LaVerneOnline’s Top 10 Mexican Restaurants in SoCal — Now That We’ve Spilled the Beans, Tell Us Your Favorites

September 8, 2009
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President Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant.

President Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant.

By Peter Bennett

Every time I have guests in town, especially from the wrong coast, they want to sample SoCal’s famous Mexican cuisine. Depending on where an outing takes us — from Santa Barbara to San Diego — I can usually rely on one of these Mexican restaurants to provide a delicious meal or a scenic setting — and sometimes both. Here’s this Angeleno’s top 10 picks:




1. Baja Fish Tacos, Laguna Hills

Baja Fish Tacos has three locations, but I’m only familiar with the one in Laguna Hills, where I practically ate every day for two years. When the company I worked for went Chapter 11, I didn’t cry about losing my job, only that I would no longer be lunching regularly at Baja Fish Tacos, where all the food is fresh and flavorful. Order either the blackened fish taco or charbroiled fish burrito and load them up with Baja Fish’s signature salsas. To this day, whenever I get a chance to drop in, I feel healthier after having cleaned my plate than when I walked in to order. Healthy Mexican food. It’s almost an oxymoron. The rice and beans are always perfect. 23020 Forest Hills Dr., #130, Laguna Hills, (949) 587-0920.

2. Freebirds World Burrito, Isla Vista, block from UCSB campus

It’s not enough that Paul Orfalea made millions founding Kinko’s in Isla Vista next to the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, but he and Paul Dube also founded Freebirds in the same hood. There’s been a line of people ordering their burritos cafeteria style ever since. Customers customize their meal by choosing burrito size and tortilla type, then start choosing fillings from a selection of meats, cheeses, beans, vegetables and sauces. Chipotle does something similar, but the burritos just taste earthier and more authentic here. I think if Freebirds were ever to close, UC Santa Barbara students would boycott class. 879 Embarcadero Del Norte, Isla Vista, Phone: (805) 968-0123

3. La Super Rica Taqueria, Santa Barbara

I actually discovered this taqueria long before I found out about Freebirds. There’s no pretense or white tablecloths in sight, just a long line of people who like their tacos simple and delicious. I’m told Julia Child was a fan. Sometimes, can’t decide if it’s the experience or the eating I like more. Eating overpriced, but delicious small tacos under a canvass with curling vines and chatting people is chill and so SB. 622 N. Milpas St, Santa Barbara, Phone: (805) 963-4940. Milpas is the poor sister of State Street.

4. Pizza Barn, La Verne

Mario, Pizza Barn’s longtime owner, says he invented Taco Tuesdays in La Verne. He also invented the Ultimate Sandwich, so for who’s going to argue, especially after a couple of cold ones? It’s definitely worth a stop on a Tuesday, especially knowing the work week still has three days to go and Monday Night football has come and gone. And you can’t beat the prices, $1.50 per taco, plus $2 Coronas. 2021 Foothill Blvd, La Verne, (909) 392-5555.

Another scoop: El Merendero (1910 Fairplex Dr La Verne, (909) 593-7078).To tell you the truth, I just order the restaurant’s refried beans ($6) and go home and make bean burritos for anyone who’s home, adding my own onions and sauerkraut, believe it or not. Make sure the cashier throws in the salsa. Nothing worse than arriving home to find it missing. Only thing worse would be spilling the beans. Close to Fairplex and the NHRA crowd.

5. Mijares, Pasadena

Every time my wife would have a baby at Huntington Hospital, I would celebrate by wandering over to Mijares Mexican Restaurant. It was a perfect excuse to drink good margaritas and eat honest Mexican food. It’s become a Pasadena institution. There’s an easy neighborhood feel about the place that makes you feel like you belong, whether you do or not. The Beatle Paul McCartney digs this place. 145 Palmetto Dr., Pasadena, (626) 792-2763


6. Las Brisas, Laguna Beach


Las Brisas makes the list if only because its location offers breathtaking views of the Pacific. The real scene is on the patio, which doesn’t take reservations, but just hanging out waiting for a table will delay the sticker shock of paying $10 for your margarita. The garden is surrounded with palms and tropical flowers, and a natural path leads to a white-sand rocky beach below, where you never know what you’ll find. The day I made the walk, I encountered members of the Yoga Laugh Club (Haw, haw, haw!) Good food and romance, that’s a 2-for-1 special in anybody’s book. 361 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach (949) 497-5434


7. Olamendi’s, Capistrano Beach, south of Dana Point


Big menu, big selections. With the Pacific just across the street, the food always seems to taste better. The salmon-colored beachside roadhouse was President Nixon’s favorite. It’s been around that long, so that’s some kind of endorsement. 34660 Pacific Coast Hwy. Capistrano Beach, CA 92624 Phone: (949)661-1005


8. Las Olas, Cardiff by the Sea


Let everybody else surf while you munch down a couple of fish tacos in this fun, festive place that characterizes the North San Diego County vibe better than just about any other place along the coast. 2655 S Highway 101, Cardiff By Sea, CA 92007-2112, (760) 942-1860


9. Fidel’s, Solana Beach


Although Fidel’s is less than a mile north of Del Mar Race Track and seems a block long, it’s actually a hard-to-find hangout, which in a weird way adds to its exclusivity. Grab the happy hour specials between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the bar or have dinner on the lantern-lit patio. My charbroiled fish taco and one margarita hit the spot. If I hadn’t been driving, I’m sure I would have inhaled a couple more margaritas. Right next door is Tony’s Jackal, which some old-timers swear is better than Fidel’s. I’ll have to wait for my next visit to Del Mar to find out. 607 Valley Ave, Solana Beach, (858) 755-5292


Fred’s Mexican Café, Pacific Beach, San Diego

This is the flagship. I know they have other locations in Huntington Beach, downtown San Diego, etc, and a fancy website, but they can’t duplicate the original. Not sure what happened. Have had many happy occasions here, just not happy that they expanded. Something was lost in translation. If I’m on Garnet, and don’t feel like getting out of my car, I’ll drive through Santana’s (2303 Garnet Ave, San Diego, CA 92109-3715, (858) 483-1227) and order the carne asada burrito for the drive back to Los Angeles.


There you have it. LaVerneOnline’s 10 favorite Mexican restaurants from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

One Response to “LaVerneOnline’s Top 10 Mexican Restaurants in SoCal — Now That We’ve Spilled the Beans, Tell Us Your Favorites”

  1. Peter, Peter, Peter…

    I know that the competition is stiff (from SB to SD!!), but I would still put La Verne’s own La Paloma on my list… in fact it would be right at the top!! Great food, huge portions, friendly service, convenient location… what more can you ask for? When I want something simple but filling, I go for their machaca… when I want to luxuriate, I go for the camarones al cilantro… and there a wide range of choices in between!! La Paloma has been my favorite area restaurant for 28 years and shows no sign of slowing down!

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