We’re already getting takeout, so why not be intentional about how we’re enjoying it? Each week, Kelsey, Rachel, and Arielle sit down with dishes from our favorite San Diego restaurants and search out the perfect Splash wine pairings. We want to highlight San Diego specialties that you can try out with a glass (or let’s be honest, entire bottle) of Splash wine today—no guesswork involved!
Mexican Food: The Beauty of a Border Town
San Diego is graced with an incredible culinary landscape—traditional or fusion, if there’s a cuisine you desire, you bet you can find it here. But the crown for the queen of the scene has to go to Mexican food.
As part of Las Californias, an area of North America spanning from Baja Sur through the state of California, San Diego shares a richly blended Mexican-American cultural and historical heritage. With that shared culture comes a brilliant collection of Mexican restaurants, and luckily for us, an abundance of tacos. This week, we focused on just two aspects of that rich blend, delicious tacos and Mexican wines.
First: What Makes a Taco a Taco?
In San Diego, tacos have a special taste-profile. They’re different from NorCal-style Mexican food, Tex-Mex, or other Mexican influenced food. Most similar to the street-food tacos of Tijuana, San Diego tacos are petite, never overloaded, and traditionally served on a corn tortilla. Fish, shrimp, and other seafood are a popular coastal touch. The fried fish taco, dressed with crema and a squeeze of lime, might be the quintessential San Diego food.
When we tried to break it down, we were able to isolate the main components that (to us) make a taco a taco.
– The base note: The main flavor in a taco comes from the spices cooked into the fillings and the choice of protein. Let’s include beans, meats, fillings with a fatty texture (avocado, grilled veggies), and all creamy additions (cheese, sour cream) in this category.
– The highlights: Fresh components live here including salsas, raw vegetables, and herbs. This is also where sauces influence flavor, smokey chipotle, hot chilis, or juicy fruit or tomato additions.
We decided to keep it hyper-local for our first pairing and literally head across the street to City Tacos, North Park. Here’s what we paired up with our wines and what you’re going to want to order for dinner this week.
Order these dishes from City Tacos:
– Pescado Taco: Golden-fried mahi-mahi with cabbage, pickled red onions, habanero and strawberries drizzled with cilantro, chipotle aioli, and fresh cilantro
– Camaron Enchilado: Grilled shrimp with Chile de Arbol, tomato, onion, cilantro over a bed of melted asadero cheese finished with lime and chipotle aioli
– Chorizo Asado: Grilled pork chorizo with caramelized pineapple over melted Oaxaca cheese
–Chile Relleno: Beer-battered Chile Guero filled with Oaxaca and cotija cheeses, diced tomato, onion, cilantro, and lime aioli
– Carnitas: Slow-cooked pork carnitas topped with cilantro, onion, guacamole, and crunchy chicharron
– Tlacoyo: Mexico City’s torpedo-shaped blue corn masa snack filled with fresh herb onion mashed potatoes topped with your choice of protein, red and green salsa, cilantro, onions finished with cotija cheese and crema fresca. We added Pollo Asado!
What About the Wine?
In our quest to find the perfect wines for a San Diego taco feast, we considered what drinks are already a staple with Mexican food. Light, lager-style beers with a nice balance of flavors—not too hoppy, bitter, or malty—served cold and with a slice of lime are the first thing to come to mind. Lime appears again in the margarita, which includes four out of five major flavors (salt, sour citrus, sweetness from agave or orange, and a touch of bitterness via tequila) to make another balanced accompaniment.
Both beers and margaritas are good at cooling the inherent spice-forward flavors of Mexican food. These drinks can cut through rich or fatty textures in the fillings and are light enough not to overpower fresh or delicately flavored toppings. From here, we had a road map to select the characteristics of our wines. We started with a list of necessities:
– A sweet or fruity element to offset the heat of chilies.
– Salinity to keep your palate awake and ready for more.
– Tartness and acidity to refresh your mouth when tasting cheese and meat.
– Lower tannins and lower alcohol levels. Most of the pairing guides we could find suggested that tannins and alcohol could enhance heat and bitterness in spicy food.
At Splash we have an incredible selection of Baja and Valle de Guadalupe wines, so what could be a more natural place to start? Conventional wisdom suggests that what “grows together goes together,” so we wanted to put that to the test by only selecting wines from Mexico for this match up. Mexican wines from this region have a reputation for coastal salinity and stony minerality and seemed a natural fit for the flavors we we’re testing out.
We knew we wanted to try a variety of seafood, meat, and vegetables. We knew white and rosé wines were essential choices, but we also wanted to try a few reds to see what flavors worked best or surprised us most. These are the wines we picked out to try, all originating in Baja, Mexico. First, we tasted each wine on its own, then we moved on to tasting them next to our City Tacos spread.
Valle Girl Vino La Chula Blanc de Noir 2018: (100% Grenache) This was our pick for white wine. This tastes tart, has high acidity, and the flavors of light stone fruits, nectarine, and lime. We guessed this one and the rosé would be best with seafood.
Bruma Ocho Rosé 2019: (100% Sangiovese) This rosé is a big favorite with the team. We got bubblegum flavors, kiwi, grapefruit and an exceptionally balanced level of dryness, acidity, and minerality. It was hard not to drink it all before the food arrived.
Corona del Valle Merlot 2016: (100% Merlot) Our first red wine pick, we thought a Merlot would be a safe choice for spicier tacos. This one is outstanding in the Merlot field—creamy, low acidity, and tannins, with a smooth oak tang and red fruit. This wine held some surprises for us when we tried it next to the tacos!
Cañada de Los Encinos Zinfandel-Petit Verdot 2017: (80% Zinfandel, 20% Petit-Verdot) We picked this one assuming the Zinfandel and Petit-Verdot blend would bring out fruit and spice flavors that play well with meatier taco fillings. Our tasting notes here were a dash of cherry candy aroma, followed with a beautifully balanced woody, nutty, fruity Bordeaux-style flavor. Not too tannic or astringent, this is what they mean by a smooth and velvety finish.
Palafox Pionero Vino Tinto 2018: (70% Tempranillo, 15% Merlot, 15% Cabernet) This is the very first Baja wine Rachel tried and it introduced her to the joys of Tempranillo! We wanted to try a more bold, more tannic red, while still staying in the realm of balanced and refreshing. Lots of red fruit and lively pepper can be found here.
The Valle Girl Vino La Chula was a seafood pairing star, as we suspected! The acidity in this wine was the perfect complement to the fried white fish in the Pescado taco. This duo was a run-away success and hits home how the right wine and food combination can make each side better. The unctuous fried fish mellowed out the acid of the wine and the light tartness of La Chula didn’t outweigh the toppings on the taco. The habanero and strawberry component in these tacos bumped up the fruit flavor in the wine, letting this one shine!
The Bruma Ocho Rosé was a hit with the Shrimp tacos and the Pescado taco. Really, it was hard not to pair this one up with everything we ate. The Bruma Rosé wins for most versatile and balanced of all the wine pairings. This rosé hit a high note when paired up with the creamy, rich, perfectly-smokey-just-a-touch-spicy Camaron Enchilado taco. These two were in complete harmony—neither overpowering nor altering the flavor of the other. If you’re going to try only one of these matchups, this is it!
The Corona del Valle Merlot threw us a total curveball when we tried it together with the tacos. It seemed like each one uncovered a level of tannins in the wine that we never expected from our solo taste test! Merlot wasn’t our favorite pairing for the shrimp tacos; we found the chipotle cream sauces combined with the surprise tannins in a way that seemed bitter on our palates. The Chile Relleno brought out the taste of oak in the Merlot and its gooey cheese filling went nicely with the fruit flavors here. But beware! This is a pretty spicy Relleno, if you’re sensitive to the heat in chilis, and could be overpowering with even the mildest red.
The Chorizo Asado taco was the hands-down winner for the Merlot match-ups. The chorizo is rich and saucy but doesn’t pack as much heat, which works with this wine’s tannin level. The acidity of the pineapple brought out the brightness in the wine that we hadn’t tasted on its own. If you’re pairing this Merlot with succulent, spiced meat, add a citrus element and you’ll have a prime winner.
The Canada de Los Encinos was our best pick for meat fillings and was a fantastic match for the traditional Carnitas taco. We found that this red did meld well with the richness of the carnitas and avocado. Plus, that salty little chicharron bit on top? Oof, perfection. This might be the safest bet if you want something delicious, rich, and not too spicy. A great intro for the taco novice or a hearty comfort-food for the taco connoisseur. Sometimes, classics are classics for a reason!
The Palafox Pionero paired up best with the Tlacoyo. This was the first time some of us had this dish and the blue masa/potato combination hit all the carb-craving buttons. The Pionero red blend had enough body to hold up to the Tlacoyo, which weighed in as the heaviest part of the meal. The red spices and smoky paprika in the Pollo Asado went well with the oaky warmth in the Pionero.
So, What Wine, Where?
We learned that, while wine might not be your first thought when it comes to Mexican food, this taco spread had some matches made in heaven with our Baja wines.
Merlot was the trickiest of our pairings (surprisingly! we assumed one of the bigger reds would give us more trouble) but chorizo and pineapple saved the day. Each of the other wines we tried found at least one taco partner that made them shine. With some careful thought and experimentation, red wine lovers should be able to find a bottle that’s a hit with their favorite taco.
Our white and rosé picks turned out to be the easiest drinking companions to Mexican food. You can’t go wrong either way with a chilled, tart glass on the lighter side of the wine spectrum.
The Bruma Ocho Rosé won the prize for Most Congenial wine in this taco feast. Its balanced profile, light but robust flavor, and juicy acidity are a winning combination with Mexican food. We can confidently recommend it for all your City Taco needs.
Buy the Wines
Try the pairing for yourself! Stop by City Tacos for pick-up or delivery and grab yourself a bottle of Baja Wine from Splash!