Mexican street food (tlacoyos)
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Sharing a border with Tijuana, San Diego has always been abundant with Mexican food. You’re hankering for a taco, a burrito, or a serving of exceptionally fresh guac? You’d be hard-pressed not to find it in “America’s finest city.”

But that’s not necessarily the type of Mexican food you’ll find at El Jardín, the restaurant where Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, former contestant of “Top Chef México,” works as executive chef. Instead, Zepeda-Wilkins, who was raised between San Diego and Tijuana, dishes out modern iterations of the Mexican food she and members of her staff grew up eating. “It’s the food our moms and grandmas made,” she says. “It’s the food we want to eat.”

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El Jardín (which showed up on Esquire’s 2018 best new restaurants in America list) has an ever changing-menu that often surprises guests, more often than not expanding their education around Mexican food and going beyond no-frills fajitas. The tlacoyo, a Mexican street snack that’s somewhat reminiscent of a tamale, is becoming one of El Jardín’s calling cards. The spaghetti taco, or fideo seco, was a ubiquitous household recipe for Zepeda-Wilkins during her childhood, but still not the kind of dish you’d find at your local burrito hang. While the chef puts her own spin on the meals she grew up eating, they remain traditionally Mexican at El Jardín.

El Jardin Mexican restaurant

Antonio Diaz de Sandi

“The flavors and execution have been changed by my style, but [the food is] definitely rooted in my childhood,” she says. “I know the flavors I like, and I start with the memories and the feelings and kind of go from there.” Whether you’re lucky enough to stop by her joint or spot one of these dishes on another menu, these are just a few of the authentic Mexican dishes you’d be wise to start eating more of.

Fideo Seco

“It’s the soup you get when you’re feeling sick,” says Zepeda-Wilkins of the dish (even the menu notes that fideo seco is served at every abuelita’s house in Mexico). As Zepeda-Wilkins tells it, this recipe originated around the time when Italians landed in Mexico in 1890, which explains the pasta. Using the same base as a classic marinara sauce, fideo seco can be served two ways—either as a soup, with a tomato-y broth, or as a solid, with the marinara-like mixture hardened around the spaghetti. At El Jardín, it’s served dry, with queso fresco, crema, and cilantro. It’s garnished with a lime and served with fresh tortillas on the side, so diners can construct their own spaghetti tacos. “It’s carb on carb,” says the chef, and makes for a great dish to share.

Fava Tlacoyo

Fava tlacoyo is a common street snack in Mexico that dates back to the Aztec times. Despite its ancient history, this quick bite is as present as ever: Zepeda-Wilkins ate plenty of them when filming “Top Chef” in Mexico City, adding that they make an ideal midnight snack. Oval-shaped masa is stuffed with beans and often topped with cheese and cilantro. At El Jardín, the dish is a little more complex, made with both fava and akita beans and garlic sauce. It comes with a side of cheese fondue, which makes it extra satisfying.

Taco de Birria Doradito con Todo

Craving tacos? Go for “de Birria” and you’ll be treated to the flavors that result from an intricate cooking process. Birria, in this case a hearty stew made with goat meat, comes from the Mexican state Jalisco, where Zepeda-Wilkins’ family is from. The dish is basically in her DNA. Preparing the tacos at El Jardín is a two-day process, in which a whole goat is braised in adobo and cooked for hours in a stove or oven. The goat is wrapped in agave, beans, and a variety of aromatics, and it cooks in its own juices—drippings that are later extracted and served on the side as a dipping sauce. The savory meat is stuffed into a tortilla, which is grilled for a bit of char and then topped with cilantro and lime.

Related Video: How to Make Traditional Tlayoyos

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