By Frank Sabatini Jr.
If you haven’t been to La Vecindad in the heart of Hillcrest, you’re missing exceptional preparations of pork and pozole from a Mexico City family, not to mention cheerful cocktails that taste as pretty as they look.
As for the tacos constructed with house-made corn tortillas, which practically melt in your mouth, they’ll likely send you into a cartwheel as well.
Located in Fifth Avenue’s village center, between University and Robinson, La Vecindad is owned by Mexico City natives Tony Fragoso and his brothers Javier, Guillermo and Ignacio.
This used to be Local Habit, which becomes a faint memory blasted away by scads of natural light and wildly vivid colors. Gone are the dark woods and jazzy design appointments of New Orleans.
Customers are greeted with a sidewalk patio, a glossy white bar, festive banners and whimsical décor that includes garments pinned to a high-hanging clothesline.
Right down to the indoor picnic tables draped in multi-patterned plastic coverings, and a back wall displaying conversation bubbles filled with quirky messages written mostly in Spanish by avid customers, it’s as though you’ve entered into the Latin equivalent of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Many of the recipes originate from Fragoso’s father and grandmother. Among them are three styles of pork made in-house: chunky carnitas, crumbly longaniza sausage and shredded chochinita pibil.
The latter is marinated for 24 hours in annatto seed, oregano, salt, garlic, onions and fresh orange juice — ingredients that turn pork magical.
Served in plate form with black beans and corn tortillas, it’s available only Friday through Sunday.
The carnitas sported a clean, sumptuous flavor while the longaniza smacked of complexity from cinnamon, cloves, onions, garlic and enough guajillo and ancho chilies to impart a tangy jolt.
Both the carnitas and longaniza were piled into tacos. My companion, a taco junkie and first-time visitor to the place, went nutty over them.
Visiting on a Sunday, when “pozole rojo” is available, we feverishly spooned into the generous bowl of the guajillo-spiked pork broth, accented eloquently with pork pieces, sliced radishes, shredded lettuce and hominy.
It’s a must-try pottage that sings to a few pinches of dried oregano from the condiment tray presented alongside.
New to the menu are cheese or chicken-breast enchiladas draped in mole sauce authored originally by Frogoso’s grandmother. Served in pairs and plated with panache, they’re available only on weekends.
The sauce turned up silky and savory with ethereal undertones of sweet, Mexican chocolate as it seeped gracefully into generous chunks of tender chicken tucked inside the enchiladas.
And the accompanying refried beans (laced with lard) and fluffy Mexican rice were the tastiest I’ve had in a while.
La Vecindad feels equal parts restaurant and drinking establishment. A communal spirit pervades, thus living up to its translated name — “the neighborhood.”
The atmosphere is convivial in the company of margaritas made with fresh fruit juices, and high-octane “jarrito locos” blending silver tequila, Malibu Rum, pineapple juice and citrus in heavy clay jars.
The drinks are no less crafty than any you’ll find in chic nightclubs, extending also to a refreshing electric-green “angel smile” that quenched our palates with Midori, peach schnapps, pineapple juice and sweet and sour. There are also a few takes on micheladas, one of them introducing Dos Equis lager to
There are also a few takes on micheladas, one of them introducing Dos Equis lager to chamoy (savory fruit sauce) and pureed mango — and playfully garnished with a skewer of gummy bears.
La Vecindad offers happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, when house margaritas sell for $5.50; flavored margaritas for $6.50, well drinks for $6, select drafts for $4.50, and tequila shots for $3.50.
In addition, taco Tuesdays (all day) affords you two tacos of your choice for $6 as well as discounts on various drinks, and in a neighborhood environment loaded with gastronomic delights and visual character.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.