Mexican food in San Diego, always a challenge unless you want tacos or burritos. In the last 5 days I’ve had the opportunity to eat at 2 of SDs newer modern-Mex places. Neither was a very satisfying meal.
No expense was spared on interior design or ambiance at either Red O in La Jolla or El Jardin in Liberty Station. Both are lovely, comfortable spaces conducive to dining. The massive chandelier in the main dining room at Red O is impressive, but the room feels more Moroccan than Mexican. And anyone who has spent time in Guadalajara will recognize the furnishings and feel right at home at El Jardin.
The cocktail menus at both places are well thought out with the usual Mexican cocktail suspects and some interesting crafted cocktails. The watermelon margarita at Red O went down way too easy and was quite refreshing. El Jardin is making their own tepache (a lightly fermented beverage made from pineapple peels) and using it in an equally refreshing cooler that, thankfully, was not too sweet. El Jardin also has a wide selection of mezcals and tequilas that they serve in minuscule portions at high prices. Not to be outdone, Red O offers a $50 margarita…and in La Jolla I’m sure they have a market for them.
So you may have noticed I’ve talked about the decor and the beverage list with nary a mention of the food. Well, that’s because the food at both places left a great deal to be desired. Out of 9 dishes between 2 restaurants, only 1 dish - ONE DISH - fired on all pistons. That was a lovely plate of crispy, very crispy, shrimp at El Jardin. They were seasoned well and crisp enough that you could eat them shell and all. Best dish at either restaurant.
The tuna tostada starter at Red O was okay, but the tuna was swimming in a rather thin, flavorless mayo based dressing. Not good, not bad. The sopes with pork belly were cute little thimbles of fried masa, but if the filling was pork belly it defied identification as it was overpowered by whatever the chile sauce was on it. Once again not good, not bad.
El Jardin really needs to rethink the corunda, the pyramid shaped tamal of Michoacan. What we we got was a flat, pancake of a tamal that was dense with conflicting flavor profiles. The bone marrow with crispy octopus came out with a bone lacking much marrow and we had to really search to find the octopus bits, and bits they were, being almost the size of a pinky finger fingernail. Great presentation, not so great execution.
At Red O we each ordered enchiladas as the entree. Each plate showed up buried in melted cheese, which really did overwhelm everything underneath it. Heavy, heavy, heavy, if we had finished more than 1/3 of our plates it could have nailed us to the banquette for a week.
Entrees at El Jardin were better, but not well executed. Chilorio is a specialty of Sonora and Sinaloa and rarely seen in SD. It’s easy to make and generally a crowd pleaser. It’s made very similarly to carnitas but instead of letting the pork pieces fry and get crispy, an ancho based chile sauce is stirred in to finish. What we got was a nice little Staub casserole dish of pulled pork that appeared to be devoid of anything remotely resembling an ancho chile sauce. The beans on the side were crunchy and the rice gluey. The beef belly chicharron and tongue dish was not good, but it wasn’t bad, or as the person who ate it said “it could have been a plate of pot roast” it was that indistinct.
Nothing on the dessert menu at either restaurant enticed my sweet tooth enough to order.
So there you have it. Red O and El Jardin were both major disappointments. To be fair, I was at El Jardin on opening night. The kitchen, clearly, was having some execution issues. The beans should never have been plated as they were seriously undercooked, but at least they’re trying to do beans from scratch instead of opening a can. I do expect El Jardin to improve as they settle into their regular business routines and the kitchen staff gets into their flow. There is no excuse for Red O, mediocrity at La Jolla real estate prices. I’d go back for drinks because their bar and outside terrace are beautiful, but there are so many better restaurants in La Jolla that I’d plan to eat somewhere else.
Still searching for modern Mex in San Diego…