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DINING: El Zarape Restaurant

The cosentino hot dog.
Photo by Steven Persitza

Entering El Zarape Restaurant in Normal Heights, you are immediately embraced by luscious scents of unusually exotic Mexican food. There are indeed too many Mexican restaurants to count in San Diego, but El Zarape on Adams Avenue shines like an “estrella en la noche.” Not to be confused, there is a smaller taco shop called El Zarape on Park Boulevard, which is a sister venue. This El Zarape is a sit-down restaurant with a more complete menu befitting its larger size, not to mention a hip-and-fun full bar.

How to describe El Zarape? Iconic religious symbols, as statues of prolific Catholic icons, adorn the place. Think “Day of the Dead”--a Mexican tradition full of skeletons and eerie masks. That pretty much sums up the bright and colorful interior theme. Copper pans hang from the ceiling, inlaid tile tables and wrought iron chairs add to the allure and an inviting open-air kitchen adds to the mouth-watering aroma.

Perfectly prepared chips and two types of salsa (red one mild, green one hot) are set at the table almost as soon as you are seated. Tequila is the name of the game here (although wine, beer and signature martinis are also available) and can be served up in various ways. There are numerous margarita offerings and while Cadillac versions are great, their house margarita is a killer concoction and doesn’t need an ounce of anything else. There are tequila flights which are far more dangerous than their usual wine or champagne cousins. Plan on a cab if that’s your pleasure. We ordered shots of Canela, which was a blend of Tequila and cinnamon infused oranges served in champagne glasses. The taste was incredible and dangerous – only because it was so good, not to mention sneaky. Buzzzzz…

The menu is fun and frisky with some oddball items peacefully coexisting with the usual suspects. Ahhh, but don’t be fooled by the norm as the “combinations with rice and beans” are heads above most competitors. The enchiladas la bandera (red traditional, white sauce and green poblano enchilada trio stuffed with chicken (or cheese, or shrimp, $2) topped with queso fresco, onion, cilantro and sour cream, served with beans and rice, $12.75). These treats are not just filled with meat, they are engorged with it.

A trio of enchiladas.

Photo by Steven Persitza

El Zarape clearly does not skimp on what’s important; tacos,the same. Whether carne asada, chicken, beef or fish (or numerous other combinations) they were crunchy delights filled with meat, cheese, avocado and tomatoes. Don’t know how they do it but most crunchy tacos fall apart after one bite. These treasures remain intact until the last bite, even while marinated with sauces and juices. Remarkable!

Looking for something completely different? How about the unique costenito hot dog, (homemade shrimp link on a hot dog bun, topped with mayonnaise, chipotle-cream sauce and caramelized red onions with sherry smoked bacon and served with french fries, $6.75). The shrimp dog is unbelievably flavorful and very distinct, without being so out in left field that it’s freaky. Add perfect fries (how can that be at a Mexican joint?) and you have al all-American feast on your hands.

Or, there's the pulpo a la diabla (octopus in chipotle and tomato sauce served with tortillas, beans and rice, $14.95) that, while the octopus was a tad tough, the dish itself sparkled with unique flavors and taste. We’ve been to El Zarape several times and each time is better.

Prices are very reasonable, with most items within the $10-$15 range. The place is kid-friendly with lots of space and good-sized tables, although you might want to make it an adult-only night on the 50 percent-off tequila Tuesdays. In a city with Mexican restaurants literally on every corner (and in-between), the taste sensations experienced when El Zarape takes it up a notch.

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619-578-2600
  • Name: El Zarape Restaurant
  • Address: 3201 Adams Ave