From Chula Vista’s craft breweries to South Bay’s drive-in, National City’s Market on 8th, and plenty of political activism at Friendship Park, there’s a lot happening south of I-8. One of the latest—and most delicious—developments is La Nacional, which recently launched in the heart of Chula Vista. Its owners are the same couple who brought National City’s Machete Beer House to life in 2015.
Joann Cornejo, who operates both La Nacional and Machete with her husband Eddie Trejo, says opening a cantina inspired by Mexico City and Oaxaca has been a dream of theirs since 2017, when they were initially eyeing City Heights for a possible location. They eventually found the current place at 279 Third Avenue, secured all the necessary permits, and converted the space into a restaurant—then Covid struck, forcing them to put their plans for La Nacional on hiatus.
“[The pandemic] put a two-year stop on the project, and almost ended it altogether,” she says. But she knew their idea was solid—and a concept she says that South Bay needed.
“We noticed that, during the week, Third Avenue seems to go to sleep around 9 p.m. By staying open later and offering food and drinks, we are hoping to provide a space for locals … to grab something late at night and socialize,” Cornejo explains. Chef Alvaro Hernandez’s menu focuses on classic Mexican fare, such as Sonora-style ribeye tacos, flautas de pollo, tacos de cabeza, and, of course, birria.
Bartender Felipe “Pipo” Lopez has crafted a cocktail menu where mezcal, tequila, sotol, and charanda will take center stage. “All our cocktails use a Mexican spirit as its lead ingredient,” Cornejo says.
La Nacional will soon have a small tasting room where guests can sip a variety of different small-batch spirits for a more intimate (and educational), expert-led experience. Cornejo hopes to bring in guest bartenders from Mexico, who can offer their industry experience to a brand-new audience in the United States.
However, Cornejo is adamant that even with a cocktail-forward focus, La Nacional is for all ages, at least until 8 p.m., when it will cater only to the 21-and-up crowd. Chula Vista has always been a place for families, Cornejo says.
Despite their initial setbacks, Cornejo adds, it’s worth it to see La Nacional come to fruition and Machete continue to thrive. “Machete is definitely an ode to our culture and our working class struggle—it was created with lots of doubt from many in the beer community, but has proven otherwise,” she says. “La Nacional is an ode to old Mexico, to our family, a sense of Mexican romanticism … We are hoping [guests] can leave their worries at the door and pasarla bien [or ‘have a good time’].”
La Nacional is now open at 279 Third Avenue. Hours are Monday–Wednesday, 3 p.m.–midnight; Thursday, 3 p.m.–1:30 a.m.; Friday, noon–1:30 a.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.–midnight; Sunday 9 a.m.–midnight. The restaurant is 21+ after 8 p.m.