While in San Diego, eating at least one plate of carne asada fries should be mandatory for all visitors, like an airport improvement tax, but tastier. That's not just because carne asada fries are a local invention, but also because they're awesome.
On top of a bed of french fries (typically shoestring), you get a pile of seasoned steak, a glob of guacamole, shredded cheese or Cotija crumbles, a drizzle of crema, and some pico de gallo. It's a Mexican-American mash-up—a multinational dish that takes inspiration from both sides of the border.
I've heard more than one local refer to carne asada fries as "San Diego's version of poutine," but that's only true in terms of the caloric payload and the fact that it's often consumed late at night, after several beers. It's really more like a carne asada burrito exploded on a plate of french fries, and the impact caused the flour tortilla to dematerialize.
Properly enjoying plate of carne asada fries requires full acceptance of the caloric implications, but even if you enter into the experience with some hesitation, it will dissipate after the first few bites. Because unlike many indulgent dishes, whose appeal quickly turns to regret, carne asada fries are so delicious, they're never a mistake.
For the most part, you won't find carne asada fries on most sit-down Mexican restaurant menus. They're taco shop fare: cheap, filling, and a bit messy. Here are three great places to get carne asada fries in San Diego:
The downtown Lolita's is a great option for carne asada fries before or after a Padres game. It's right beside Petco Park and within easy walking distance of the Convention Center and many downtown hotels. Overall, I think this shop does the best job executing all of the elements of the dish. You get a generous portion of seasoned steak cut into thin ribbons and sprinkled with Cotija cheese, a nice glob of guacamole, and just enough crema. Where Lolita's really excels is the details. The steak is crisp on the edges but still moist and tender, and the fries are perfectly golden brown—a lot like what you get McDonald's—and remain crisp, even with the melted cheese, crema, and guac on top.
Unlike most carne asada fries, this one comes without salsa. You can fill up containers with red and green salsas at the counter if you're taking your fries to go, but I like to eat in so I can use the squeeze bottles. That way, you get more control over the application, squirting a bit here and there, adjusting the amount based on personal preference.
Carne asada fries come in two sizes (small, $6 and large, $9). I'd stick with the small, even if you're sharing.
La Puerta has been my favorite place for happy hour in the Gaslamp Quarter for years. From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily (plus additional late-night specials), you can score appetizers and drinks for half price, which brings the carne asada fries from $10.99 to $5.49. La Puerta's version features thicker-cut fries than most, which taste a bit more starchy. Hit them with the salsa verde early and hard and you'll add some brightness.
The key difference with La Puerta's carne asada fries is the steak. It's cut in larger chunks and strips, which makes it a bit chewier, but the flavor is excellent. By default, the fries are served with grilled onions, but I'd get them on the side since they tend to overwhelm the other flavors and if you decide you'd rather not eat them, it's a lot easier than picking them off.
While you're there, you might as well go all-out. The Flautitas (potato taquitos) and chips and guac are both awesome, and at least one frozen cocktail is a must. My go-to is "Mr. MoJo Risin'," a frozen mojito served in a chilled mug (it's even tastier with a squirt of strawberry purée).
Just outside of downtown, El Paisa is where to go if you want a more authentic taco shop experience. Less attention is paid to getting the fries just right, and they could use a bit more cheese and guacamole on top, but you do get a ton of meat. A small serving of carne asada fries is $5.99. The steak is a good way to go, but they'll top your fries with any of the taco fillings, from carnitas to lengua. For $2.50 extra, it's worth adding a second type of meat. I like the al pastor (tangy pork marinated with chile and orange or pineapple juice) best.
You'll also get a complimentary platter of garnishes (radish, lime segments, onion, and cilantro) along with some chips and three varieties of salsa. Hint: what looks like the hot is actual the medium—it's the lighter red salsa that really has the most heat. To drink, there's Mexican Coke and an assortment of frescas.
For bonus points, head over to the taqueria next door after your meal and grab a stack of fresh corn or flour tortillas, or a paleta ($1) from the freezer.