Miguel’s Cocina | Upscale Mexican in Historic Old Town

November 18, 2011

Mexican food eateries are a dime a dozen in Old Town San Diego, but Miguel’s Cocina stands out from the others by offering upscale cuisine and mighty margaritas in a warm and charming setting without the formulaic décor and overwhelming liveliness of neighboring spots.

The Old Town location is one of six Miguel’s in San Diego County, not including Miguelito’s in Coronado, which is considered a “Miguel’s Jr.,” if you will.  The Miguel’s brand is part of the Brigantine family of restaurants, and has been around since the original opened in Coronado in 1973.  Chef Rigo Gutierrez heads the kitchen at the Old Town location and has been with the company since the first Miguel’s opened more than thirty years ago.

San Diego’s Old Town is inundated with Mexican restaurants, many of which cater to tourists in search of the “authentic” Mexican experience, which typically means mariachi bands, sombrero hats, and vibrant piñatas, all within the confines of a boisterous and colorful background (not that there is anything wrong with that!). Don’t expect to find feigned or overemphasized “authenticity” or Mexican clichés at Miguel’s. 

The décor at Miguel’s is clean and modern, with subtle Mexican decorations and white stone walls and pillars accentuating the indoor dining area’s elegant appeal. The copious Charger gear surrounding the bar seem out of place, but are small trophies of a catering account the team has had with Miguel’s for the past ten years. The Old Town spot boasts that it is the site of all the catering output of the Brigantine Group.   

Although the interior is lovely, the prime seating at the Old Town restaurant is on the open-air patio comfortably elevated above San Diego Avenue, making it ideal for people watching.  Warm and spacious, the open-air veranda is kept cozy with overhead heaters, a clay fireplace and a roaring fire pit.

The service at Miguel’s is top notch.  A server immediately provided water and offered up one of their many cocktails, beers, or wines by the glass or bottle. Upon recommendation, I chose the Miguel’s “ultimate” margarita ($9.50) with a salted rim, served up in a clear shaker that provides for two tasty servings.  My companion picked the skinny “boss” ($12).  Keeping with the trend of light margaritas invading the town, Miguel’s version is strengthened with patron silver and lightened by agave nectar and fresh lime juice, making for a refreshingly delicious ‘rita without the unnecessary calories.
Miguel’s Old Town has an invaluable asset that the other locations do not – a brick oven - which opens up their menu and allows for unique menu choices and a variety of flat bread pizza’s, with the option to invent your own upon request (so long as they have the ingredients).  The carne asada flatbread came hot and crispy on a pizza stone, topped with marinated steak, avocado, tomato salsa, and mozzarella and tomato cheeses.  For the full experience, dip a scrumptious and manageable slice into the famed jalapeno white (queso?) sauce, or any of a wide variety of salsa’s provided. You may never go back to traditional pizza again.

Miguel’s menu is filled with tried and true favorites like burritos, fajitas, and tacos, but they also feature traditional Mexican dishes and specialty items.  To start, the albondigas, is a classic Mexican meatball soup in a light but flavorful tomato-vegetable broth - full of savory crisp vegetables and juicy meatballs.  ($4 cup/$6 bowl).  If you happen to go on Taco Tuesday, like I did, sample one of each of their tacos. Although seemingly less than a bargain at $3 a piece, each street taco was tastier than the next, with the carne adobada being the decided favorite.

From the list of entrée items, the plato del Old Town ($16) has taste, value, and surf and turf - consisting of a serving of grilled skirt steak, a spicy shrimp tamale, and a side of guacamole. The marinated skirt streak was fairly tender and juicy for a frequently tough cut of meat, and once dabbed in a side of mole sauce, it was the star of the plato.   

The camarones jalisco ($18) is a house favorite and rightfully so, as the combination of ingredients makes it a winning dish from the start.  With jumbo shrimp stuffed with Monterey jack cheese and spicy pepper strips, wrapped in smoky bacon, grilled, and topped in the famous jalapeno white sauce, how can you go wrong?

Save room for dessert, because the fried ice cream ($5) and chocolate empanadas ($6) are both killer, especially when mixed together.  Rich vanilla ice cream is coated in cinnamon-frosted corn flakes and flash deep fried, then topped with chocolate syrup and whip cream. The chocolate empanadas are crispy, gooey, and may be the definition of culinary comfort.  Order one of each, mash them together, get a good night’s rest, and email me in the morning.   

Miguel’s Cocina has happy hour from 3-6 daily, and all night on Mondays in the lounge, featuring food and drink specials.  For more details, check out the website or give them a call for reservations.  

2444 San Diego Ave., Old Town
(619) 298-9840

Lunch & Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 11am-9:30pm   Sunday 11am-9pm
Lounge:  Daily 11am-10:30pm
Happy Hour: Daily 2pm-6pm   Monday All Night in the Lounge
Brunch: Sun. 10:30am-3pm

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