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]

Raw Fusion popup brings sustainable cooking to Orange County, California

raw food Beginning in January, 2012, residents and visitors to Orange Country, California, can enjoy Raw Fusion cooking at the PALMO kitchen popup restaurant every Monday night.

Raya Belna, the creator of the popup as well as a Food Network award-winning Raw Foods and Vegan chef, is passionate about locally-grown, organic ingredients. The popup will feature a menu consisting of uncooked foods as well as cooked gluten-free vegan cuisine. Each week, a new venue will be used as well as an original menu created based on what produce was picked that week.

“I want to give our guests as much information about the ingredients as possible, where they were picked and what day they were picked on, in hopes of creating a strong connection between farm and table,” explains Belna. “Our mission is to bring awareness to the natural beauty and abundance that surrounds us here in Southern California and to really connect with our food source.”

The first evening of the PALMO kitchen will take place Monday, January 2, 2012, from 5PM-9PM at the TEE Room at the Newport Beach Golf Course. For more information, visit the PALMO kitchen website or e-mail Raya Belna at raya@palmofoods.com.

Inside Virgin America’s Orlando launch (w/ Photos)

I scanned the tarmac from my window seat. No gorgeous models holding Virgin America flags. No extravagant red carpet or cocktail service set out under the inviting Orlando sunshine. No R&B icons, rock stars, or daytime soap actors to pose for the dozens of cameras lined up at the jet bridge.

I thought we might have taxied to the wrong terminal until I saw the undeniable proof that we were in the right place; Richard Branson in a fanny pack, visor, and a colorful tropical shirt, enthusiastically guiding our Airbus A320 (dubbed California Dreamin’) into Gate 109.

The day’s events unfolded rather quickly and routinely, with Branson, CEO David Cush, & Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer all giving remarks about their excitement for the Virgin brand to be in Orange County. Guests took costumed snapshots in a theme-park-style photo booth while a lively balloon twister passed around a latex rendition of a Virgin America airplane. Within an hour or so the event was over, and the flight back to the West Coast was ready to board.

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Having attended two major launches & the premiere of ‘Fly Girls’ in the past year, I’d unwittingly become accustomed to a certain level of lavish presentation at Virgin America events. A connoisseur of Branson allure, if you will. Part of me almost expected flashing lights, loud music, & beautiful people sipping Veev on the rooftop of a hip hotel.

But the playful costumes, bright red fanny packs & family friendly theme all seemed to signify unchartered territory for Virgin America. A sensitive approach to a new and different market.
It would be hard to argue that Orlando has the same obvious sex appeal as the airline’s other 11 destinations. It’s a city that thrives on family-centric tourism & conference organizers looking to roll down their business socks; certainly not the typical tech-savvy creative class that is often drawn to the airline’s mood lighting, seatback touch-screens, and ubiquitous in-flight WiFi.

Nonetheless, Orlando attracted over 43.3 million domestic visitors in 2009 alone, and direct routes from the West Coast aren’t as plentiful as you might expect. My last flight on a low-cost carrier from Central Florida to the Bay Area was an eight hour zig-zag window-seat tour of the Midwest’s finest. A fragmented journey that quickly dulled the fond memories I had of golden Florida sunsets, a thrilling space shuttle launch, and epic mouse-eared magic.

Given the alternative, our direct four-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles to Orlando was a downright treat; one that I’m sure many tourists and Orlando residents will be receptive to.

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It’s been a big year for the young airline, and they’re poised for rapid expansion. They’ve announced service to five new destinations (three of which are international routes), reported their first profitable quarters since beginning operations in 2007, and placed an aircraft order that will more than double their current fleet.

Hype & spectacle or not, the launch into the Orlando market is just as significant as their entry into DFW later this year. It’s a shift in the type of destinations that the airline is targeting; high-traffic routes that are currently underserved by low-cost carriers.

Does that mean we’ll see Virgin America in Kansas City anytime soon? Probably not. They’ll have to continue pick and choose routes that are in demand and in need of better service. But with an in-flight experience that’s unmatched by any domestic carrier, I’ll be first in line to welcome such expansions; rooftop party or not.

Inside Virgin American’s Orange County launch party

Some people say that the Virgin airline brand is the epitome of overindulgence and tackiness. That in pulling away from the legacy carriers they’re backing themselves into a velvet lined, absinthe swigging corner. That the millions and millions of dollars they’re putting into their brand Virgin America is money poorly spent on a shrinking, penny pinching economy.

Virgin America‘s inaugural flight and launch party to Orange County fits those descriptions perfectly.

Picture this scenario: You’re standing on the John Wayne Airport’s tarmac with 4 cameras, 12 batteries, a note pad, three pens and a laptop. Up pulls an Airbus A320, out of which Richard Branson galavants, careening down the steps with shorts and a surfboard, followed by MC Hammer and joined by members of Real Housewives of New York City. People rejoice. Branson dances around the tarmac, revelers drink champagne, pretty women flaunt their wiles and the celebration of service to Orange County begins.

Wouldn’t you know it? We loved every second.

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Though times are tough in the airline business, Virgin America is moving forward with its expansion across the country, rocking every city as it descends in a blur of activity and excitement.

Last week’s OC launch started with a party on the SNA tarmac, and as the inaugural flight from San Francisco drew closer you could feel the excitement building. Luckily, we got a great spot on the tarmac for a view of the incoming airplane.

With the full crew on the ground including an alarmingly old MC Hammer and several members from Real Housewives of New York, the party kicked into full swing as revelers enjoyed more free drinks, appetizers and complimentary spray tans.

The party then moved over to the Pacific Edge Villa, where the Gadling crew enjoyed airline hobknobbing and excitement until the wee hours of the morning. Hats off to Virgin America for putting together an amazing event.

Ready to check out the madness for yourself? Book your tickets at virginamerica.com.

Virgin America launches Orange County service

Last week, Virgin America kicked off service with to Orange County, California with its inaugural flight from San Francisco down to John Wayne airport, between which they’ll be running 5 daily flights.

Never ones to miss a party, Gadling stopped by the tarmac to pay a visit to Sir Richard Branson, dish with MC Hammer, apply a few layers of spray tan and boost our hipster credentials.

The after party brought us over to the Pacific Edge Villa, a gorgeous slice of Orange County beach front property, where hobknobbers and people in the know lined up for autographs from our award winning blog team. Stay tuned this week for some gorgeous photos and tidbits from the event.

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