Not too long ago I made a trip to San Diego for work. Since it was a work trip, I ended up staying in the Gaslamp Quarter with no car. Figuring that there were plenty of potential restaurants to choose from, I didn’t think I would need to leave. I tried a wide variety, some were good, some were just ok. Of course when my sister-in-law, Kara, who had lived in San Diego for 6 years, found out, I got in trouble. First, for not asking her where to go. And second for my non-glowing reviews of the two Mexican places I ate out. She made it clear to me that she did not want people to think that San Diego has bad food (it doesn’t…I had some glowing reviews), and that everyone knows you go to Old Town for Mexican. So, when I found myself back in San Diego over Thanksgiving, I told her it was her chance to prove to me that there were great places. After deliberating over some of her favorite places, she decided that we would head to Cafe Coyote.
On the way over Kara told me that Cafe Coyote was a pretty well known place in Old Town, and very popular. Turns out that they have occupied the same place in Old Town for the past 20 years, and has been voted the best Mexican restaurant 5 of the last 6 years (I think she was underselling it a little bit…). We walked in and sat down at a booth. The place wasn’t packed, but there was a pretty good crowd given that it was after 9 on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
We were all pretty hungry when we sat down, as it had been a long day. Kara knew exactly what she wanted to eat. Jennifer made a quick decision (she usually goes for enchiladas). I started to flip through the menu, taking my time to look at the different items, trying to pick out something good. When the first server stopped by to take our drink order I took the opportunity to get myself a beer, as did Jennifer. Kara, who had spent a good couple minutes debating between a beer and a Pepsi (both treats when she gets to go out without Kaelyn) ended up going with the Pepsi. After we placed our drink orders, I continued to look through the menu until Jennifer asked me to close it so the server would think we were ready. Bad habit I have…
Our drinks arrived fairly quickly, accompanied by a basket of chips and salsa. Then the server came by to take our dinner order. I still hadn’t decided what I wanted, so I asked him what the most popular thing was. He responded by asking if I wanted the most popular thing, or the more delicious thing as they are not the same. Naturally, I went for most delicious thing. He quickly brushed through the “traditional” items telling me I could get those at a Taco Del Mar, and went to the Coyote favorites stopping at the Polla a la Crema. He started to explain the dish in some detail, but had me almost right away with “Jalepeno Cream Sauce”. I was sold, and went with it. We also ordered some guacamole as an appetizer (shhh…don’t tell anyone but I’m starting to like guacamole…).
Once we had placed our order, we started into the salsa, and then the guacamole when it arrived, while just chatting and trying to avoid making eye contact with the mariachi band (they were actually quite loud, and not necessarily an addition to the ambiance). Both the salsa and the guacamole were simple, yet good. The salsa was very mild, with a strong, almost sweet flavor from the tomatoes, accented by a little onion, pepper, and cilantro. And the guacamole was nice and creamy with a bit of lime and cilantro. I would have preferred more tomato and a little onion in the guacamole, but it was definitely one of the better ones that I’d had.
Before we were able to finish the guacamole, the entrées arrived. I was hit instantly by the smell. It was a combination of the chicken that had been marinated and grilled with the warm cream sauce and the fresh, hand made flour tortillas (this was the first place I’d ever been to that did this). My mouth was watering as I dove in. The server was right, it was delicious. The chicken was cooked wonderfully, nice a juicy. And the cream sauce was actually a little bit lighter than I had expected. Everything was tied together nicely with a little bit of acidity from lime in the marinade, and a bit of heat from the jalapeño in the cream sauce. I took a couple more bits before remembering that there were fresh flour tortillas sitting there. I grabbed one, dipped it into the sauce, and took a bite. They were absolutely wonderful; a consistency that was a bit lighter than naan or pita, but definitely thicker, and fluffier than what you get at the store. From that point on, my fork was simply a conduit to scoop generous amounts of chicken, rice and cream sauce into the tortillas.
I finished my dinner completely satisfied. I’m pretty sure that at one point between bites, I told Kara she was right, that the food was much better than what I had in the Gaslamp Quarter. And she can rest assured that I think that San Diego has at least one excellent Mexican restaurant. It might be a little big and a little touristy, but if you take the time to ask about the menu, you can come up with some absolute gems. And the handmade tortillas with some salsa alone are enough to make me want to go back, or at least swing by on our way to somewhere else.