For a good part of the past 70 years, the Barrio Logan and Logan Heights area has taken a one-two punch from misguided lawmakers and sloppy industrialists.
The neighborhood that used to have beach access and a community pier lost its waterfront view (and, for that matter, ownership of that waterfront) to shipbuilders in the 1940s. By the 1970s, free-for-all zoning laws had given noxious metal-plating companies, junkyards and other unsavory businesses free reign in what had once been a thriving community dotted with independent shops and restaurants.
In 1970, a group of community leaders, calling themselves the Chicano Park Steering Committee, coordinated a 12-day occupation of the land beneath the Coronado Bridge-the bridge having been plunked down by freeway planners two years before with no community input. It would take another year before the state handed over to the city six acres of land under that bridge and the city, in turn, ceded the land to the community.
Under the guidance of artist Salvador Torres, residents adorned the concrete bridge supports with the vibrant murals that now make Chicano Park a Southern California-if not national-landmark. The statement "Varrio si! Yonkes no!" (Barrio yes! Junkyards no!) is the mural's standout slogan. This open-air, public, free-for-all art museum holds the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world, and its sheer scope never fails to impress the hell outta me.
To the north of Chicano Park, in a corner strip mall on Cesar Chavez Parkway sits Panchitas Bakery-it's actually Panchita's #3 (nos. 1 and 2 are in Golden Hill and City Heights). Ovens keep the place a little too warm for comfort, so grab an aluminum tray off the counter and fill it with all the cookies, pan dulce, fruit-filled empanadas you can eat. If it's winter, grab a hot chocolate to go.
Just around the block from Panchita's is Rancho Fresco (1852 National Ave.), with better prices on produce than you'll find at any chain grocery store. Neatly stacked shelves under the fruits and veggies hold a variety of Mexican canned goods, spices and sauces. Look hard enough and there's a shelf of authentic mortar and pestles and heavy iron tortilla skillets. A vendor cart with homemade tamales sits outside on weekends.
Just off Commercial Street is a large, salmon-colored building with the words Farmers Market painted near the top. The label is deceiving-it really isn't a farmers market. It's more like an indoor swap meet with stalls selling everything from Mexican wrestling masks to made-over kitchen appliances to leather cowboy boots. There's a jam-packed food court in the middle where some of the neighborhood's best food is served. El Guero's tacos al pastor (tender, seasoned pork) will melt in your mouth. Mariscos Veracruz promises the "freshest and the best" seafood. At Tacos de Guisodos, fresh corn tortillas are cooked up on a large skillet, awaiting your pick of meat fillings that beckon from a glass-covered heater. There's a juice bar toward the back, next door to a large bakery, where they blend up jugos frescas. Just outside, a vendor cart sells six different kinds of tamales.
In the heart of Barrio Logan is Chicano Perk (129 25th St.). The cozy coffee shop with a vine-covered tiered outdoor patio features new art exhibits each month and holds art workshops and political meetings on evenings and weekends. There's an open-mic/spoken-word night on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. The coffee ain't bad, either.
El Por Venir (1786 National Ave.) has been around for nearly 90 years. The tiny restaurant (only a couple booths) is known for its tortillas, carnitas and chile relleno burritos. Folks in the know recommend it as one of the better authentic Mexican eateries in San Diego. Like other neighborhood restaurants, the food is more than affordable-you can stuff yourself silly for around $5.
Dulceria Peninsular (2195 Logan Ave.) has a huge selection of piñatas and sits across the street from Porkyland restaurant, which, unlike some of its compadres, offers a vegetarian menu.
Siete Mares (the sign outside reads 7 Mares) at 2234 Logan Ave. is a spacious seafood restaurant with large family-size tables. Fishing nets hang from the ceiling and the décor is a noble attempt at nautical. Nothing on the menu is less than $10, but for $10.95, for example, you get a bowl of shrimp soup (caldo de cammerones) big enough for two people, even three. Siete Mares doesn't skimp on the shrimp, either. A couple dozen perfectly cooked crustaceans sit at the bottom of a spicy tomato broth. The soup comes with sides of cilantro, onions, chili sauce and a lime for extra flavor (which, frankly, it doesn't need) and fresh corn tortillas.
Bright and cheery El Comal sits at 2822 Imperial Ave. The nopales (cactus-really, it's good) tacos are tasty, as is the torta Cubana and Tlalpeno (spicy chicken soup).
Most restaurants and shops in the Barrio Logan/Logan Heights area close early-around 5 or 6 p.m. If you're looking for something open a little later, Chuey's, the half-century-old restaurant, has new digs at 1901 Main St. Chuey's is what El Torito, Chevy's and all those other chains wanted to be before they got greedy. With its new location, Chuey's added a couple theme nights: "Tropical Fridays" features Latin and Salsa music and dance lessons. "Old School Saturdays" features DJs José Monterrosa and Wicho. Getting your groove on after tamales and margaritas, though, could pose a challenge.