Dining at the Old Town Mexican Cafe is like visiting with an old friend, whom I know well and with whom I feel very comfortable. I’ve been coming here for years. In fact, when I visited San Diego with my family before moving here, I would bring my kids to Old Town Mexican Cafe. I can still hear their delightful laughter when the big basket of tortilla chips was delivered to the table.
Old Town Mexican Cafe is located close to the beginning of Old Town of Highway 5. There is a crowd often by the front door, waiting for seating or just watching the”Tortilla Ladies of Old Town” patting flour and corn tortillas flat before putting them onto the large grill. There is also a huge rotisserie in one of the windows, with skewers of chicken and ribs slowly turning as they are transformed into succulent dishes.
The restaurant was established in 1977, making it one of the older eateries in the area. It occupies an old Safeway store but has grown and been transformed over the years. There are several distinct areas. The front of the building is divided by two long, dark and romantic bars, back to back, that run about half the length of the building. The area on the left has a faux-seaside look, with ocean views painted onto the walls. The area to the right has a faux-hacienda look, with an overhanging roof that looks like a porch exterior. Comfortable booths are located beneath the overhang. Minot Ferson, one of the two managers on duty, explained, “Safeway stores have very high ceilings. The overhang was created to give a greater sense of intimacy to the room.” Talented mariachis stroll through the restaurant, entertaining diners with cheerful Mexican songs. A driveway runs alongside the building which leads to a large parking lot for diners.
The back rooms are colorfully decorated with streamers and banners. It is like going to a party. The restaurant handles a large catering business and serves private parties. The capacity of the restaurant exceeds 400 guests.
Old Town Mexican Cafe has won numerous awards over the years for the excellence of its cuisine. The San Diego Restaurant Association has granted to it the Golden Medallion Award for four consecutive years. A leading local magazine has given it awards for ten years running.
Minot Ferson continued to explain why the restaurant is so successful. “We’re ‘old school’, with very authentic tastes,” he said. “Our cuisine style is from the Guadalajara region, not too spicy but, on the other hand, not bland. We use lard to give our dishes the kind of flavor that our customers grew up with.”
The kitchen is supervised by one of the owners, Herb Lizalde. His nephew, Matt Lizalde, was the second manager on duty. I was informed that the volume of the restaurant is so great, with so much food being prepared and served daily, that ingredients are always fresh.
Tequila is one of the featured items, as well as domestic and Mexican beers. There are over 60 tequilas available. Some of them are quite distinctive and rare. My server pointed out one brand that sells for $100 per shot. Several Mexican beers are available both in draft and on tap.
The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It stays open until 2 am for late night revelers. Dishes on the menu are marked as “a favorite” or “spicy but not too hot”. Breakfast items include Chorizo con Huevos (Mexican sausage and eggs) and Machaca con Huevos (shredded beef and eggs). For less adventurous diners, there is a Gringo Special (bacon, ham or sausage and eggs).
The lunch and dinner menus offer traditional tostada, enchilada, burrito and combination dishes. One may even create a combination of one’s own choosing. The house specialties- carnitas (pieces of pork), Mexican style ribs and pollo (chicken) are worth considering. They are served with condiments that include cilantro, onion, tomato and come with wonderful, handmade tortillas hot off the grill.
After enjoying a very flavorful peach margarita (this is a great drink to test the skill of the bartenders), I ordered the Old Town Pollo. The large ¸ chicken came right off the rotisserie. The skin of the chicken was coated with tasty spices and the skin was delightfully crispy. I quickly wrapped slices of the chicken, along with cilantro and tomato into a tortilla and enjoyed a fabulous “wrap.”
There may be a wait to get seated at Old Town Mexican Cafe but it is worth it! Prices are inexpensive to moderate. With all the action going on in the restaurant, the place is fun! The restaurant is located at 2489 San Diego Avenue. Call 619-297-4330 for information.
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© David Rottenberg, 2001, All Rights Reserved