Some might argue San Diego’s a great taco town. After all, we’re on the border. Others believe most of our Mexican food is Californicated; at least taco-wise we’re on the wrong side of that border. Then there’s Tacos Perla (3000 Upas St.) in North Park, which shows that close counts not only in horseshoes, hand grenades and thermonuclear devices, but in tacos, too.
One of the key figures in developing Perla’s menu was Chef Oso Campos of Tijuana’s Tacos Kokopelli. A three-star Michelin restaurant veteran, Campos had a lot to do with Tijuana’s vastly upgraded food scene and food carts’ function as culinary laboratories for that scene. Campos brought that same sense of creative ferment to the menu at Perla.
One of his signature dishes at Kokopelli, the Kraken (braised, then mesquite-grilled octopus in a Mexican pesto of poblano chile peppers and cilantro), becomes the Ocho taco at Perla with cheese joining the party. A little of Perla’s addictive pink (beet juice?) pickled onions and the rich nut and chile arbol salsa makes this an unbeatable taco.
Perla’s vegetarian and vegan options—and there are quite a few of them—shine. Neither mere afterthoughts nor dumbed-down meat dishes, they have their own sparkle. On one recent trip, the “Veggie” taco (there’s also a “Vegan” and a “Veg”) was panela cheese melted inside Perla’s homemade tortillas with an assortment of mushrooms, stewed in red wine with garlic, onion and tomatoes and topped with slices of perfectly ripe avocado and a red pepper purée drizzle.
The latest addition at Perla is a line of Oso Campos designed “TJ-style” burritos. Not the military-mortar-sized gut bombs Americans call “burrito,” these are smaller in scale and more finely-tuned in flavor. El San Quintin, for example, is made with spicy hummus, summer squash, bell pepper, Portobello mushroom (a Campos favorite ingredient), onion, eggplant, tomato and cheese. Like all of Perla’s burritos it’s garnished with guacamole, pickled carrots, a cauliflower floret and a dramatic and delicious fried onion ring.
While the non-traditional tacos get much of the attention, Perla does good work with more traditional choices: the adobado and carne asada, in particular. As good as these interpretations of the classics are, however, the adventurous can give them a bit of a twist with a topping of chapulines. Seasoned with copious amounts of lime and salt, these tasty deep-fried bugs (crickets if you must know) provide both a textural element and a hit of flavor.
Given that Perla shares a building with the Modern Times tasting room you wouldn’t be the first to wash down a Perla taco with a microbrew. Every once in a while, though, a guy’s gotta drive and The World Fare is duty bound to recommend sobriety under such circumstances. Perla’s jamaica (hibiscus flower) agua fresca is a good answer: fruity, floral, tart, wet and cold with just enough sweetness, but not over the top.
Tacos Perla isn’t just in the neighborhood of great south-of-the-border fare; it is great south-of-the-border fare. It captures not just the form of the TJ taco but its heart, its soul and its experimental spirit. Border be damned.