When considering Mexican cuisine in San Diego, the usual suspects spring to mind…
California burritos as big as one’s forearm, stuffed with carne asada, French fries, and Spanish rice from one of the local ‘berto’s taco shops. The gloppy enchiladas served in Old Town—smothered beneath cloying layers of bright red sauce and clotted Jack cheese. Or the occasional import from nearby Baja California, like the Ensenada style fish taco. Or a growing number of taquerias that specialize in birria de res–spiced and stewed beef–a Tijuana staple.
But finding Mexican food within central San Diego with origins from deeper within Mexico isn’t easy. “My dream has always been to introduce San Diego to the roots of Mexican cooking,” Chef Jose Flores, executive chef of restaurant Cocina de Barrio shares. “Our food is from central and southern Mexico, with an emphasis on the gastronomy of ancestral Oaxaca.”
Flores was born in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and moved to San Diego at age 20. He graduated from the California Culinary Academy in 1999 and has since plied his trade at local Italian restaurants such as Solare at Liberty Station and Civico 1845 in Little Italy. Cocina de Barrio, whose first location opened in Hillcrest in 2019, is the chef’s first foray into the food of his native country.
Both the Hillcrest and Point Loma locations are decidedly casual and feature welcoming dining rooms decorated in wood, Mexican tile, colorful murals, vertical gardens, and Instagrammable neon niches. Both have spacious and airy outdoor patios. You won’t find oversized sombreros on the wall or the typical Mexican blanket atop tables. The interior motifs are culturally inspired and not at all kitsch, as at so many local Mexican spots. The bar offers a decent list of tequilas, mezcals, and craft cocktails as well as craft beers and wines from Baja California.
The chef’s signature dish is a Oaxacan tlayuda. A large, crisp corn tortilla topped with refried beans, quesillo (string cheese), and smoky chorizo Itsmeno or birria de res. We chose the chorizo. As we ordered during the Point Loma location’s daily brunch, the tlayuda was served with two sunny side up eggs. I’ve had tlayudas in Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, but never in San Diego. Cocina de Barrio’s version was equally authentic and delicious.
During our visit to the Hillcrest location, I was surprised to see Caldo de Piedra (stone soup) on the menu. This pre-Hispanic dish from Oaxaca is a broth of fish, onion, chili, tomato, cilantro, and epazote. Cocina de Barrio add shrimp and clams to the classic. To warm the soup, the indigenous Chinantec placed hot stones, straight from the fire, into a bowl containing the ingredients. At Cocina de Barrio, caldo de piedra is prepared tableside. But with the hot stones placed in the bowl first and then the broth poured over them. “It’s not traditional but we don’t want the stones to splash soup onto our diners,” Flores confides. Good call. The caldo is satisfying, flavorful, and herbaceous from the addition of epazote.
Moles–Mexican sauces of nuts, herbs, chiles, spices, burnt vegetables, cacao, and other ingredients–are ground and made in-house. We enjoyed quesadillas of huitlacoche (corn smut) served in a luxuriant bath of profoundly deep, spicy and rich mole negro. Salmon in mole amarillo and chicken in flavorsome mole coloradito are also on offer. During our visit, their new mixologist was experimenting with mole-based cocktails.
Traditional dishes of meat and seafood appetizers and entrees are featured on the Dinner Menu. Pro tip: The pulpo a la brasa (grilled octopus) in mole coloradito pairs perfectly with a glass of Viñedos de la Reina Pinot Noir from the Baja California. There are also several plant-based options. We ordered flor de calabasa (squash flowers) stuffed with satisfying cashew “cheese” and lightly fried. Served with house-made corn tortillas embedded with a leaf of shiso—which adds a hint of citrus, basil, and mint.
To satisfy fans of midday comida, brunch is available daily from 10AM – 3PM in Point Loma, and from 10AM-3PM Saturday, and 10AM-5PM Sunday in Hillcrest. It’s only during brunch that the fare takes a slight turn north of the border. California and Santa Fe omelets are more familiar territory for most San Diego diners than the ancestral Mexican plates. Pancakes are based on Mexican flavors, such as arroz con leche pancakes made and topped with cinnamon-spiced milk and rice.
Our favorite traditional brunch plates were chilaquiles verdes (tortilla chips in green salsa). They’re served on a bed of refried black beans and heaped with braised birria de res, braised for 10 hours. The dish is finished with watermelon radish, pickled onions, cilantro, and a sprinkle of cotija cheese. Other traditional dishes include costillas (pork ribs) in salsa verde, and the decadent sopes benny. Fried corn cakes with beans, lamb birria, and poached eggs layered with a pillowy, creamy blanket of chipotle hollandaise.
It’s no longer necessary to travel to central and southern Mexico for a taste of its regional cuisines. Cocina del Barrio is in our backyard and its fare will win over even the most insisting Mexican gourmand. Like me.
PRICE: Dinner: Appetizers range from $10-$18, entrees from $26-$32. Brunch: All dishes range from $8.50-$24.95. A children’s menu is also available.
LOCATION: Hillcrest: 3707 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA 92104, (619) 677-2770. Point Loma: 3924 W Pointe Loma Blvd, San Diego, CA 92110, (619) 222-6600. Website: www.eatcocinadebarrio.com.
DISCLAIMER: After visiting Cocina de Barrio in Hillcrest as very happy paying diners, we were invited to the Point Loma location by chef Flores to taste the brunch menu as his guests. No other compensation was offered or accepted for this review and all opinions remain steadfastly our own.