When it came to designing ¡Salud! - a "tasting room" for the catering biz, San Diego Taco Co. -owner Ernie Becerra didn't have to look far for inspiration.
"If you want to get a feel for Barrio Logan ," he said, referring to Chicano culture, its artwork, lowrider scene, and the flavors of nearby Baja, "you can get all of that from walking into ¡Salud!"
There aren't many restaurants in San Diego that exploit the connection between edible and visual art forms, but for Becerra, pairing the two came naturally. San Diego Taco Co. began as one man with a cart, and blossomed grass-roots style with Becerra catering gallery shows in Barrio Logan, all the while collecting art for his own walls. Now, with the opening of Salud! four years later, Becerra's reputation precedes him as both a taco guru and supporter of the arts.
The best time to visit the stylish "taco pub," as Becerra calls it, is none other than Tuesday, where $5 gets you three TJ-style tacos made with hand-formed corn tortillas, thicker and more flavorful than the usual. "It's become a 'craft' type of food - but without being bougie, which is really popular right now."
Food is like art in many senses, especially when it comes to triggering an emotional response. The tacos here brought me back to being a kid and eating them Tijuana for the very first time. Why don't tacos taste like this at home, I remember wondering. The flavors, the fat, the intense heat on my virgin palate - a taco worshipper was born.
A proper one makes for a snack you don't want to end, and when it does, you don't feel bad about ordering more. ¡Salud!'s carne asada and al pastor are standouts, in tacos, or in a mulita - a sort of meat-stuffed quesadilla oozing with Oaxaca cheese. The kitchen is open here, where you'll see the meat sizzling over mesquite, adding a smoky dimension that smells deliciously of Baja street food.
There's also a modern twist to things, like the "bowl" for $8, a glorified taco salad sans the tortillas, with your choice of meat and unlimited salsas from the six versions offered at the bar. The habanero is painfully addictive, also made with vegetables that have been kissed by the magical mesquite grill. Crisp, fried-to-order chips and guacamole is the right way to start a meal; zesty Mexican street corn, charred on the grill, then shaved off the cob and mixed with sour cream, cotija and plenty of bright cilantro is a killer side; and shrimp tacos, only served on Tuesdays, taste amazing with grilled peppers, onions and melted cheese. The weekend menu is dedicated to the hung-over, with nourishing bowls of menudo.
Guests have a choice of cozying up at the communal table that runs down the center of the space; there's also raised bench seating along the back wall - which boasts a huge mural in progress by local artist GANE - and stools at the counter with windows overlooking the patio and increasingly busy intersection of the artist community.
Becerra even helped his next-door neighbors, La Bodega Gallery & Studios, score a lease in the building. And now, San Diego's top talent can be seen hanging out drinking cerveza and eating tacos every day of the week, not to mention the party that goes down during quarterly Barrio Art Crawl events.
"It's creating an awesome scene, it really is," Becerra said. "I have all these amazing artists coming in here and paying respect and trying to give back to me now."
¡Salud!: 2196 Logan Ave., Barrio Logan. saludsd.com
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org