I lived in San Diego from 1997 to 2001 and during those heady collegiate years I probably visited Old Town a grand total of three times. It was quaint, touristic, and not all that interesting to a chain-smoking undergrad who mostly just wanted to make movies and play video games all night. It seemed more like Disneyland than a fun place to eat and drink.
Now that I’m importing and distributing spirits all over California, I’ve been spending more time in my old stomping grounds and I have to say: out of anywhere I’ve been over the last few months, Old Town is where I look forward to going back most frequently. Not because of the history, mind you, or the snapshot at life in California as it might have been back in 1821. But because of the food, the drinks, and the shops. The main drag in Old Town provides some serious Mexican culinary choices at your fingertips and the amount of agave spirits flowing from its cantinas is staggering. As someone who continues to be both enthralled and overwhelmed by the amount of new Tequila, mezcal, racilla, sotol, and bacanora on the market, it’s an amazing experience to stroll down one small San Diego street and see that explosion first hand in the bars, restaurants, and retailers.
There’s definitely a trend when it comes to agave spirits right now, beyond the tendency for black pen ink murals on top of thick, fibrous paper labels. It’s information. More and more people today want to understand how something is made (and the rest want to argue about it), especially in a vast and oft-misunderstood category like agave spirits. You might think this level of transparency to be overkill, but I get it. Having spent many years traveling through both Jalisco and Oaxaca, there’s a world of difference between large scale industrial agave spirits and the ancestral, agricultural spirits driving the craft market. Small producers and suppliers are doing whatever they can to distinguish themselves from those giants, turning what was once a kitschy, anachronism of a bottle into a canvas for artistic expression and integrity. It’s been incredible to watch.
In a sense, that same transformation has occurred in Old Town, driven by similar passions and that same desire for sincerity. Rather than cater to the lowest common touristic denominator, the neighborhood is making the most out of the current culinary renaissance and devotion for traditional Mexican heritage, distinguishing itself from the more thematic city centers like Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown in San Francisco. Hand-made flour tortillas, mezcal bars with diverse and eclectic selections, traditional restaurants with regional specialties, and retail options with hundreds of different agave spirits at your fingertips.
There’s a focus on how things are made, why they’re made that way, and—most importantly—why they taste better as a result. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.