches as my co-workers, who seem more excited by company-sanctioned lunchtime drinking than the food. It's not that the food is bad; I simply don't find it all that interesting, growing up as I did, eating lots of Southern California-style Mexican food.
Consequently, I was less than excited by my girlfriend's proposition that we check out Casa Guadalajara, located just outside Old Town on Taylor Street and part of the same restaurant family as Casa de Pico, Case de Bandini, Rancho El Nopal and Lino's. She forewarned me that their lobby was graced with the ubiquitous Wolfgang D. Verkaiaak advertorial in an attempt to fend off any smart-ass comments by yours truly when greeted by his smiling mustachioed visage.
Truth be told, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Casa Guadalajara. The menu has some interesting dishes, like turkey tamales with nuts and raisins in molé sauce, mixed seafood enchiladas with jalapeño cream sauce, and enchiladas topped with pumpkin seed molé. Confronted with so many choices, I opted for carnitas-a dish often made poorly by lesser restaurants. My date had the seafood enchiladas, and we started off our meal with a shrimp quesadilla appetizer.
The shrimp quesadilla wasn't what I expected. Rather than a quesadilla with shrimp inside, it was a quesadilla with what appeared to be shrimp fajitas heaped on top. However, since the fajitas were cooked with garlic and butter, I wasn't complaining. The garlic and butter gave the quesadilla a ridiculously rich flavor, rendering the guacamole and sour cream on the plate superfluous. Casa Guadalajara also uses lard in its tortillas, giving the quesadilla extra richness. The shrimp was a bit overcooked, but, otherwise, this was a really nice starter-if huge for two.
Leaving half of our appetizer behind, we turned to our entrées. The carnitas were beautifully cooked, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. There was probably half a pound of meat on the plate, along with guacamole, refried beans and more of the lardalicious fresh tortillas. The meal was served with a fire-roasted chili salsa, though I found myself preferring the spicy fresh tomato salsa that came with our chips.
The seafood enchiladas, evidently an award winner at the Ensenada Seafood Competition, consisted of a blend of fish and shrimp with a rich jalapeño cream sauce. The seafood filling, again, was overcooked, but the enchiladas were flavorful and the black beans and fresh zucchini slaw on the side were excellent.
This meal made me curious. The food here was more to my liking and much more interesting than that of the other restaurants. I spoke to Diane Powers, owner of this restaurant family, to find out why.
"Casa Guadalajara is a bit spicier," she explained. "Casa de Pico has a lot of the traditional early California Mexican food. Casa de Pico has the favorites-more of the flavors that most people like. Casa de Bandini goes more into seafood-the flavors are distinct, not ultra spicy." Powers went on to explain that the different restaurants' recipes are devised by her and the chefs, each restaurant having its own chef and distinct style. She also pointed out that while some may dismiss her restaurants as tourist traps, 50 percent of their business is from repeat local customers.
You may recognize the name Diane Powers from local news-she's currently in a court battle to save Bazaar Del Mundo, which she founded in 1971, from the clutches of corporate concessions giant Delaware North. The battle is over a 10-year lease, which the state Department of Parks and Recreation granted to Delaware North when it outbid Powers. Delaware North promised to pay higher rent and invest more than $3 million in improvements to Old Town. The company also projected revenue increases and lower operating costs-projections Powers and her attorneys claim are exaggerated and unfounded.
If the legal fight doesn't go her way, Powers will relocate her restaurants elsewhere, except for Casa Guadalajara, which sits on property she owns. In the meantime, Bazaar Del Mundo is still there, and though it's a little hokey and touristy, San Diego wouldn't be the same without it.