Nati's Mexican Restaurant
1852 Bacon St.
When I travel, the thing I miss most is Mexican food. I've experienced some real abominations, even within California, like the place in Redding where the "salsa" was tomato juice with diced cucumbers and carrots. When I asked for the hot sauce that they used in the kitchen, the guy came back with a bottle of Tabasco. It's always nice to come back from a trip like that and have some real carne asada or carnitas.
While I do love authentic Mexican food, there are times when I crave something inauthentic. Rather than go to El Torito or some place in Old Town, I like to head for a long-time San Diego favorite-Nati's in Ocean Beach, a restaurant that's been owned and operated by the same family for more than 40 years.
My first encounter with Nati's was at the behest of my college newspaper editor, who dragged me along with him to get ground-beef tacos. I balked. I mean, ground-beef tacos are what my mom made for dinner. I don't remember what I ordered instead, but it sucked. The next time, I got the ground-beef tacos, and it made me a happy man.
Nati's serves up what I call California-style Mexican food, which is basically Mexican food like my gringo Jewish mother (and my friends' gringo Jewish mothers) used to make from spice packets and pre-packaged taco shells. They offer items like carne asada and fish tacos, but only begrudgingly, or so it seems.
Readers of CityBeat are no doubt familiar with the quality assurance implied by a Wolfgang Verkaaik advertorial in the Union-Tribune. The Nati's display (including a menu from when it opened in 1960 and a 16 magazine photo of '70s hunk Shaun Cassidy in a Nati's tee) includes two advertorial write-ups, from proto-Verkaaiks in an '80s publication called Tuned In, which recommends the carnitas. The description is enticing-unfortunately, carnitas is no longer on the menu. Even if it was, I'd be skeptical.
Each time I've deviated from my old editor's simple instruction to order ground-beef tacos, I've been sorry. And yet, there I was, ordering carne asada and fish tacos-and there I was, leaving half of it all on the plate.
Why did I do this to myself? The carne asada taco was a sad, limp corn tortilla with a couple of mouthfuls of skirt steak inside and nothing else. No guacamole, no salsa fresca, nothing. I tried a bite of the meat, and it was cooked OK but was bland and unseasoned. Ugh. So I tried the fish taco. It looked like a piece of fresh fish but tasted like fish sticks-in fact, it was exactly as if McDonalds made fish tacos, with the Filet-O-Fish in a corn tortilla dressed with mayonnaise and Big Mac lettuce. Mind you, both of these taste sensations are bargain-priced, at a reasonable $2.95 each.
The third item I tried was actually pretty good, the soft quesadilla supreme, though it's hard to imagine how anybody could screw up two flour tortillas with cheese and beans inside. Still, after being brutalized by the tacos, this tasted great by comparison. It also came with a pretty nice salsa made with tomatoes, chilies and a touch of garlic.
Even though this experience overall was a bust, there are still two-but only two-really good reasons to go to Nati's: combination No. 0 (or #2) and the sour cream enchiladas. Combination No. 0 is a ground-beef taco and cheese enchilada. Combination No. 2 is two ground-beef tacos and a cheese enchilada. Both come with rice and beans, and are the perfect time warp back to when you had no idea what real Mexican food was. The meat is perfectly seasoned, the shells perfectly crispy, and the crumbled Mexican cheese atop the lettuce adds a great accent to the flavor. The cheese enchiladas are basic but have a delicious tomato-y enchilada sauce, and the chopped raw onions inside perk up the filling nicely. No. 0 is a perfectly sized meal for most.
The sour cream enchiladas are filled with the same ground beef as the tacos and topped with that same great sauce plus cheese, sour cream and sliced avocado-simple, rich and delicious. They also come with rice and beans. The rice here is run-of-the-mill Mexican rice, but the refried beans are very good. Rich and creamy with a generous amount of cheese melted on top, they are some of the better refried beans I've had in town.
There are better authentic Mexican restaurants in San Diego, certainly, but when I'm craving something inauthentic, Nati's ground beef tacos are unsurpassed.