Published on March 6th, 2013 | by Gary Rice1
La Jollans are Loco for Puesto
Puesto Restaurant Review
The enthusiasm that many San Diego foodies have about Puesto, one of La Jolla’s newest Mexican restaurants, has been undeniably contagious. Over the course of many months, my Facebook feed has been riddled with scores of photos depicting Puesto’s tacos and bowls, photos that become somewhat irksome for those, like me, that endeavor to maintain a strict focus for a balanced diet during the week. Admittedly, the mere act of gazing at some of Puesto’s images of succulent carne asada and carnitas has caused me to break out in the meat sweats on occasion. So, alas, after many months of enduring an endless barrage of Puesto’s social media food porn, an opportunity presented itself that would allow me to personally take the plunge and, of course, I didn’t let it pass me by. Puesto is snuggly located within the bowels of La Jolla Cove on Wall Street. The exterior sports a tasteful, modern aesthetic, but the interior showcases a more eclectic design with both modern and contemporary elements, primarily flavored by a vibrant palette intended to represent, as Puesto states, the “colorful streets of Mexico.” The walls are graced by a number of murals, and the green-colored menus above the counter space contribute to the bright, rich, south-of-the-border personality that they are seemingly trying to exude. A variety of seating options are available, including a communal table and limited bar area. The ordering zone has a Chipotle-esque feel to it where the customer, after placing an order, can observe his/her selections being prepared as they make their way down the preparation line. In addition to a thoughtfully designed interior, the company’s branding is also a well-executed facet of the space. The heavy, in-your-face branding, however, and the mechanics of the ordering process inadvertently produces a corporate/chain-like ambience, an unfortunate byproduct that has the potential of making the Puesto experience somewhat impersonal, in spite of the efforts of friendly employees.
Grilled Shrimp Salad
The salad, composed of greens, cactus, panela cheese, corn, cherry tomatoes, jicama and a “Puesto cilantro vinaigrette,” is one of their newest menu items and, unfortunately, isn’t quite successful in terms of execution and taste. The vinaigrette that is drizzled on the greens is absolutely amazing, but it fails to temper the dry texture of the greens. At one point, I felt as if I had a wad of weeds in my mouth. The shrimp are flavorful, but they feel disconnected from the rest of the ingredients. Overall, the salad fails to function as a unit; the flavors just don’t come together cohesively.
This salad, regrettably, is plagued by many of the same problems as its sidekick noted above. The components of the dish are disconnected. The carnitas, bathed in a tomatillo verde salsa, is rather flavorful, but it feels as if it’s been thrown on top as an afterthought. The juices of the carnitas and the salsa fail to marry with the greens. When I consume a salad with a meat component, I expect the flavors of the ingredients to meld together and not function independently. There’s a lot of potential here, and the dish could certainly be fixed with some thoughtful adjustments.
A respectable street taco. The flavorful carnitas, accented by the delicious tomatillo verde salsa, makes for a fair representation of a Mexican classic. Apparently, the tortillas are made fresh on Puesto’s premises. As such, I was expecting the tortillas to have a softer texture. Notwithstanding, they’re quite good, easy to handle, and are durable enough to hold their ingredients without falling apart.
Chicken al Pastor Taco
This taco is distinguished by Puesto’s signature method of cooking cheese. Puesto cooks the cheese on the griddle, wraps it around the chicken, and then places it in the tortilla. A chipotle & pineapple salsa is then applied to top the construction, lightly accented by onion. The salsa is the rock star of this menu item; it truly ties the flavors together to produce a product that makes each bite a joy.
Truly, Puesto’s ceviche was the most enjoyable item that I consumed. I absolutely adored it. The tomatoes, lemon and lime juices, shrimp and fresh avocado produce a harmonious flavor that is sure to even please those that have the pickiest of palates. After the first bite, every one of my taste buds was doing its own dance. After further scrutiny, I noted that the item does not appear on their posted menu. The explanation for that, at this point, is unknown. Notwithstanding, if you happen to pop in, you will be remiss if you don’t ask for it. It truly is a masterpiece. By the way, did I express how much I love the ceviche?
This was a confusing and disappointing drink. Knowing that this cocktail was the brainchild of Jen Queen, Lucien Conner, and Ian Ward, all notable San Diego mixologists, makes the matter even more befuddling. The drink, composed of of red wine, hibiscus and citrus, was like consuming concentrated sweet syrup. After consuming about a fourth of the cocktail I had to push it away, regrettably. It was nothing like any margarita that I’ve ever had.
Puesto identifies itself as an “upscale fast-casual eatery” that serves up authentic Mexican street food. That description is a bold and audacious standard to live up to, especially considering that, living only miles from the border, San Diegans know what good, authentic Mexican food is. For me, Puesto’s employment of the words “upscale” and “street food” as descriptors is problematic because of the inherent oxymoron they connotatively conjure. As such, Puesto has a few hurdles to clear before it can truly be regarded as a destination to encounter food that reflects the tapestry of rich flavors that are inherent in authentic Mexican cuisine. Presently, in terms of authenticity and overall flavor, I’m not sold. It’s no mistake that Puesto is located in La Jolla, a slice of San Diego that is occupied by a more affluent demographic that, for the most part, isn’t likely to drive anywhere south to experience Mexican food at a hole-in-the-wall. Someone once told me that many La Jollans operate in a mindset that regards anything outside the bounds of their close-knit suburbs as being virtually nonexistent. Therefore, the notion of an “upscale” Mexican eatery anywhere outside of La Jolla wouldn’t likely work, especially when our northern and southern neighborhoods are blessed by a plethora of hotspots—many operated by former Mexican natives—that showcase Mexican fare that is relatively cheap and, in the truest sense of the word, authentic. To discount Puesto’s footprint in the La Jolla area would be disingenuous. Puesto has, indeed, won the hearts and minds of many, and they should be applauded for their success. In addition, they are active in the community, donating their food and service for worthy causes. For me, though, aside from the ridiculous good ceviche, nothing that I tasted would necessarily inspire me to travel from my home in Little Italy to Puesto’s location, especially when I can walk a block away and experience real Mexican favorites at my local taco stand.
1026 Wall Street
La Jolla, CA. 92037