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San Diego Skyline (and view from my 'new' hotel)

I’ve been in San Diego since last week, and now that my conference is over, I’ve been able to see some of what the city has to offer.  The weather hasn’t been perfect – overcast skies and cool weather – it has been nice enough for me to get out and about.  In some ways, San Diego reminds me of Miami – except I absolutely HATE Miami.  San Diego has a bit of Miami vibe without all of the Miami fake.  I’ve only visited Miami a couple of times, but I always felt like everyone was trying too hard to impress with their designer clothes, processed hair, and manufactured bodies.

But this blog isn’t about Miami.

So here are my thoughts on what I’ve seen so far:

La Puerta.  I believe I’ve already established the fact that I LOVE Mexican food.  San Diego is just minutes away from Mexico; you’ve got to figure that the Mexican food here is amazing.  You’d be right.  La Puerta was not what I expected, but it was fantastic.  A tiny little establishment in the Gaslamp district, La Puerta is not your average Mexican restaurant.  It’s more like a dive bar that happens to serve a little food.  The menu is limited and the prices are low, but don’t let that drive you away.  If you are willing to wait for a table, you won’t be disappointed.  I had a couple of margaritas and 3 chicken enchiladas rojas.  Terrific. The food was filling, but not heavy.  I walked away feeling satisfied, but not overstuffed.  As an added benefit, you’re in the Gaslamp district – which is a fun neighborhood to walk around in.  Lots of funky shops and ethnic restaurants (I went to a Thai restaurant in the district earlier in the week).  It’s worth a visit.

Extraordinary Desserts.  One of my colleagues, a native of San Diego, recommended this place.  It’s in Balboa Park, another historic district in the city.  There’s truth in advertising here:  you will find some truly extraordinary desserts.  I stopped in on Saturday morning and had a caffe latte and a blueberry coffee cake/cheesecake.  The single size coffee was HUGE, as was my serving of cake.  Extremely generous servings.  It was a nice way to start the day.

Caffe Latte and Blueberry Coffee Cake

Hash House A Go-Go.  Another restaurant that came highly recommended.  I love a big breakfast on Sunday morning, but I don’t usually like to fix one because I don’t want to have to clean up the mess.  Solution?  Breakfast out.  Hash House is famous for its large portions.  Take a look at the size of this pancake!

Breakfast at Hash House A Go-Go

But its fame comes at a price:  a long wait to get a table.  My friend and I waited for about 40 minutes before we were seated.  Fortunately, neither of us were ravenous, so we took a walk around the neighborhood while we waited.  Once we got a table, we ordered coffee and mimosas to start.  I ordered the Tractor Driver breakfast which, in addition to the pancake, came with two eggs and two slices of bacon.  I also ordered crispy potatoes to share with my friend.  I had more than enough to eat.  My friend and I agreed that the food was good, but not really worth the hype.  I mean, I could have gotten the same food at IHOP.  Smaller portions of course.  Now, Hash House’s signature dish is its fried chicken and waffles; maybe if I’d ordered that I’d have a different opinion.  We took a cab from the hotel to the restaurant, but after all we ate, we decided to walk back!

You can’t come to San Diego without visiting its famous zoo.  It’s easy to see why it is famous:  it’s clean and big with lots of attractions.  Of course, it’ll cost you to see it:  $40 for a one-day pass.  We saw polar bears, elephants, zebras, giraffes, and peacocks.  Unfortunately, we had to skip the pandas because the line was so long.  We walked all over the place, and also took in an aerial view via “Skyfari.”  My friend and I rode the cable cars from one end of the zoo to the other – and I actually kept my eyes open.

All in all, I’d have to say it’s been a great trip.  San Diego has a lot to offer:  beautiful weather, great restaurants, a variety of entertainment options, and proximity to Mexico (although some might wonder if that last point is a positive or negative these days!)

San Diego:  it’s a hell of a town!

One of the things I love about living in the DC area is the cultural diversity.  There are folks here from all over the world – immigrants, temporary workers (embassy personnel, for example), and visitors.  This influx of people makes the cultural scene really vibrant, but it also greatly enhances the culinary scene.

I absolutely luuuurve Mexican food.  I grew up in Oklahoma, so I was raised on Tex-Mex, but once I moved to Atlanta, I tasted the real deal and never looked back.  It’s the same in metropolitan DC.  There are tons of Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian (and on and on) restaurants here, and the food is delicious, but my first love remains Mexican cuisine.

In the last few weeks, I’ve eaten in three Mexican restaurants in the Arlington area.  Now, if you’re going to compare restaurants of the same genre, I think it’s important to set a baseline.  What can you use to judge the restaurants across the board?  When it comes to Mexican food, my baselines are beef tacos, chicken enchiladas, and – most important – margaritas (on the rocks, with salt).

First, the beef taco.  Is the beef shredded or ground?  In my experience, with shredded beef, there’s a greater probability of finding fat in the meat.  That’s a deal-breaker.  I also don’t like the beef/filling/shell ratio with a shredded beef taco.  Too often, you bite into the taco and this big hunk of shredded beef trails after you.  Uncool and unsightly.  So, points off if the restaurant makes a taco with shredded beef.  I prefer ground.

Next, the chicken enchilada.  Is the chicken diced or shredded?  Oddly enough, I kind of prefer the shredded chicken.  The fork can cut through the chicken, so no worries about unwanted trails.  I also think that with the diced chicken, you have to beware of fat or gristle.  There’s nothing worse than biting into a piece of chicken and hitting gristle.  Except biting into a shredded beef taco and hitting fat.

Finally, the margarita.  I cannot stress its importance enough.  How big is the glass?  How much ice is in the glass?  Too much ice waters down the drink.  Is it strong enough to make you feel happy but not so strong as to block out the yummy taste of lime and sugar?  Is there a nice, thick ring of salt on the rim?

So how did they stack up?

  1. Uncle Julio’s:  I have fond memories of this place.  When I first moved to the DC area, I lived in a corporate apartment just down the street from this restaurant – so I ate there quite often with friends.  If the constant crowds are any indication, people love this place.  The food is terrific.  On my last visit, I had one beef and one chicken enchilada.  Yum.  But the margarita was sub-par.  It was extremely watered down – sort of like someone in the back made a pitcher of margaritas, added ice, and the ice had started to melt.  Really disappointing.
  2. Taqueria Poblano:  my friend Nona loves this restaurant.  She swears by the chicken tortilla soup.  On the day that I ate there, I had a beef taco.  Shredded beef, so automatic deduction.  No fat deposits, but a lot of beef trails, which was disappointing.  Also, the margarita was way too strong.  It was like a glass of tequila over ice.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with really good, high quality tequila that’s meant to be sipped – but this wasn’t it.  My experience wasn’t good enough to make me want to go back, although I’ll probably give the chicken tortilla soup a try based on Nona’s recommendation.
  3. El Paso – I’ve heard former President George W. Bush is a fan, which would usually be enough to turn me off a place, but I love this restaurant.  The food is DELICIOUS.  To be honest, I can’t remember if the beef in the tacos is shredded or ground, but I’ve never had a meal here that I didn’t absolutely love.  The margaritas are fantastic.  A perfect blend of liquor, ice, margarita mix, and salt.  My Spanish teacher, a native of El Salvador, agrees with me about the margaritas.  She thinks they are the best.  I love this place. 

So the clear winner in my book is El Paso, but really, all three are worth a visit.  Maybe you like your margaritas stronger than I do, or maybe you prefer shredded beef to ground.  None of them will disappoint.

Oh and P.S. – please, no comments correcting my Spanish (you know who you are).  I’m doing the best I can here!

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