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Even though terms like taco, burrito, enchilada, and tostada are as common as macaroni and cheese to San Diegans, don't count on any residents to agree on where to find the best ones. That's because tacos are as individual as spaghetti sauce and come in endless variations from small, authentic Mexico City-style tacos to Cal-Mex versions in crunchy shells topped with cheddar cheese.
The most traditional style of taco features a small soft corn tortilla pressed from corn masa dough and filled with shredded beef, carne asada (roasted beef), braised tongue in green sauce, spicy marinated pork, or deep-fried fish or seafood. Tortillas made from white flour are out there, too, but they're not nearly as tasty.
Garnishes usually include a drizzle of salsa and a squeeze of tart Mexican lime (a small citrus similar to the Key lime that's juicier than the large lime commonly found in the United States), along with chopped cilantro and onion. Whole radishes topped with lime juice and a sprinkle of salt are served on the side.
Mama Testa's (1417 University Ave., Suite A,Hillcrest 619/298-8226 www.mamatestataqueria.com) shows the diversity of regional Mexican tacos with ones that are fried, steamed, and grilled. The salsa bar, which offers at least eight different selections including a spicy peanut salsa, is unparalleled. The restaurant's name (a suggestive double entendre in Spanish) and the colorful decor inspired by Mexican lucha libre wrestling and loteria are all part of the fun.
If you can't make it across the border, check out Tacos El Gordo, a well-known Tijuana taco franchise that has branches in Chula Vista (689 H St. 619/691-8848) and National City (1940 Highland Ave. 619/474-5033). Carne asada and seasoned pork adobada tacos on small freshly made tortillas are popular, but El Gordo also offers more exotic fillings like sesos (brain) or tripa (intestines). Look for their distinctive red-and-white sign, since there are imitators.
Most casual San Diego restaurants offer some version of the fish taco, either with batter-fried white fish or grilled fish topped with a mayonnaise-based tangy white sauce, shredded cabbage, lime, and salsa. A combination plate almost always includes seasoned rice and beans, either soupy or refried beans that are smooth and creamy thanks to the addition of lots of fat. Both styles of beans are crowned with melted shredded cheese and usually support a small raft of shredded lettuce dabbed with a bit of sour cream. Any empty spaces (you shouldn't see more of the plate than the rim) will be hidden by the preferred combination of tacos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and burritos.
What are those? Enchiladas can be filled with cheese, chicken, or beef and topped with savory, mostly mild red or green chili sauce. Chiles rellenos are mild, deep-fried peppers stuffed with cheese and then baked in tomato and chili sauce. Burritos are flour tortillas filled with beans, rice, and shredded meat. Breakfast burritos typically contain eggs, cheese, and potatoes and are often served all day.
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