Why is it no surprise that there are so many great Mexican food restaurants in California? Because the Sunshine state was once part of Mexico and has retained its Spanish heritage ever since.
From the north of the state right down to the border, there is a bounty of delicious Mexican menus to choose from. Complex dishes such as Enchiladas con Mole Negro and Quesadilla Roja con Chicharrones are as equally flavorful as the more simply prepared Carne Asada burritos and Baja-style fish tacos.
But what makes all of these savory foods stand out is the passion each place shows for their native cuisine. From fresh, homemade tortillas to fresh squeezed lime Margaritas, the following restaurants carefully prepare each individual serving and drink to offer what we consider the 10 best Mexican food restaurants in California.
10. Tropisueño, San Francisco
Best Combo Plate: Tacos, Margaritas and Friends
Grab your friends after work and head down to the Embarcadero for some of the best Margarita’s in the city. A taquería by day and a Mexican restaurant by night, Tropisueño offers authentic cuisine with fresh ingredients sourced from the Bay area. Some dishes are so popular, they are prepared three times a day.
The interior decor is festive, fun and welcoming – a perfect setting for a great night out with friends. With awesome food and excellent Margaritas, Tropisueño is the Mexican eatery you’ve been daydreaming about while pretending to work at your desk.
9. La Vecindad Neighborhood Tacos, San Diego
Festive Taco Tuesday for the Entire Family
Located on bustling 5th Ave in Hillcrest, the newly opened La Vecindad is quickly becoming THE neighborhood spot for fun, delicious Mexican meals made from the owner’s family’s recipes. Known for their “Taco Tuesdays” (2 tacos for $5, normally $3.75 each), Vecindad’s long lines might seem intimidating at first but move fast.
Order from the extensive taco menu (all tortillas are handmade) which also includes their “Taco’s Relatives” – crispy Tostadas; Quesadillas filled with Oaxaca cheese; and Rice Bowls overflowing with either chicken or steak. Bright and lively, La Vecindad’s fun picnic tables are a ‘fresh-Mex’ take on communal dining with your neighbors.
8. Nopalito, San Francisco
Organic Mexican Cuisine Artfully Presented
Call ahead to be put on a waitlist for this busy Inner Sunset, Mexican kitchen as Nopalito says “No” to reservations. Focusing on quality organic ingredients, (there is a blooming garden on their patio), this modern take on a traditional Mexican restaurant strives to serve meals you won’t feel guilty about. Did someone say Gluten-Free?
While people love Nopalito’s ‘Totopos con Chile’, they also praise the ‘Quesadilla Roja con Chicharrones’. Crispy and stuffed with house-made chicharrones, shredded pork, cheese and more, this delicious dish will have you repeatedly calling in advance to be waitlisted for the chance to try the rest of their haute, artful, Mexican cuisine.
7. Lilly’s Tacos, Santa Barbara
Killer Taco Stand That Never Disappoints
This small, family-owned taquería in Goleta has the locals lining up for days. Fresh, fast and traditionally cooked Mexican tacos are their focus and with high quality, moist meat, fresh cheese and great beans, Lilly’s Tacos does them right.
Whether you’re craving Al Pastor, Carne Asada or crispy Fish Tacos, Lilly’s does not disappoint. If you are looking for more exotic fare search no further: Line up, order their signature beef cheek, beef tongue or beef eyeballs tacos and then grab your plastic plates and cutlery and chow down.
6. Oscar’s Mexican Seafood, San Diego
Best Beachside Smoked Fish Tacos
Oscar’s now has four locations and they still can’t satisfy all of their loyal fans. While the lines are always long, Oscar’s smoked fish tacos are always worth waiting for.
Along with fresh and flavorful chopped ceviche, Oscar’s grilled fish tacos have been known to make a bad day turn around. Try the Marlin, Mahi Mahi or Shrimp tacos while tanning outside in the sun, enjoying the waves breaking right in front of you.
5. La Taquería, San Francisco
The Original, Mission Style Burrito
No burrito in California is better known than the original, ‘Mission Style Burrito’, from La Taquería in San Francisco. While La Taqueria’s super fresh tacos win the restaurant many accolades, it is their rice-free, perfectly cooked, Carne Asada burritos that have been keeping the locals and tourists coming back for decades.
When you go, be sure to act like a local and order your taco, quesadilla or burrito “Dorado Style” – the ‘off the menu option’ of grilling their custom made tortillas to a crispy, golden brown. Go Big in the Golden State.
4. Ricky’s Fish Tacos, Los Angeles
Baja Style Freshness This Side of the Border
When you want Baja-style, crispy fish tacos on this side of the border, you head to Ricky’s Fish Tacos in LA. The highly sought after Fish Taco truck serves generous amounts of delicate white fish and shrimp, cooked to perfection in a very light, tempura-style batter that melts in your mouth.
While Baja style tacos are arguably the most popular fish taco in California, Ricky’s are legendary. Topped with fresh slaw, salsa and your choice of spicy dressing, Ricky’s Fish Tacos is a best kept secret gone viral.
3. La Super-Rica Taquería, Santa Barbara
Mexican Street Food for the Masses
It is comforting to see multi-generational families working together in the kitchen, preparing your food with their own, ancestral recipes. That’s why when you walk in to La Super Rica’s tiny turquoise and white taco stand, you immediately know you are in for an authentic, Mexican comfort food feast.
La Super’s homemade corn and flour tortillas, added to the Super-Rica Especial (roasted chile pasilla stuffed with marinated pork and cheese), are what kept Julia Child coming back for years and it seems the locals agree. While standing in line, you can watch the food being traditionally prepared fresh and with love, just like Julia would have wanted.
2. Las Cuatro Milpas, San Diego
Worth the Wait in So Many Ways
Open since 1933, this unassuming taco stand in Barrio Logan has developed a cult following for their addicting carnitas, handmade tortillas and cheap prices. Lines out the door and a closing time of 3pm both attest to Las Cuatro Milpas’ longstanding ability to attract a crowd all day — and run out of food.
Cooked and served by little ‘abuelitas’ – ‘grandmothers’ in Spanish – the authentic food and family atmosphere keep this local lunch spot at the top of everyone’s best Mexican food list.
1. Guelaguetza Restaurante, Los Angeles
James Beard-worthy Mole to Die For
Guelaguetza’s longstanding reputation for bringing authentic, Oaxacan Mexican food is the reason it was the first traditional Mexican restaurant to win the James Beard Classics Award in 2015. Thanks for this go to Richard Lopez, who brought his native ‘Mole Negro’ recipe here over 20 years ago.
To this day, Angelinos in the know flock to this Koreatown institution (now run by Lopez’s children) to savor the rich, flavorful food with generous portions and live music. Kudos to Richard and his family – we plan on coming back for the Festival de Moles for at least another 20 years.
Are you craving a killer fish taco smothered in guacamole? Get out to one of these places and get your Mexican on! Then let us know what you think: Are these the 10 best Mexican food restaurants in California?