7 Deadly Sins: The Best Fast Food Mexican Restaurants In Southern California

fish tacos at bull taco californiaIt really isn’t fair. California has sun, beaches, mountains and legions of fit, attractive people. But Californians also get to enjoy otherworldly tacos and burritos too. I know, I know, there are good tacos and burritos to be had in other parts of the country, but when it comes to fast food Mexican, California is still king.

Here’s how I like to roll when I’m visiting California: start the day with a breakfast burrito, feast on an grilled fish burrito for lunch and cap the day with shrimp or lobster tacos at dinner time. If I wasn’t always falling asleep early on the West Coast due to jet lag, I’d probably do another round of tacos late night too, if I could only stay up late enough to squeeze it in.

It’s very hard to distinguish where to get the best fast food Mexican fare in Southern California. Try one place and you’ll think it’s the best thing you ever tasted and then travel down the block to realize there’s someplace even better. But what follows is a run down of the best fast-food Mexican seafood tacos and burritos I had on a recent trip to Southern California (save for Rudy’s, which doesn’t do seafood).


La Sirena Grill (Laguna Beach, El Segundo, and Irvine)

I had a blackened shrimp burrito and my wife had a blackened wild salmon taco and a blackened tilapia taco here and everything was incredibly fresh and tasty. They have a sweet, tangy salsa that is out of this world. Much of what La Sirena serves is organic and even the containers they serve tacos in are made of corn.

carne asada tacos rudy's californiaRudy’s Taco Shop (Solana Beach, La Costa)

This place is the polar opposite of trendy La Sirena – there are no advertisements boasting about sustainability or humanely raised beef at this hole-in-the-wall joint but their carne asada is melt-in-your-mouth delicious and their chips are first rate too.

Rubios (Locations are mostly in suburban San Diego with a handful in other cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Vegas, Phoenix and L.A.)

I know that some foodies are suspicious of chain places, but I am rooting for this one to make it out to Chicago. I had two grilled mahi-mahi tacos with roasted corn, cabbage and creamy chipotle salsa and a gourmet shrimp taco, which came with toasted mozzarella, jack and white cheddar cheese, bacon bits, avocado and two chili sauces.

fish tacos rubiosBoth were ridiculously good and were served with chips and beans on a real plate. The nice young kids who work at the Carlsbad location I patronized were fascinated by my interest with the place. To them, it probably seems a bit odd to be fussing over tacos and taking photos of them, but they’re spoiled they can get these beautiful things anytime they want them.

Bull Taco (Cardiff by the Sea, Oceanside, Petco Park)

This beachside taco stand advertises itself as “Inauthentic Mexican” but has become something of a local institution in just five years, serving unusual taco creations. Nathan, one of the chefs at the Cardiff by the Sea location, told me that all the cooks who work there are classically trained chefs. Only in California would serious chefs be found working in a taco joint and thank God for that.

bull taco shrimp tacosI devoured three tacos – grilled sea bass, shrimp curry and the coup d’gras, a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Purists might balk at some of their concoctions but I would kill to have this place near my home in Chicago.

Bahia Mexican Restaurant (near the zoo in San Diego)

This modest little fast food place, with its colorfully painted chairs and tables, made me feel like I was in a working class neighborhood outside Puerto Vallarta. Big menu, low prices, no frills and it smelled great. After a long morning spent pushing my sons around in a stroller at the San Diego Zoo, I was starved, so I ordered a fish taco (grilled tilapia, $2.30), a shrimp taco ($3.30), and a lobster taco ($3.80).

bahia restaurant san diegoThe tortillas were very light and flavorful, the tacos were packed with seafood and everything was wonderfully fresh and delicious. My only complaint: the place is filled with vending machines selling junky toys and temporary tattoos, which my sons nagged me into buying. Halfway through my lobster taco, I relented and bought two sets of tattoos, but my 3-year-old didn’t like the one that came out of the slot for him. But even the tantrum that ensued couldn’t diminish the experience for me.

Taco Surf Taco Shop (Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego)

taco surf taco shopFor a place that’s filled with surfboards and is just a block away from the Mission Beach-Pacific Beach boardwalk along the ocean, this place is dark and slightly depressing. Taco Surf Taco has been featured as one of the best places to get a burrito in the country by Fox News and was also singled out by USA Today. I don’t agree with Fox News very often and I don’t agree with them on this call either.

The people working at TSTS are very friendly and my mahi-mahi burrito ($7.66) was big and tasty, but I didn’t think it was extraordinary. Another diner told me I should have tried their California burrito, which has steak, cheese and fries, but I’ll leave that one to Fox News and others. One other beef: horrible music. I had a Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” earworm for days after hearing it at this place.

poquito mas tacosPoquito Mas (7 locations in L.A.)

I had two shrimp tacos ($6.50) at their West Hollywood location and I thought that the name of this place, which means “a little more” in Mexican, was appropriate – there were only three shrimp in each taco – not nearly enough for my tastes. They were tasty though and I especially liked their array of spicy salsas, but not their dicey tortilla soup.

Conclusion: If I had to crown my very favorite seafood, fast-food Mexican meal in California, and it really isn’t fair because all of these places are great, it would be a tie between La Sirena and Rubios. Their tacos and burritos literally brought a smile to my face. Please, please, please guys, come to Chicago. I’m begging you.

There are thousands of places to eat seafood tacos and burritos in Southern California and no list of the best places is comprehensive. What’s your favorite place?

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Dude, The Surf’s Always Up In San Diego’s North County

del mar north county san diegoIf you want a taste of quintessential California beach culture, complete with a heaping dose of surf, sand and tacos, head north of San Diego to North County. When I’m in Southern California, I don’t mind soaking up the cliché tourist experience: I want to be on the beach, gazing out at the limitless Pacific Ocean, watching the surfers, preferably with a taco or three in hand. Here’s an idea for how to spend a totally epic day in North County and La Jolla, dude.
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Start the day at Pipes Café, a killer breakfast spot very close to the beach in Cardiff by the Sea. Step up the counter and order the #1 breakfast burrito ($5.95), which comes with sausage, avocado, cheese and, get this, five eggs. Five eggs for God’s sakes! When my bad boy arrived, the beast took up the entire basket (see photo) and I practically needed a forklift to get the damn thing up and into my mouth.


breakfast burrito pipes cafe cardiff by the seaI’m a total glutton, but I couldn’t come close to finishing this frightening, but very tasty creature. I liked it so much that I couldn’t help but ask some locals sitting next to us about the feasibility of moving to the area with my wife and two little boys.

“Well, North County is really expensive,” said the guy who would have looked right at home in a J Crew catalog. “Basically, the closer you get to San Diego the more expensive it gets. Oceanside isn’t too bad, then Carlsbad, Encinitas and Solana Beach will be more expensive than that and things really get crazy in Del Mar and La Jolla.”

north county san diegoMy hopes of moving to North County dashed, I knew we’d have to make the most of our visit, so we drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, taking in peeks of the Pacific when it wasn’t hidden by large homes, shopping and hotels along the way.

I worked off about 5% of my ridiculous breakfast burrito with a short walk in Encinitas’s attractive little town center followed by a longer walk on the beach in Del Mar, a pristine beach community if ever there was one. I watched the surfers, who were out in force on a day when the waves were up to a gnarly 8 feet, and fantasized about winning the next Powerball drawing and moving to this fine place of soaring palm trees, trendy restaurants and stunning Pacific vistas.

carne asada tacos rudy's taco shop Before I knew it, it was lunchtime and since I tend to follow an all taco & burrito diet when I’m in California, we backtracked north a couple miles to Rudy’s Taco Shop, a hole-in-the-wall place in a strip mall in Solana Beach that specializes in carne asada. I was ready for a siesta after scarfing down two of their salty, melt-in-your mouth carne asada tacos, but summoned the energy to press on south to La Jolla, which means “The Jewel” in Spanish.

La Jolla is filled with pricey shops, but we were in town to soak up the natural splendor of the place so we headed straight for the waterfront. I don’t think there are many more scenic places for a stroll anywhere in the country than the area around Scripps Park in La Jolla. There’s a long walkway set up high above the crashing waves of the Pacific below, flanked by neat rows of soaring palm trees.


We walked down to Seal Beach and my sons, ages 3 and 5, got a huge kick out of seeing dozens of seals lying comatose on the beach as though they were sleeping off hangovers. Every few minutes one of them would decide they wanted to change their spot and would hop around awkwardly as the assembled paparazzi fired off shots of them.


sea lions la jollaA local, who told me I was standing too close to the seals, also mentioned that the seals give birth right on this beach each year from January through March. After my kids had their fill of the seals, we walked a half-mile north to gawk at a colony of sea lions that were all huddled up on top of each other on a huge rock.

There’s been a huge controversy over the supposedly foul smell of bird crap in La Jolla, with many merchants claiming that the smell is scaring away customers, but I didn’t even really notice it other than for a brief moment when we pulled into town. Anyone who dwells on bird crap in a place this beautiful is a little jaded, if you ask me.

bull tacosAfter a few hours wandering in La Jolla, we repaired to Bull Taco, a taco stand located up on a bluff above the Cardiff State Park beach that advertises itself as “inauthentic Mexican.” It only seemed fitting to wind down my culinary day the way I started it – with a tortilla in hand. This time, I had three tacos – shrimp curry, sea bass and a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Inauthentic? Maybe, but damn good as well.

We drove further north and enjoyed an extravagant sunset at South Carlsbad State Park beach. On a late Saturday afternoon in December, the beach scene in North County was magical for a cold weather family like us.


Families were taking their Christmas card photos on the beach, no doubt to taunt their cold weather friends, surfers of all ages were emerging from the crashing surf, raving about the “epic” waves and people who drive posh sports cars happily mingled with surf bums living in beat up old camper vans with rusted old California plates. In the fading light, we beat a retreat, intoxicated from a day of Pacific delights, not ready to go home but determined to return one day to this idyllic little corner of America.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Five things London needs

five things london needsThree months and change into living in London and I couldn’t be happier. The city’s exciting neighborhoods and unbridled internationalism are thrilling. The retail scene is varied and strong, the restaurant inventory is deep, 2014 fashion trends can be previewed at London Fields every weekend, and there are scores of cafes serving very good coffee. Leaving aside some infrastructural issues (delay-prone Tube lines and some weak city-to-airport links, in particular), London is a great city.

Yet London, for all of its many strengths, doesn’t have everything you could possibly want in a top-tier city. Here are five things that London doesn’t have and needs: a Korean bath house; an Uruguayan chivitos restaurant; a sabich stand; a taquería selling real burritos; 100 percent cotton swabs.

1. A Korean bath house. There is no proper Korean bath house in London. Shocking. Korean bath houses are gender-segregated temples of bliss with hot tubs of varying temperatures, saunas, swimming pools, napping rooms. They offer spa treatments, including the justifiably famous Korean full-body scrub. A London version of New York Spa Castle in Queens would be enormously popular.

2. A chivitos restaurant. The chivito (see above right) is a delicious heart attack of a steak sandwich. There are variations, but typically a chivito will contain steak, bacon, ham, egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayonnaise. A simple Uruguayan restaurant selling chivitos and South American beer and wine would be terribly popular.

3. A sabich stand. Freshly back from Tel Aviv several weeks ago, I walked over to Spitalfields to try the sabich at Pilpel and was terribly disappointed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Pipel sabich, mind you, but it tastes like a grab-bag of Middle Eastern flavors and textures and as such is a million miles from the eggplant-focused immediacy of the sabich I’d just eaten on the street in Israel. One of London’s weekend markets needs a sabich stand, plain and simple.

4. A decent burrito. Londoners, against their old reputation, are quite sophisticated about food. Just don’t ask them to suggest a place to grab a burrito. They’ll likely recommend a specimen that would make the average Californian groan. Entrepreneurs, focus! Studies show that once people have been exposed to truly good burritos, they are longer attracted to subpar variations.* There is a fortune to be made here.

5. Cotton swabs. They’re called “buds” in the UK, which is already disarming. The standard version here has plastic wands, which are flimsy and decidedly not biodegradable. I’ve seen pricey organic cotton buds, but as of yet no mainstream all-cotton swabs. Some hard cotton wands at a reasonable price point would be well received.

*This is a lie. There are no studies on this matter, as far as I know. But you get my point.

[Image: Flickr | mattrubens]

Top ten cheap local fast food items worldwide

cheap local fast foodFood is usually a major cost on the road, a significant component of any careful travel budget. Very good, inexpensive food is on offer in most of the world’s destinations, no matter how expensive average meals may be. Here are ten delicious fast food items from ten different destinations around the world.

1. Burritos, San Francisco. San Franciscans are passionate about their burritos. It’s easy to inadvertently inspire an argument through an offhand if opinionated claim about your personal burrito likes and dislkes. Try a riceless burrito at La Tacquería (2889 Mission Street) or drizzle your burrito from Tacquería Cancún (2228 Mission, among other locations) with distinctive green salsa. For $6, you’ll be sated for hours.

2. Currywurst, Berlin. Currywurst is an extraordinarily popular German fast food, a sliced pork sausage doused with curry sauce. At Konnopke’s Imbiss, a famed food stand in Berlin, a currywurst goes for just €1.70 ($2.25).

3. Okonomiyaki, Osaka. This delightful, greasy food item can be found in a number of spots around Japan, though it is firmly associated with Osaka. It’s a cabbage pancake topped with several ingredients. These often include pork, green onion, other vegetables, shrimp, fish and seaweed flakes, mayonnaise, and a dark sauce. An all-but-the-kitchen-sink okonomiyaki in Osaka will set you back around 750 yen ($9).

4. Pintxos, San Sebastián, Spain. For just a few euros, you can fill up on extraordinary pintxos (Basque tapas, see above) in countless bars in the lovely seaside city of San Sebastián. That San Sebastián is also home to some very expensive restaurants is an entertaining notion to contemplate while you’re scarfing three perfect €3 ($4) pintxos for lunch in a crowded bar. See Todo Pintxos for a listing of pintxos perches.

5. Hawker centres, Singapore. Many of Singapore’s hawker centers, which are more or less open-air food courts, serve up very high quality portions of food for very little. As little as S$4 ($3) will get you off to a good start. Among Singapore’s many hawker centers, check out Maxwell Hawker Centre, Chomp Chomp, and Lau Pa Sat.6. Kizilkayalar’s Islak burgers, Istanbul. They’re cheap, at 2 lira (under $1.50) and they’re delicious. These small burgers are a late night Istanbul mainstay. Kizilkayalar has two locations in Istanbul.

7. Bò bía, Saigon, Vietnam. This delicious Vietnamese food item consists of pickled vegetables, sweet sausage, small dried prawns, and noodles wrapped in a rice paper roll. This typical Saigon street food item, adapted from Chinese popiah, is cheap and delicious. Cost: around 10000 dong ($.50) per portion.

8. Chivitos, Montevideo. Chivitos are the top Uruguayan fast food option, a huge mess of a beef sandwich with egg, bacon, mayonnaise, vegetables, and other toppings. A fast track to a heart attack for sure, but a delicious one. The cheapest chivito at Guga Chivitos goes for 90 pesos ($4.50).

9. Som Tam, Thailand. This spicy salad made with not-yet-ripe papaya is a popular street food (and restaurant dish) across Thailand. It’s an appealing taste sensation, with sweet, salty, spicy, and sour components. A decent helping of som tam shouldn’t set you back more than 60 baht ($2).

10. Roti, Port of Spain. The capital of Trinidad and Tobago is full of roti shops selling this extraordinarily filling Caribbean fast food, and locals have very strong opinions about which shop does the best job. You shouldn’t need to part with more than TT$30 ($4.75) at any of several dozen roti shops for a perfect lunch.

Thanks to fellow Gadling contributors Jeremy Kressmann and Meg Nesterov for suggestions.

[Image: Flickr / RinzeWind]

Observe other diners – Dining out tip

It’s a good idea when you’re trying a new ethnic restaurant or in a foreign country to observe the other diners on how to use condiments or how they eat the food.

For example, when dining in a Japanese restaurant for the first time, I had the awkward experience of being served what looked like “burrito.” I poked it with my chopsticks, curious. Luckily, before I tried to take a bite out of it, I saw a fellow patron, open his “burrito” and wash his hands with what turned out to be a hot, wet towel!

[Photo: Flickr | pointnshoot]