Photo by Michael Gardiner
Baja fish tacos
It’s a judgment tossed our direction by La La Landers and other unjustifiably snobby sorts: “San Diego food sucks...except for the Mexican food, which is pretty good.”
Damning by faint praise? No, more like backasswards bullshit. It’s our food scene that doesn’t suck and our Mexican food that pretty much does. And much like the San Andreas, it’s all our fault. The Taco Stand (645 B St.) in downtown is Exhibit A.
Take The Taco Stand’s al pastor tacos (please). A descendant of shawarma brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, al pastor (called adobado in Baja) is spit-roasted pork marinated in a combination of dried chiles, achiote, spices and pineapple cooked slowly with gas flame on a vertical rotisserie set-up called a trompo (a “spinning top”). Along the journey from the Middle East, lamb and spices were replaced by pork and indigenous Mexican flavors.
But where al pastor tacos should brim with fatty, savory goodness, The Taco Stand’s version is lean, salty and overly sweet. And where trompos are usually topped with a pineapple—its juice running down and seasoning the meat as it cooks—Taco Stand’s is not. Instead, each taco contains chunks of pineapple that tilt the overall flavor profile dangerously out of balance. Nor does it help when they take that al pastor and put it in a California-sized gut bomb burrito torpedo from hell. The best part of the taco was the still-warm corn tortilla. The burrito didn’t have that going for it.
The nopal (cactus paddle) taco—for which The Taco Stand has gained some notoriety—was not much better. Flavorless, if not fatless, it’s the kind of “vegetarian option” that gives vegetarian food a bad name. While they’re described as “flame grilled” there was no sense of the grill’s kiss in the bits of nopal. I didn’t ask, “where’s the meat?” I asked, “where’s the flavor?” The nopal chunks seemed more designed for novelty value than culinary focus.
The best taco at The Taco Stand was the Baja fish taco. The battered fish was flavorful, both the well-seasoned batter and the fish itself. The creamy chipotle sauce gave the taco a hint of smoke, a suggestion of heat and a creamy coolness that pulled together the fish, on the one hand, and the vegetables on the other. I’d go back for that.
The Taco Stand markets itself as “inspired by the taco stands of Tijuana” and the Baja Peninsula. That inspiration is not clear on the plate. The Taco Stand’s food is a creature of California—alta California, not Baja. That is evident where The Taco Stand’s food works as in the Baja fish taco, which is, in many ways, more San Diego than Tijuana (or San Felipe). And it shows where the food doesn’t work as well, as in fat traded for salt and sweet and that thing called a burrito that could be used by Donald Trump’s INS as artillery shells to keep San Diegans from finding out what real Mexican food tastes like.
Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with The Taco Stand’s food that is not what we in California have asked for. The problem isn’t them, it’s us.