During our trip to San Diego earlier this year, my wife wanted to visit the Old Town State Park, the first European settlement in the area dating back to 1769. Many of the buildings in the park are replicas of buildings from dating back anywhere from the 1820's to 1870's. Many of the buildings are of traditional Mexican architecture, but there are also a number of buildings that feature historical Western U.S. styles of designs. It turns out that Old Town is the most visited state park in California, but the area is also somewhat of a tourist trap. There's a number of shops and restaurants in Old Town, some of the shops were the type where we walked in and immediately wanted to get out of the place.
It was in the afternoon when we were there and we wanted to get something to eat for lunch. We decided on Mexican food, but there were two restaurants that were close to one another and we couldn't really make up our minds which one to go to. The first one - Cafe Coyote - had a lady out in front making fresh tortillas. The second one - Old Town Mexican Cafe - had a sign that said they were the original handmade tortilla restaurant in Old Town. We thought, "Hey, let's do our own little taste test and get street tacos at both places!"
We decided to give Old Town Mexican Cafe the first try. (see map) Bob Estrada, Herb Lizalde, and J.D. Dahlin are the longtime owners of the Old Town Mexican Cafe which opened over 33 years ago. Old Town Mexican Cafe is somewhat famous in the area for their tequila dinners once every two or three months that showcases different tequilas pared with foods.
Entering Old Town Mexican Cafe, we found a large bar area with a dining room just over a half wall. It was around 2 p.m. when we walked in and the place was pretty full.
To the right of the hostess stand was a lady making tortillas on a flat grill. We first had our handmade tortillas in California years ago and we're big believers in the taste of a good fresh corn tortilla.
We were seated in the colorful patio dining room off to the side of the main dining/bar area. This area also had a bar and a number of tables and booths. We were given menus and we both ordered a margarita to get things going.
The food on the menu at Old Town Mexican Cafe is your typical fare - of course there are tacos, but they have enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas and a whole slew of appetizers including a chorizo queso, a spicy shrimp appetizer and a braised beef rib appetizer.
But we were there for the tacos. We decided to order a couple carne asada street-style tacos - Mexican-style with chopped fresh cilantro and onions. They came with a chile verde salsa and, somewhat to our surprise, a side of refried beans.
The other tacos we got were a pork carnitas and a shredded beef taco where the tortilla shells were deep fried tortillas, thicker and not as pliable as the other tacos. They were much larger than the carne asada tacos and I knew that our street taco shoot-out would be finished before we got to Cafe Coyote if we ate all we had on the plates.
The carne asada tacos were very good. The meat was tender and had a little crust on the outside of the steak. The tortillas had that wonderful freshly made taste quality.
I'm not certain that I liked the thicker tacos as much as the fresh grilled tortillas. The shredded beef was sort of bland, but tender. The carnitas were also good, but not the kind of taste sensation I was looking for. We were careful to sample all the tacos without overeating. We killed off the carne asada tacos as the fresh grilled tortilla shells were just outstanding.
We walked around for about an hour looking at things in Old Town San Diego before we headed over to Cafe Coyote. (see map) Out in front of the place was a lady making tortilla shells along the sidewalk. The smell of the cooking tortilla shells was heavenly.
The people behind Cafe Coyote are Lehn Goetz and her husband, Richard. Richard Goetz grew up in New York City and ended up in San Diego as a Vietnam vet and a Naval Officer. After working for five years in an investment firm, Goetz started his own firm and one of his first investments was purchasing the building that now houses Cafe Coyote. The building was part of the struggling south end of Old Town and had been going through a two-year foreclosure. Goetz purchased the property in the fall of 1988. Less than year later, Goetz and his soon-to-be wife Lehn opened Cafe Coyote in a small space in the building that seated just 70 people.
Lehn Goetz recognized the potential of the south end of Old Town San Diego and in addition to running the restaurant she spearheaded marketing efforts for bringing more people to their business and other businesses in the immediate area. She was one of the founding members of the Business Improvement District for the south end of Old Town.
Richard Goetz no longer is involved with the day-to-day business at Cafe Coyote, but Lehn Goetz continues to run the restaurant which has grown ten-fold in the restaurant. There are two floors of the restaurant including an outdoor patio area in between two of the buildings.
We were seated in the cantina area of the restaurant and was greeted by our server Ramon. They had an impressive selection of tequila at Cafe Coyote featuring over 100 different types on hand. Cafe Coyote claims that more tequila is sold in the Old Town area of San Diego than any other place in the world. On Thursday evenings, Cafe Coyote also has tequila ambassadors that answer questions and make suggestions of what tequilas to try. Cindy ordered a gold margarita and I went with a Dos Equis Ambar as we looked through the menu.
Ramon came back with the drinks and he said, "You know, happy hour starts in about 10 minutes. I'll start it early for you folks." That was nice of him!
Part of the happy hour specials were an assortment of tacos - carne asada, shredded beef, carnitas, al pastor, shrimp, fish and even potato tacos. And that was perfect with us. Most of the tacos were priced at $4.50 each if you bought them ala carte ($4.95 for the carne asada and shrimp tacos), but they were two bucks each (three bucks for the shrimp and fish tacos) during happy hour.
We ended up getting a carne asada taco along with a shredded beef and a carnitas taco. The carne asada didn't have the crunchy outer edge at Cafe Coyote compared to what we experienced at Old Town Mexican Cafe. However, the carnitas had a wonderful taste - moist, tender and flavorful, they were fabulous. And the spices that they cooked the shredded beef in were more pronounced and flavorful than what we had at Old Town Mexican Cafe. The shredded beef was also moist and tender and really stood out on the taste buds.
However, we thought the fresh tortillas at Old Town Mexican Cafe had an edge in taste and texture above the ones we had at Cafe Coyote. The tortillas at Cafe Coyote cracked and fell apart while we were tasting them. They seemed a little more dry and over-cooked compared to the ones at the Old Town Mexican Cafe.
OK - so in the great Old Town San Diego street taco shoot-out of 2015, my wife liked the carne asada at Old Town Mexican Cafe better than the one we had at Cafe Coyote. But we both thought the shredded beef and the carnitas tacos were better than the ones we had earlier at Old Town Mexican Cafe. However, we thought the fresh made tortillas were better at Old Town Mexican Cafe than the ones we had at Cafe Coyote. We agreed that if they could get the tortillas from Old Town Mexican Cafe to go along with the carnitas and shredded beef from Cafe Coyote, and then get the carne asada tacos from Old Town Mexican Cafe, it would have been a perfect street taco outing. Quite honestly, I'm not certain that you could go wrong with either place. They were serviceable Mexican restaurants - not the best we've experienced, but worth the stop if you're in Old Town San Diego.