Tuesday, July 3, 2012

San Francisco, are you listening? THIS is what a burrito should look like.

If you don't see tasty, golden-brown bubbly patches, odds are your burrito was STEAMED and the tortilla was never given a chance to fulfill its true potential in appetizing texture. Is YOUR burrito wrapped in foil? I thought so. I bet the tortilla doesn't even have lard, and at least half the filling is basmati rice...

Friday, November 4, 2011

El Cuervo Taco Shop (110 West Washington St, Hillcrest)

Bustling, high-rent neighborhoods are generally the least likely places to find a decent taco shop,perhaps because the necessary overhead to open shop prices out family businesses in favor of trendy chains and aspiring franchise players. Hillcrest, for example, has a plethora of taco shops but few of any real distinction. I can think of a couple standouts on the outskirts of the district, however (on Washington street), where I can only assume that the owners own the property (and where they must be earning more selling burritos, etc than they could hope to with an outdoor parking lot).

El Cuervo Taco Shop
One of these taco spots is El Cuervo, which might not be the oldest such joint on this strip, but it's been open in the same location as long as I've been alive, and I ain't young. Look for the giant crow (cuervo) standing next to a cactus painted on the side of the building. I've been coming here since I washed dishes and served smoothies at a long-defunct vegetarian bistro nextdoor back in '89 (when the only thing on the menu I could eat was cheese enchiladas), and they've remained uncannily consistent. Happily, my days of self-deprivation are behind me, so I was able to sample a good chunk of the very large menu on my recent visit.

Potato Rollies
There's nothing "foodie" about El Cuervo, and it isn't necessarily "authentic homestyle Mexican fare," but they keep the fryer hot and the oil clean. Portions are generous and prices are student-friendly. It's an ur-typical San Diego taco shop with a border-style menu that gives just a few nods to current trends - speaking of which, I started off with a plate of three potato rolled tacos. I've long enjoyed the rollies at El Cuervo, and these meatless versions were no exception: crisp all the way around, with ample filling and slathered with guac, lettuce, and grated cotija as well as the usual yellow cheese. The potato filling is a bit milder than the usual stringy beef version, and I found they benefitted from a generous amount of hot sauce. Fortunately, the salsa bar was right next to my table. Chicken rollies are also available, for picky eaters who might want me to remind them that rolled tacos are gluten-free.

The fish taco I spoiled with too much sauce
Back when I was living in Europe, I'd come back to San Diego once a year, and I'd meet a friend at El Cuervo for fish tacos because they were cheap, huge and among the best in town. This time, my experience was somewhat soggier (though it's probably my own fault - lookit how much red sauce I spilled on that thing! I'm pretty sure the batter was nice and crispy before I botched it. The cabbage (which is NOT optional on a fish taco) was fresh and it had a huge chunk of whitefish, evenly tostadito without tasting overbrowned.

In a way, I probably should have ordered a carne asada burrito, for the complete San Diego taco shop experience. Maybe I'll save that for my inevitable 'Berto's visit. What caught my eye here at El Cuervo was a handwritten special (which may have been posted years ago for all I know) - four mini street tacos for $3.99. They give you a choice of two types of meat with these, and there are a lot of options: carne asada or pollo asado as well as savory tongue, head and tripe. I ordered two tacos de buche and two al pastor, a richly seasoned, spit-roasted pork that is pretty rare in local taco shops. El Cuervo's been serving it as long as I can remember, and it's a definite highlight: smoky, spicy and sweet, it's served with diced onion, cilantro and salsa verde. The buche (which is stomach), served with rich, substantial guacamole, was juicy and flavorful, tender but not overcooked. These tacos were "mini" only in the sense that El Cuervo's regular sized offerings are "medio" - with these quality ingredients, at a dollar a taco, it's a tough deal to beat.

I drove home from El Cuervo with my pants unbuttoned and a deep sense of fulfillment. Canceling the rest of my plans for the evening, I settled in and watched wrestling on TV.

El Cuervo Taco Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who ate all my photos?

Looks like something went awry with my photo links while I was away - thanks, Google! Hang in there and I'll fix 'em up. More reviews coming soon!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rolberto's Mexican Food (3462 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights)

Every now and again I wake up to find myself in Normal Heights, an area that's changed surprisingly little since I learned to walk there in the mid-70s. It remains eminently walkable, the single-story skyline is largely intact, and all-in-all it still feels like a an urban, working-class family neighborhood. Sure, it's littered with indie hipsters, but I suspect most of them think Normal is some kind of ghetto, came down to go slumming one weekend and never left because YOU lacked the cojones to kick them off your couch. Personally, I find it refreshing that homogenizing redevelopment has lagged here - it's a favorable climate for taco shops.

Not to be confused with the ubiquitous local chain ( note the "L"), nor the nearby tequila bars that also happen to serve tacos, Rolberto's is tucked into the back corner of a micro-mini mall, next to a tiny auto repair lot, with what appears to be an actual working pay phone outside. They open early and serve breakfast, serving up solid eats all day long, and also stay open late. A huge chunk of their traffic hits once the bars close, and while the after-hours crowd is diverse and colorful, I can't say I've ever seen a tranny fight break out there, like you might in "classier" parts of town. You might have to order through iron bars, but listen, I didn't say this was a great choice for a first date! 

My styrofoam runneth over!
What Rolberto's IS, is a darn good place to get tacos. It's sure not as fancy as a lot of trendy mid-city taco spots, but that's never been what yours truly is interested in. There are occasions for dining out, but there are a lot more times when you just need to chow down. About eleven last night, for instance. I ordered a trio that included pollo asado, adobada pork and some good ol' cabeza to satisfy my carnivorous instinct. The soft tacos were overflowing with filling, pico de gallo and guacamole (except for the rich cabeza, for which I wish I'd had a slice of lime). Everything was cooked up fresh and served sizzling hot, even the juicy chicken glowing with the magical aura of manteca.

The cheese adds protein to this starch-and-lard plate
Forgetting the size of Rolberto's portions, I also had a plate of three potato rolled tacos, a starch-on-starch dish that makes very little nutritional sense but packs an explosive textural thrill for the palate. The guy behind the iron bars can really work a fryer, and the rollies were hand-formed on the spot, not pre-rolled from the fridge. There was almost too much guacamole, and it was pretty good. Look, I grew up with an avocado tree, so I'm picky, alright? The grated hard cheese topping is something San Diegans have come to take for granted, but it really jazzes up what amounts to a giant, mashed potato-filled tortilla chip.

Good homies are getting hard to find!
Rolberto's is a great neighborhood taco shop. I don't live in Normal Heights, but if I did, it would be a likely place to find me. I'm not saying you should drive across town to eat here on your last night in town or anything, as there's probably somewhere closer to you that's equally satisfying, if not such a great value. Besides, nobody in Normal wants you spoiling the neighborhood.

Rolberto's Mexican Food on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tranny taco shop throwdown!

Some tacos are really good, but worth fighting over, girls? "Oh, hell no!" 

Apparently this went down at one of the taco shops on University Avenue in (you guessed it) Hillcrest.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Las Cuatro Milpas (1857 Logan Ave.)

If you don't have an opinion of Las Cuatro Milpas, you're probably no kind of San Diegan. The same family has sold tacos, tamales and tortillas at the original Barrio Logan location since the "zoot suit" era, just a block from present-day Chicano Park. Very few eateries anywhere on the west coast have witnessed so much history; Las Cuatro Milpas would be a mandatory stop on any local taco tour even if it didn't offer some of the very best Mexican food in town. 

You can tell the lunch rush is over because the line is so short
Mind you, not every so-called local is a believer. Plenty of folks scoff at the long waiting line, the cafeteria-style service, the limited hours, and the "elemental" menu. Others find the meat "bland" and the hot sauce coarse and oily. My guess is that the immediate and constant availability of drive-through fish tacos and carne asada burritos has quelled many San Diegans' sense of adventure about Mexican food. As a friend said not long ago when we visited a longstanding Santa Barbara taco shop, "it doesn't really matter if it's 'authentic' or not - they've been doing it their way for so long, their way IS the right way." That's exactly how I feel about Las Cuatro Milpas: there may be a mere handful of menu items to choose from, but all of them are imbued with real soul - the kind of primally gratifying kick  that can only come from the magic of lard. I guess our vegetarian friends are out of luck - if they're even talking to us anymore. But never mind, we have important matters to discuss - and a good half hour wait to go over them!

Best flour tortillas EVER?
Let's start with the tortillas. These are hand prepared daily at Las Cuatro Milpas, and are beyond compare. The corn tortillas have a fresh texture that puts other local tortillerias to shame, and the flour tortillas are so savory on their own that there's really little need to fill them with anything. Extra thick and sold to go semi-raw, their translucence is reflective of their essence of hog anima. I'd recommend you buy a couple dozen every time you visit, but chances are they will be sold out by noon!

Chorizo con huevo
In that case, your best bet is simply to order a bowl of chorizo con huevo, which comes with tortillas on the side. No need to order anything but the small size for one person - this is a serving of beans and rice, but in no way is it a side dish. This is real sustenance of the sort that matters to those who know the difference between eating and dining. There are no trendy seasonings here: just the perfect combination of pork, beans and rice plus the luxury of tortillas served "bien tostados" with brown bubbles speckling the soft, yielding dough. 

Crunchy taco!
Tacos at Las Cuatro Milpas are served in fresh-crisped corn tortillas, and if you're used to the more contemporary soft tacos, they are a blast from the past that you shouldn't pass up - some taco shops around town have begun to bring back the fried taco of late, but here, they never went out of style. The meat filling is largely unimportant, though it adds softness to a medley of textures that is heavy on the crunch. The homemade tortillas definitely set this apart from anything you could hope to get out of a bag of chips, and a healthy helping of good old-fashioned iceberg lettuce adds considerable mouth feel while sharp, grated queso cotija simulates the palate. Yes, I'm, talking about tacos, not pinot!

MUCH more food than I could finish!
Rolled tacos are without a doubt one of San Diego's favorite dishes, and no one has been serving them here longer than Las Cuatro Milpas. They are hand-rolled (like cigars!) and stuffed with meat (my last order was chicken) giving them a more irregular, homestyle quality that is mighty appealing. They come standard with sour cream rather than a bunch of runny guacamole, and one plate of five is plenty to split among a few friends as a side dish.

Excellent tamales
I never come to Las Cuatro Milpas with less than 50 bucks to shop for staple groceries. If your hopes of stocking up on tortillas are dashed by the unceremonious revelation that they're "finito," hopefully you can at least pick up a dozen tamales to take home. They are paper-wrapped to best contain their huge size, copious filling and considerable lard content. If you're still reading, I have a feeling you can appreciate this fact, and your mouth may be watering at the thought of jelly-like masa dough.  A dozen will easily feed a family, or at least provide the basis for a vary indulgent weekend. I can't state this plainly enough: Las Cuatro Milpas serves Mexican soul food, and if the line is too long for you, I guess not everybody can recognize a real treasure! Whatever - more of the good stuff for me!

Las Cuatro Milpas on Urbanspoon