By Frank Sabatini Jr.
What started out in 1971 as a humble Mexican restaurant with only 17 tables has blossomed into one of San Diego County’s most colorful dining destinations.
The — in more normal times — 500-seat Casa de Pico is a lesson in endurance. After launching almost 50 years ago in San Diego’s Old Town district, the restaurant expanded slowly and steadily until transforming into a bustling environment that drew locals and tourists alike.
As owner Diane Powers recalled in a conversation I had with her earlier this year, she always hired employees who were “really dependable” and she has maintained a sharp eye for hardworking chefs and cooks who display a “keen aptitude for flavors and food presentation.”
Powers lost her lease in Old Town’s Bazaar Del Mundo in 2005, prompting her to move Casa de Pico to its current location in La Mesa. It now resides in a sprawling structure fronting Grossmont Center mall, and features fiesta-style décor that flows attractively throughout various indoor-outdoor dining areas, including a bright, windowed section resembling a solarium.
As part of her family of “casa” restaurants, Powers also owns Casa Guadalajara in Old Town, Casa de Bandini in Carlsbad, and Casa Sol y Mar in Carmel Valley.
Tequila lime shrimp is a longtime favorite — and a shrimp lover’s dream. The plate features about a dozen of the large crustaceans, which are sourced from Baja waters. They’re peeled and deveined, and then butterflied and cooked in house spices along with the booze and citrus.
It felt as though I had landed upon some all-you-can-eat shrimp fest due to the generous portion, part of which came home with me. The dish also includes Mexican rice, tender black beans and a choice of corn or flour tortillas, both made in-house at a grill station just inside the entrance.
Visiting with a vegetarian friend, I also ordered a pair of tacos, one with shredded beef that tasted under-seasoned, and the other filled densely with lean, flavorful minced chicken. I find that in many Mexican restaurants, poultry comes off as plain and boiled-tasting. This escaped those pitfalls.
From the menu’s limited vegetarian section, my friend ordered the chile poblano fresco plate and an avocado-veggie enchilada. He was impressed by both. And so was I after my wandering fork snagged a few samples.
The non-battered fire-roasted poblano chilies were filled with a medley of zucchini, yellow squash and corn, all seasoned gently with achiote. The cheese factor was scant, but the silky jalapeno white sauce on top provided adequate richness. You don’t always know what to expect when biting into poblano peppers as some can turn up rather hot. These were of the milder variety.
The enchilada had a similar construct with sauteed vegetables inside and a trace of cheese. It too was topped with the jalapeno sauce in addition to red “salsa espanolo,” which was chunkier and livelier than traditional enchilada sauce.
Margaritas come in several varieties and sizes, with the largest climbing to 32 ounces. I saw one pass by our table in a glass so large it could have seemingly held a cantaloupe. The short wine list grabbed our attention instead, luring us with a cabernet by the glass ($6.95) from L.A. Cetto winery in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe.
The wine boasted a medium body and a boozy or “hot” finish. Though compatible with our food choices, I imagine it would pair particularly well to beef, such as the restaurant’s famous carne asada tampiquena crowned with grilled onions and Anaheim chilies. (I remember the dish fondly from a visit several years ago.)
Casa de Pico’s menu is a compendium of recipes brought to the table over the years by Powers and many of her kitchen employees. Dishes go through the rigors of taste-testing before appearing first as specials, and with some eventually graduating to permanent status.
All these years later, the choices are vast. They range from chicken-mango quesadillas and steak picado, to house-made tamales, Tex-Mex fajitas, taquitos rancheros, assorted enchiladas, street tacos and more.
With its stimulating décor and comfortable seating designed for both large and small parties (currently the vast indoor dining is closed, but the comfortable patio is still open), you can essentially skip the drive to Old Town — or across the border for that matter — and make due with festive meals and drinks in this renowned, welcoming casa.
— 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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Casa de Pico
5500 Grossmont Center Drive
Prices: Soups and appetizers, $6.95 to $14.95; entree-size salads, $13.95 to $17.25; tacos, enchiladas and sopas, $6.95 to $16.25; combination plates, $13.95 to $14.95; vegetarian dishes, $13.95 and $14.50; specialty entrees, $12.25 to $19.95