Back to "the barrel" (Vaqueros Carne Asada, 69th & Imperial)
Every true San Diegan has a go-to taco shop in their area for the occasional late night (or mid-day) drive-through stop. As long as it offers a few personal favorites done the way you like them and the location is effortlessly convenient, it doesn't even have to be a top-ranked taqueria (though there are usually so many to choose from that there is little need to compromise). The near-instant gratification of on-demand rolled tacos and carne asada burritos at any hour of the day is second only to fair weather in the top reasons for living in San Diego, and the brightly-painted shacks and stucco shells of failed Boston Market franchises that dispense these delights are like temples to me.
Ye Olde Barrel
In my high school days, I frequented no taco shop more ritualistically than "the barrel" at 69th Street and Imperial Avenue - if only because it was right down the hill from Morse High. Taking its nickname from the shape of the building (a former Picnic'N'Chicken, if I'm not mistaken) the barrel has changed hands a number of times over the years but has remained a taco shop. When I went there in the late 80s, it was part of the locally legendary Roberto's chain (of which more will be said in a future entry). Today, the barrel houses Vaqueros Carne Asada, but its brilliant yellow and orange stripes remain, and it remains a top lunchtime stop with the students from up the hill.
A huge carne asada taco
Despite the imagery used in their logo, there isn't any flaming grill at Vaqueros - they cook their meat on a flat grill like most old-school taco shops. Their namesake carne asada is reminiscent of what they served at the barrel back in the day, which is to say that it is nothing to write home about (a bit bland and dry, even) but served in huge portions. I had it in a huge soft taco that also featured a heap of fresh, finely diced pico de gallo that made it an acceptable taco, even if it was missing a wedge of lime.
Similarly massive pollo asado taco
My pollo asado taco was less of a disappointment - crisp (almost fried), tender and succulent, it was above average and definitely a step up from the stringy red chicken that was usually the only kind of chicken offered at taco shops in the days when I was a regular at the barrel. Maybe they should change the name to "Vaqueros Pollo Asado": from the orders I overheard, word seems to be out about what they do right at the barrel these days.
Tres rollies con guac
Probably the most popular snack for highschoolers then and now would be rolled tacos, the deep-fried, guacamole-slathered indulgences that are often the single best measure of a taco shop's merits, calorie-for-calorie the most bang in town for your teenage buck, bar none. Vaqueros delivered the goods with their rollies for sure: fried to a crisp from tip-to-tip, stuffed fat with slow-cooked beef and topped with runny guac and good old fashioned stringy cheese - not a trace of lettuce or queso cotija to be seen.
Vaqueros' hot sauce, a simple but substantial red with plenty of kick (no chipotle disappointment here), suited the rolled tacos perfectly. It was far less watery than the hot sauce of old (with no whole seeds floating in it), but its direct, uncomplicated flavor reminded me of rolled tacos miles behind me.
The barrel has never been what you'd call a cutting-edge taco shop, but it has been a dependable resource to its neighborhood for decades, and it remains a classic San Diego 24-hour drive-through taco shop. We're lucky to have such solid eats always within arm's reach.