Road to the Roadshow: Cafe Coyote

When I was researching our weekend in San Diego last June, the conventional wisdom on Old Town was this:

1. It's a tourist trap.

2. The Mexican food is shitty.

Second issue first. Our local restaurant critic recently summed up the Mexican Food Issue (MFI - this acronym seems to have such wide potential) succinctly: "Mexican food is like Chinese food, or pizza, or hot dogs in that the 'real' thing is what you grew up with and/or are used to eating, whether that stems from a region of Mexico or the Texas border or New Mexico or California or wherever."

Any time I hear people say BLAH BLAH REAL MEXICAN FOOD BLAH BLAH I just want to throw a sack of masa at their heads. Shut up. Shut the front door (up), even. (Okay, the freshmen are getting to me.)

Now, per the linked review, I think we can agree that while Velveeta-n-Tostitos are - technically if woefully - a subset of Mexican food, no one should be imagining a greasy paper dish of oily orange K-Mart nachos when someone says, "Let's get Mexican." However, all of the following can be acceptable forms of "Mexican" food:

  • Items with cheese on them. People have this crazy idea that real Mexican food doesn't have any cheese on it. No, it doesn't have imitation cheese food. Although, playing the odds here, I bet somewhere there is a Mexican family that has had to get imaginative with a Kraft Single at some time or another. Is their food not Mexican? Anyway, my grocery store is full of beautiful Mexican cheeses, so shut up.
  • Items cooked outside of Mexico. Cuisine, like syphilis and photons, travels. Shut up.
  • Items cooked outside of Mexico by non-Mexicans. Show Julia Child some respect. Did she, a California girl, not master French cooking? (Or think of Diana Kennedy, if you want to be more relevant.) Just because you are Mexican with a lifetime of eating Mexican food in Mexico doesn't mean that you know what's conventional or what's delicious. I know a number of awful cooks with limited meal planning vision and wacky never-seen-elsewhere signature dishes that I would hate to have representing the United States. Your birth certificate is not qualification enough. Shut up.
  • Tex-Mex. Cal-Mex. Mod-Mex. Fusion-hipsta-mex. Are these (again, subsets) traditional? No. But - much like every other country where Iron Chef is in reruns - regional cuisine adapts, transforms, reinvents itself... and that includes some acceptance if not embrance of what other cultures have done with one's dishes.Think Britain and curries and how you can get Chicken Tikka Masala in India.
  • Items from all regions of Mexico. Okay, you know how in the USA we have New York and Chicago-style pizza? And they are both "authentic"? This kind of cosmopolitan mindset actually also works outside of pizza and outside of the U.S. The enchiladas of region A in Mexico are as authentic as the enchiladas in region B. They are. Shut up.

What does this have to do with Old Town San Diego?

Well, like I said, when planning our trip I discovered that people are often harsh towards the (many) Mexican restaurants in Old Town. "Food for tourists who don't know 'real' Mexican" seems to be a common vibe.

Now, I could see being critical about prices or ranking these places below other area restaurants in terms of service/taste/selection/value, but it's just bull-crappio to dismiss the restaurants as if they're slinging the aforementioned Velveeta.

Let's talk about Cafe Coyote.

Cafe Coyote was so good that we went twice. The other places in Old Town may be great, but... mmm... Cafe Coyote!

Of course, I was just excited to go somewhere where my vegetarian options weren't "cheese enchilada," "quesadilla," or the very suspect "vegetarian fajitas." (Problematic etymology of "fajita" aside, I recently ordered veg fajitas at a place in Las Vegas that I'd usually call "solid but unremarkable." I expected zucchini, mushroom, that kind of thing. Instead, it was a hamster-bag of broccoli and cauliflower served with tortillas. Gross. Maybe it was "authentic," maybe it wasn't, but I have this strange thing about preferring flavour to pedigree. Oh, and then a few weeks later I ordered veggie enchiladas at another place and got... yeah. Should have asked first. I'm an idiot.)

By the way, when I moved to Nevada I was really happy to have three options. My fave "Mexican-owned, Mexican-proud" restaurant back in south Texas only offered vegetarians cheese enchiladas... made with cheddar. I'm just saying. (To shut up about the value of "authentic.")

Okay, so here is our view of the restaurant, walking from the Best Western to the main drag:

Hacienda Hotel Old Town - Short Hop to Old Town

We looked over the menu. I was sold when I saw some non-alcoholic drink (that I can't find on the menu right now) made with pineapple and... I forget what, but it was delicious. Look, here's a photo:

Cafe Coyote - Chips and Drinks

Nice chips. Pleasant, light salsa. (And normally I like a thick, salty salsa verde.)

I ordered the veggie combo.

Cafe Coyote - Veggie Combo

Okay, that's a cheese enchilada you see, but I like cheese enchiladas. (Shut up.) Also on the plate is a potato taco, black beans, a small salad, and a guacamole tostada.

When we went to Manzanillo, I had the first guacamole that I've ever liked in my life. This was the second. And the potato taco? Lightly seasoned, mouth-filling but not dense, and the corn tortilla - mwah!

Was it just like the one I had in Manzanillo? No, it was better. It was a little more subtle and interesting, and not as greasy. If it's terribly inauthentic of me to prefer that, then I say let's save the authenticity cheer squad for Old Master paintings, not tacos.

And the cheese quesadilla was a delicious mix of light Mexican cheeses (um, I'm not savvy enough to differentiate them) with a kind of roasted sauce.

Mike also had tacos, but I guess that photo didn't come out. To quote from his brief review on Yelp written back in the room that evening: "I ordered a taco trio - carne asada, carnitas and beef, First two mentioned came in incredible soft corn tortillas and were amazing beyond words. The crisp beef taco was a mistake, but only by comparison to the excellence of the others."

(Mike doesn't say why they were amazing. Sorry. The rest of his review has some specifics, but I will hang my head in shame on his behalf.)

We never got to dessert; not that time, not the next time, although the next time I did order a side of corn tortillas with butter. Mmmm. Here's the woman making them outside their cantina next door:

Cafe Coyote - Tortilla Mistress

We have Mexican supermarkets in Las Vegas, but every time I buy fresh corn tortillas they lose their taste by sundown. I think it's an ancient curse. Or food science.

I'm turning off comments for this post because I'm too fragile and dainty to deal with the eleven people who are going to write in and abuse me because...

  • They have no sense of sassy whimsy or hyperbole and think I'm really telling them to shut up.
  • They can't read and think I like Velveeta.
  • They can't read and think I'm claiming that food invented/popularized outside of Mexico comes from Mexico.
  • They just want to tell me how I could do better than Cafe Coyote when I know I could do better than CC because probably there is always a better place than wherever you're eating, but that doesn't change how much I personally enjoyed CC for the reasons described above.
  • They want to explain "real" Mexican cuisine to me... then proceed to describe some regional cooking style in Mexico as if it's the One True Mexican Way, completely ignoring the MFI.
  • They want me to sell my domain because they have a "better" use for it than "some personal blog." (These requests have died down in recent years, but I got one again just yesterday and may be a little snarky. I'm thinking that, unless the offer involves a number with a lot of zeroes before bumping into a decimal point, sales pitches premised on the "you should sell your land to me because I want to do something that I think is more interesting than your 15-year-old patch of creative expression" are just inherently flawed.)

I imagine that San Diego has countless knock-your-socks-off Mexican places of great variety. You could probably eat your way around the country without leaving town. But if you find yourself in Old Town and something on Cafe Coyote's menu appeals to you, go for it without shame. You may be amazed.

We have our next visit to San Diego already booked (for next year's cruise), and half of the planning seems to be whether to trek out to Old Town and eat at CC or eat by the hotel. If you know me and my hatred of California freeways, the fact that I'm undecided is huge praise for Cafe Coyote. No, no Mexican street corn or plantain empanadas (two things I've come to love at the more la-de-da joints in Las Vegas), but their offerings are still so delicious that, upon salivating reflection, I think I've just finished planning the San Diego trip.

02 December 2010 |

Previously: Well, Evelyn.
Next: The Earth Bride


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