The city’s latest crop of restaurants marry tequila, mezcal and more with refined Mexican fare. Here are nine of our new favorite Mexican restaurants in San Diego.
By Sarah Daoust.
It’s no news flash that San Diego is a hub for fine Mexican dining, tequila and taco shops. Yet, over the last two years, a movement has been growing of chefs and bartenders looking to take things up a notch, not simply with cuisine, but also with what to wash it all down with … and agave spirits have become the stars. This means chef-driven fare that is familiar, yet refined and progressive; and cocktails that celebrate and epitomize the very best of Baja and other regions beyond our border to the south. Here are nine of our new favorites.
Death By Tequila
Death by tequila? Let’s hope not. Taking a break from our cares courtesy of tequila? Yes. The contemporary restaurant and bar in Encinitas serves healthy, coastal Baja cuisine crafted by Executive Chef Angelo Sosa (a Top Chef alum). Menu standouts include the woodfired salsa, organic street tacos, albacore aguachile and a veggie entree that changes daily. The bar menu boasts 80-plus tequilas, 30 mezcals, and wines and beers from Valle de Guadalupe. We’ll drink to that. 569 S. Coast Hwy. 101, Encinitas, 760.782.2240. deathbytequila.com
A chef-driven taco shop with a full bar? Sold. Touted as a “fine-casual” concept, Lola 55 is just that—a 3,200-square-foot, counter-service-style, modern eatery by Tijuana-born founder Frank Vizcarra. Executive Chef and partner Andrew Bent oversees a boutique menu of about nine beautifully crafted tacos—including squash blossom rellano, rib-eye carne asada, spicy smoked fish, and vegan and gluten-free tacos. Bar manager Gareth Moore has designed a menu of fresh, citrus-forward agave libations. Try the Tequila Sling, infused with Creole Shrubb, Jamaica, pineapple, lime and cava. For dessert: homemade churros and ice cream sandwiches. Designed by Bells & Whistles (the edgy design team behind the coolest spots in town), the space alone is reason to visit—soaring industrial ceilings, lush indoor foliage, a turquoise-tiled bar and turquoise-topped tables, and floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a true urban oasis. 1290 F St., East Village, 619.542.9155. lola55.com
El Roy’s Tequila Bar + Kitchen
Take the ferry or Coronado Bridge across the bay to this charming new offering by Blue Bridge Hospitality. Featuring more than 90 tequilas and mezcals, El Roy’s serves cocktails such as the Smokey Paloma with mezcal, grapefruit and agave nectar; plus mezcal and tequila tasting flights; eight themed margaritas; and sangria, beer and wine. Meanwhile, the food menu marries modern with traditional. Think: Mexican corn pudding, duck confit empanadas, pork belly banh mi tacos, and roasted yam and poblano flautas. Rivaling the exceptional food and drink are the views. Take in panoramas of the bay and downtown skyline from the restaurant’s 1,200-square-foot sundeck. 1201 First St., #115, Coronado, 619.537.0195. bluebridgehospitality.com
Oaxacan cuisine and cocktails arrive in Old Town with the debut of Tahona. The 2,000-square-foot restaurant boasts a dedicated mezcal tasting room with more than 120 varieties; plus agave cocktails such as the Mexican Firing Squad and an old-fashioned margarita. Be on the lookout for special events, organized mezcal-tasting group trips to Baja and Oaxaca, and a rumored speakeasy set to open this winter. 2414 San Diego Ave., Old Town, 619.255.2090. tahonabar.com
Agave spirits command the cocktail menu at this Liberty Station cocina and tequila bar, helmed by Executive Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins (also a Top Chef alum). Choose from Baja wines, mezcals, tequilas and even Mexican sake. Signature sips—designed by cocktail master Christian Siglin—include the Baja-Ma Mama with coffee-infused tequila and Backstrap rum, and the Oaxacan Old-Fashioned with reposado tequila and mezcal. To dine, sample regional Mexican cuisine via ancestral recipes from Tijuana to Guadalajara, infused with modern touches. Notable dishes include the roasted bone marrow and crispy octopus; slow-cooked pork shoulder; and the surf and turf tostada loaded with dried shrimp ceviche, crispy carne seca, avocado and grasshoppers (yes, grasshoppers). 2885 Perry Road, Point Loma, 619.795.2322. eljardinrestaurantbar.com
Named after the world’s second-smallest rabbit, which is native to Mexico, this tequila bar and nightspot-meets-restaurant features a tortilleria, contemporary Mexican fare (we love the craft tacos and short-rib nachos), mini-bottle service and Saturday mega-brunch. The brick-walled, urban-industrial space houses comfy couches, banquette seating, a sidewalk lounge, DJs regularly spinning, and a full bar with the Gaslamp’s largest selection of tequila—with VIP lockers available for connoisseurs. Choose a decadent signature cocktail such as The Smoking Jacket with El Silencio mezcal, agave nectar, Aztec chocolate bitters and a tamarindo lollipop; and the Spiked Horchata with house-made reposado tequila liqueur. And be on the lookout for monthly tequila tasting events. 527 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter, 619.232.8226. volcanorabbitsd.com
Juan Tequila Bar & Restaurant
It was a bittersweet opening in August 2018 for this upscale, Baja-meets- San Diego bar and eatery, whose bar manager Cervantes Magana—a locally beloved bartender and bar program designer for numerous hotspots—tragically passed away a few weeks prior. Owners Gustavo Giardelli, Jose Dabdoub, Shaker Kan and Daniel Garibay have unveiled a simply beautiful, low-lit urban space—complete with a striking concrete bar with embedded mini sparkle lights, leather-upholstered bar seats, marble-topped tables, glittering chandeliers and hanging lightbulbs. The food menu is a celebration of regional seafood, featuring a raw bar with treats such as grilled chocolate clams and smoked oysters; small plates such as duck chilaquiles and a seasonal cheese selection; and elegant larger plates such as seared pork belly verde, blue-corn-breaded fried chicken, and Conejo Tamale with confit rabbit leg and braised rabbit saddle. The cocktails are a true celebration of Baja. The Driftwood is a must-try: chili-infused mezcal, sotol (think of it as tequila’s feisty, crazy little brother), cacao, Amaro liqueur and peach. 535 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter, 619.458.9455. juantequila.net
Inspired by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, this two-story venue in the Gaslamp serves up authentic dishes with premium-quality ingredients, agave-based cocktails and a campy sense of humor. Dine on traditional tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, fajitas and a heavenly carne asada plate served with corn tortillas. The libations menu features margaritas; signatures such as the TJ 1920 cocktail with Milagro reposado, Mexican Coca-Cola reduction, red-cherry-apple bitters and sarsaparilla bitters; and Pick Your Poison, featuring pours of tequila, mezcal, sotol and raicilla—a distilled agave spirit born in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Salud! 560 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter, 619.501.1919. elchingon.com
Blanco Tacos + Tequila
Another eatery living up to its name, this new outpost at Fashion Valley Mall is all about the tacos and tequila. The 4,930-square-foot indoor/outdoor restaurant features an expansive tequila and mezcal selection; plus specialty cocktails such as the Ginger Spice Paloma and Oaxacan Shandy. To eat: modern Mexican fare, including gourmet Mexican pizzas, wagyu carne asada tacos, caramelized sweet potato and veggie burritos, and Mexican chocolate tiramisu for dessert. 7007 Friars Road, #901, Mission Valley, 619.810.2931. blancotacostequila.com