La Piñata – Old Town’s Oldest Restaurant

| May 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

Many visitors to Old Town enter the park by getting off Highway 5 at Old Town Avenue then following the curving road to the entrance. There is another entrance, though, on the north side of the park, off Taylor Street’s exit to Highway 8. That entrance, onto Juan Street, goes past Casa Guadalajara and, next to it, La Piñata Mexican Restaurant. La Piñata has the distinction of being Old Town’s oldest restaurant.

The park’s roots are deep in history. The area is considered the “birthplace” of California. Father Junipero Serra came here in 1769 to establish the very first mission in a chain of 21 missions that were planned for California. Father Serra’s mission and Presidio were built on a hillside overlooking what is currently known as Old Town San Diego. Some 60 years later, a small Mexican community of adobe buildings was established that, by 1835, grew and achieved recognition as the township El Pueblo de San Diego.

Most of the existing historical structures were built in the 1800’s, so wandering around the park really does offer a deep sense of touching history. For example, Casa de Estudillo was built in 1825 as the home of a Spanish aristocrat and then became a sanctuary for women and children during the American occupation in 1846. The Whaley House is one of the most haunted houses in the United States. The alleged hauntings of the Whaley House have been reported on numerous other television programs and been written up in countless publications and books since the house first opened as a museum in 1960.

There is a graveyard in Old Town and enjoyable “haunted house and ghost” tours that are popular. Old Town Trolley Tours, the enjoyable hop on- hop off way of seeing the sights of San Diego, starts here. There are over 20 restaurants and many specialty and souvenir shops. And there are over 15 restaurants.

But only one location can boast that is has served perhaps eight generations of diners. La Piñata began serving food in the 1920’s. The name of the location was changed to its current identity in 1968. The mere fact that the restaurant has survived that long speaks volumes about the ambiance and quality of cuisine.

If the word “piñata” is not known, it refers to a gaily decorated crock or papier-mâché figure, usually a doll or small animal, filled with toys, candy, etc., and suspended from above. On birthdays and holidays, one of the children at the party is blindfolded and spun around several times. Then he is given a stick with which to hit the piñata. After several tries, the next child gets a chance. Then, when the “piñata” is finally broken and all the goodies fall to the ground, all the children rush in to grab what they can. Lots of fun!

Sure enough, many piñatas decorate the ceiling of the front and interior of the restaurant, adding color and gaiety to the interior. But the greatest fun is on the patio, with beautiful flowers and shrubs that add intensity and charm to the setting.

There are usually a couple of guitarists playing, especially during weekends. The food is traditional Mexican and tastes like it was made from old family recipes. Starting a meal with some drinks and appetizers is a good way to get into the spirit. There is a good selection of Mexican and American beers and a reasonable choice of tequila. Margaritas come in three sizes — good, wow and “you can swim in it.” The peach margarita was especially good.
The server quickly will bring by a box of tortilla chips, which are “free” and one of the best I’ve enjoyed. But be sure to ask for the quesadilla, also free – large, flat and topped with cheese.

The dishes offered on the menu are typical Mexican fare. Among these, carne asada dinner has specially selected cuts of top sirloin served with guacamole and tender strips of roasted green chile. Chimichanga is a flour tortilla filled with shredded beef or chicken deep-fried and garnished with guacamole and sour cream. Most entrees are served with rice and beans.

My favorite dish is the quesadilla piñata. It is a large portion, a huge tortilla stuffed with tasty shredded chicken and cheese and topped with sour cream and guacamole.

Desserts include the traditional flan, Mexican custard, and bunuelos, a crispy flour tortilla covered with honey and cinnamon — a sweet and tasty way to end the meal.

Prices are moderate and weekday specials and children’s menu can reduce them further for family dining. But the sense of dining with history is priceless. And, here’s a big plus. La Piñata has parking, although the lot is not very large. Best bet is to get there early.

La Piñata Mexican Restaurant is located at 2836 Juan Street. Call 619-297-1631 for information and reservations.

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