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For celebrations and food with zest, try Old Town Mexican Cafe

When it's Cinco de Mayo, it's party time! San Diego really celebrates this Mexican holiday, with restaurants all over town gearing up for revelers.

What better place to enjoy the festivities than in Old Town, where San Diego was founded. What better restaurant to visit than Old Town Mexican Cafe, one of the oldest, most traditional in Old Town. It opened its doors more than 26 years ago.

Old Town Mexican Caf?, brightly decorated with banners and flowers, features a traditional mariachi band and a Latino jazz band on alternating days. Hostesses wearing beautiful red and white gowns work quickly to seat patrons. The "Tortilla Ladies of Old Town" work behind a huge glass window that opens to the street, and people watch with fascination as the women mix batter and pat them down to produce mountains of flour and corn tortillas. These are turned into tortilla chips, tacos and other fine dishes. Beer, or "cerveza," flows, and large glasses of margaritas are lifted in celebration.

The front of the restaurant is divided by two long, dark and romantic bars, back to back, that run about half the length of the building. The area on the left has a faux-seaside look, with ocean views painted onto the walls to look like windows exposed to the sea. The area to the right has a faux-hacienda look, with an overhanging roof that looks like a porch exterior. Comfortable booths are located beneath the overhang. The back rooms also are colorfully decorated with streamers and banners.

The restaurant, which has a capacity in excess of 400, has a large catering business and also serves private parties.

Manager Matt Lizalde, the nephew of co-owner Herb Lizalde, told me the restaurant's volume is so high, with so much food being prepared and served daily, that ingredients are always fresh.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and stays open until 2 a.m. for late-night revelers. Dishes on the menu are marked as "a favorite" or "spicy, but not too hot." Breakfast items include chorizo con huevos (Mexican sausage and eggs) and machaca con huevos (shredded beef and eggs). For less adventurous diners, there is a Gringo Special (bacon, ham or sausage and eggs).

Lunch and dinner menus offer traditional tostada, enchilada, burrito and combination dishes. The house specialties -- carnitas (pieces of pork), Mexican style ribs and pollo (chicken) -- are served with condiments that include cilantro, onion, tomato and come with wonderful, handmade tortillas hot off the grill. There are also "heart smart" selections.

I ordered the Old Town Pollo, a large half-chicken right off the rotisserie. Coated with tasty spices, the skin of the chicken was delightfully crispy. I quickly wrapped slices of the chicken, along with cilantro and tomato, into a large, hot flour tortilla and enjoyed a fabulous "wrap." I could have ordered a whole chicken but wanted to save room to sample the carnitas, delicious slices of pork, prepared traditionally and Mexican-style pork ribs.

Other tempting selections include Camarones, succulent gulf shrimp grilled in a garlic butter sauce; Steak Azteca, marinated steak stuffed with jack cheese; and a variety of chile dishes.

My favorite combination dish is the Chile Relleno, with its spicy, creamy, cheesy flavors combined with a beef enchilada. Imaginative diners can mix and match to create their own dishes.

Over the years, Old Town Mexican Caf? has won numerous awards for its cuisine, which is based on recipes from the Guadalajara region -- not too spicy but, on the other hand, not bland. Old Town Mexican Caf? serves some of the best margaritas in town.

Prices are reasonable. Ambiance and tastes are authentic. Old Town Mexican Caf? is located 2489 San Diego Ave. A parking lot in the rear fills up, so come early. Call (619) 297-4330 for information.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association.

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