San Diego Bay Restaurant
Jackie Mercandetti
Anyone who's spent time in Mexico knows that the food there isn't what we're used to seeing on our chain restaurant menus around town. All it takes is a four-hour drive to Puerto Peasco to discover that authentic-style Mexican food is lighter, more crisply flavored than we might expect, and highly reliant on fresh herbs, spices and vegetables. There's also a lot more seafood than just fish tacos.

A faster way to figure this out is to visit our favorite local taste of Mexico, San Diego Bay.

Don't expect ambiance -- there isn't any. But we don't care, not when we're contemplating Pescado Veracruzano, a Mexican specialty that indulges moist red snapper with a luscious coat of tomatoes, onions, chiles, capers and olives. Or when we slide that first joyous bite of camarones verdes past our lips. Food doesn't get much better than this, with shrimp tossed in sour cream, coriander, small green tomatoes, jalapeos, garlic and onion, sautéed in butter and covered in cheese. These spices sing like an opera.

For a true south-of-the-border fiesta, San Diego Bay's the real thing.

Readers' Choice for Best Mexican Restaurant: Macayo

Sometimes we crave a good meal but don't want to put up with overly chipper waiters, bright interiors and hostesses telling us to have a nice night.

That's when we head to Hacienda Mexican Restaurant and the tiny taco stand hunkered in the shadows outside the kitchen door. The cart's an extension of the sit-down, full-menu restaurant, but operates only at night. We grab our food, climb in our truck bed and stretch out under the stars for a private, late-night feast.

Here, the cinema of life plays around us without invading our personal space. Low riders without mufflers rumble by, thump-thumping with rocket-powered radios. Headlights bounce off the corrugated metal wall flanking the restaurant, illuminating the shadowy creep of a street citizen just a few feet away.

Every night except Monday, as soon as dusk falls, the taco-hungry masses converge until the stand shuts down at midnight. Like us, they're here for wonderful charro beans (spunky with spice, bacon fat and veggies) and the wallet-friendly tacos. For just $1.25 each, the corn tortilla parcels include shredded, onion-stabbed pork adobada; carne asada; lengua (tongue); and cabeza (head meat). Everything is fresh, topped with splashes of red or green hot sauce, spoonfuls of puréed avocado and salted radishes.

Tacos De Juarez
Kyle Lamb
At Tacos de Juarez, the cooks stuff their soft tacos with generous portions of mild-mannered tripes de leche (chunks of beef small intestines), pork, cabeza (beef cheek), carne asada and chicken. Hard tacos -- slicked with just enough oil to leave the slightest sheen on our fingers -- are crunchy vessels for moist carne desebrada (shredded beef), chicken and carne molida con papas (ground beef and potatoes), draped with Cheddar. Add the extras like crisp radish coins and fresh shredded lettuce, or sides of pico de gallo, electric green sauce and fiery red sauce.

Don't be swayed by the run-down exterior of the restaurant, partly hidden by a bus station for people traveling to Mexico. And just step over those folks stretched out on the sidewalk or in the parking lot behind the building.

Inside you'll find a bright and comfortable dining room packed with a workday lunch crowd that often includes a table of sheriff's deputies, a booth or two of City Hall staffers, and other taco aficionados.

Ordinarily, the prospect of paying $12.50 for a single taco would be enough to send even the most ardent Mexican-food lover into, well, shell shock.

But that's before beholding Golden Swan's majestic model, a saffron-infused corn tortilla about the size of a tea saucer. Presented on a bed of creamy corn spritzed with yellow and red pepper oil, the pricey gem is stuffed with two moist and meaty lobster cakes. To the side rests a crisp chayote slaw of jicama, carrot and zucchini in a cumin-spiked sweet vinaigrette.

Washed down with imported Panna water from Italy (go figure), this tony take on the lowly taco is enough to render a certain talking Chihuahua speechless.

Rosa's Mexican Grill
Kyle Lamb
More than just a side dish, frijoles are the glue that holds a dish together. They're the heart of a truly good Mexican meal.

What's an enchilada, after all, without soft, gloppy beans to mix into the cheesy sauce between bites? Fish can be the finest, but it soars to new levels when tucked into a bean-smeared tear of tortilla. And what would we do with the leftover shards of hard taco shell if we didn't have a gentle pool of refrieds in which to dip?

Rosa's loves beans, and it shows. Banish any thoughts of what other restaurants might fake as frijoles -- those sad, dried-out clumps that taste like, well, sad, dried-out clumps. No, Rosa's lard-free refrieds are gloriously soupy, indulgently oil-kissed, and smooth, studded with just enough whole beans for toothsome pleasure.

Don't know beans about frijoles? Just be glad Rosa does.

This small enterprise features a constantly evolving repertoire of Mediterranean flavors that provide a mischievous zing to our Southwestern staples. Everything, from the crusty, baked-on-site breads nestled in a painted wooden box with ramekins of dips, to the signature prickly pear tiramisu, is a work of art.

Ordering is always intriguing. Will it be baklava with nubbins of plump rabbit, fig, quail egg and pine nuts? Or eggplant tacos with lamb, arugula, cucumber radish and Kasseri cheese in roasted tomato garlic sauce?

Perhaps charbroiled beef tenderloin in sun-dried cherry barbecue sauce plus green chile stuffed with butternut squash, smoked bacon and provolone cheese? Or salmon, grilled with achiote seed in morel and baby clam sauce with crayfish-corn risotto?

Medizona's chef-owner, Lenard Rubin, gave up a comfortable resort kitchen career to open his dream restaurant, and it's sure paid off.

Medizona opened to rave reviews and continues to draw a steady crowd. And, with just 13 tables, reservations are a must.

Readers' Choice: Bahama Breeze and Voo Doo Daddy (tie)

So how do you entertain an out-of-town "foodie," that live-to-eat restaurant buff who wants to sample our city's edgiest cuisine?

If you're lucky, you secure a reservation at Gregory's, where chef-owner Gregory Casale has put together a menu that takes world cuisine on a whirl. Ginger and lemongrass-cured albacore tuna (Thai) shares the pages with mussels vindaloo and naan bread (Indian), monkfish tajine with preserved lemons (Moroccan), and pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras in a sweet potato tart (French). If his pumpkin Israeli couscous soup is available, you'll swoon over the rich garlic chicken broth.

The wine list is all-out global boutique, a short list that tempts us with unfamiliar-to-most-folks grape blends we love after the first sip. It's difficult to find these wines anywhere else, and there's no shame in asking the chef's advice on the perfect pairings.

Trust us: Even the most jaded foodie will eat Gregory's up.

Bistro 24
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it sure feels special when we lounge in Bistro 24's gold-and-green-striped silk booths, taking in country French accent pieces, sophisticated artwork and peeks at Valley glitterati sucking down $7.50 French press coffee.

This is where the lords and leaders of our economic, political and social scene come for designer dishes like Bicher muesli, steel cut oatmeal brûlée, duck hash and chocolate brioche French toast.

It's better to move and shake on a full belly, after all.

There's just something so civilized about a continental breakfast. It makes us want to toss on a long silk robe, tuck our tootsies into monogrammed slippers and snap open an Important International Newspaper to read while we nibble.

Unfortunately, our bathrobe is coffee-stained terrycloth, our dog ate our slippers, and we don't subscribe to any papers without a comic section.

So instead, we get dressed and head over to Pierre's.

Breakfast starts off with steaming, fresh-brewed French roast coffee or just-squeezed lemonade, orange juice or sparkling apple juice. Handcrafted pastries flaunt fresh cream and real butter, and weigh in at the size of small sofa cushions. Our favorite is Pierre's lemon brioche, topped with terrifically tart lemon preserve and powdered sugar. The dough is buttery, billowy and positively bursting with mind-blowing poppy-seed-studded cheese.

Who needs Tiffany's when you've got breakfast at Pierre's?

Best Place for a Grease-Soaked Hangover Breakfast

Bill Johnson's Big Apple

Bill Johnson's Big Apple
Your head feels like it's going to wrench itself violently from your body. Your stomach's threatening to eject its contents all over your shoes. You shouldn't have had that last drink.

Now, you need grease. The kind of good, old-fashioned, fatty, dripping grease served at Bill Johnson's to coat your stomach.

The Big Apple means big breakfasts, served country style in a setting so casual it doesn't matter that you look like you've been dragged behind a truck all the way to the restaurant. It's kind of dark, to soothe your bloodshot eyes. It's big enough that you can usually find a quiet corner for your pounding head.

Fill up on country ham, chicken-fried steak, bacon, sausage, T-bone or pork chops with eggs. Sweet-talk your stomach with three-egg omelets, blueberry pancakes and French toast (six massive slabs topped with nutmeg and cinnamon). If you've been really bad, stuff yourself with the Wrangler -- a full order of French toast, two eggs, a hefty ham slab, four slices of bacon or two saucer-size sausage patties.

After all, you've got to get your strength up so you can go out again tonight.

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