Hidden in plain sight

In case you missed it, here is my review of Taqueria del Mar that appeared in Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.

Whenever anyone asks me where I go for Mexican food in Monterey, without skipping a beat, I reply “Taqueria del Mar!”

Taqueria del Mar is one of the best-kept secrets on Lighthouse.

Inevitably this is followed by a question — “Um, where?” — and a puzzled look. This little shop hides in plain sight on Lighthouse Avenue, cultivating a diehard following over the years for its fresh Mexican food.

The menu favors a number of taqueria favorites — tacos, burritos and the like.

Taqueria del Mar is especially accommodating to vegetarian diners — they don’t use animal fats in cooking and offer a number of hearty vegetarian alternatives.

It’s encouraging to see vegetarian selections that have more meat — pardon the pun — than at most other Mexican restaurants. Vegetarians don’t have to settle for bland rice and beans — many items can be made with artichokes and other veggies instead of meat.

The artichoke taco is one of the vegetarians' favorites at Taqueria del Mar--but it's great for carnivores too!

One of the signature items on their menu is the artichoke taco ($4.40). The taco is piled high with fresh veggies, with cabbage and pico de gallo underneath sautéed onions and artichokes. It was certainly filling — and full of fresh flavor.

And carnivores have a number of filling tacos to try on the menu, including a diverse selection of seafood tacos, including fish, squid, bay shrimp, scallop or crab.

The fish tacos are another favorite at Taqueria del Mar, accented with dill sauce.

The fish taco ($4.79) is made with lightly grilled tilapia — no greasy battered or fried fish here. The accompanying dill sauce might sound a little strange — most probably don’t associate dill with Mexican food — but it’s really a great complement to the flaky fish.

The squid taco had unique flavor, but was a little chewy.

I was intrigued by the squid taco ($3.95), which turned out to be a curious bite — the strips of squid were flavorful, though a tad chewy.

Guaraches — fresh meat, cabbage and pico de gallo atop lightly fried masa — are another specialty at Taqueria del Mar.

The guaraches are HUGE and easily fill even the hungriest of stomachs.

My chicken guarache ($7.79) came with a towering mound of fresh cabbage, juicy chicken, sour cream and all the fixin’s. And it was surprisingly light — the masa wasn’t crispy or greasy, but actually almost fluffy.

I just wish the flavors had been a little more distinct from the tacos — the guarache was basically a giant taco served on masa instead of a tortilla. It was a missed opportunity to add some extra flair to build a more unique flavor with the masa.

The burritos easily make for two meals.

Keep an eye out on the special board above the cash register. Here, you’ll find a number of tasty menu additions, like the burrito de fajitas — a burrito stuffed with chicken (or beef, if you’d prefer) and sautéed green peppers and onions ($7.99). It’s like a plate of fajitas rolled up in a burrito!

You'll find the burrito de fajitas on the special board above the register.

The burrito was packed with rice, beans, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream alongside the chicken, onions and peppers. I’ve never been able to finish an entire burrito on my own and this time was no exception — I wrapped up half of it for takeaway.

Taqueria del Mar runs a lean ship — it’s a dynamic duo running the register and the grill. The owner is always patient with me as I pore over the menu debating what to order — even though I usually come back to the same thing every time.

This little shop is one of the best-kept secrets on Lighthouse. It may feel a little sparse compared to some of the flashier neighboring restaurants, but the food is fresh and filling, making a great value for lunch or dinner.

Taqueria del Mar is at 530 Lighthouse Ave. in Monterey. 372-7887. www.yelp.com/biz/taqueria-del-mar-monterey.

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