Maybe it was my pissy attitude after a long day driving around listening to commercial radio ( why is Savage Garden still a thing?!), or perhaps it was my desperate thirst for something ending in "argarita," but I was instantly charmed by Tony's Jacal from the moment I passed through its doors.
Tony's Jacal is no secret hideaway. The Solana Beach favorite (621 Valley Ave.) has been around—and owned and operated by the Gonzales family—since 1946. Yet, I always hear loyal raves about its next-door neighbor, Fidel's. Don't get me wrong, Fidel's is lovely, but there's just a little bit of local magic in the Jacal's walls.
There's also magic on the table. I started with a hot dish of queso fundido —bubbly, melted cheese cooked with salty bits of warm, orange chorizo. Try my husband's improvised treat and add a bit of salsa with each tasty bite.
No matter what food trends hit San Diego County, our culinary scene is still dominated by Mexican food. From the haute to the humble, there's quite a spectrum of Mexican cuisine to be found. However, most of it consists of that familiar "Americanized" version, with comforting items we all know and love. Authentic? Debatable. Diverse? Not so much.
All the familiar Mexican-restaurant tropes are here—sparkly sombreros on the wall; lacy, crepe-paper bunting; and combo platters covered with cheese. And although most sane people love a hot plate with cheese-covered anything, years of sameness in most local Mexican joints has probably left you a little uninspired when faced with yet another chimichanga platter. But there's a quiet spark to this restaurant that made me feel like I'd walked into some place special. Sure, there's the multigenerational staff greeting you with a smile. And who wouldn't love to watch an aviary full of colorful tweeting canaries just off the main dining room? But, ultimately, Tony's Jacal just serves up fantastic food.
In between sips of margarita, I forked up big bites of a burrito filled with pork chile verde . Every hunk of pork was delicate and savory, with nary a tough or fatty bite to be found. This isn't just another tortilla wrapped around a mushy pile of mediocrity. Even the beans, a side I rarely bother with at most Mexican restaurants, were a tender, slow-cooked delight. Be gone, brown paste from a can! These beans were a reminder that such a hearty and humble staple can be more than a plate-filling afterthought.
And if we're being thoughtful about things, let's think about the weak margaritas most Mexican joints serve up. Sure, there's nothing that says "craft cocktail" less than a fluffy, pink strawberry concoction with a thimbleful of tequila. But, damn it, I wanted one (did I mention Savage Garden?), and Tony's version had a surprisingly strong kick. It's the small things, but what fun is a bird aviary inside a restaurant if you're not a bit buzzed while listening to the chirps?