Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taco Shop Smackdown at Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop (Washington Street at Indio, Mission Hills)

Lucha Libre: located in deepest, darkest Mission Hills
What exactly is a gourmet taco? Does it come with foie gras? If you've been following these pages, you know that I take a populist perspective when it comes to taco shop dining. I'm certainly not unwilling to pay extra for the good stuff, but I tend to be skeptical when a local taco shop is featured on cable TV and in a search engine billboard campaign (even if the other taco shop in the campaign happens to be a longtime favorite). So despite their acclaim and unprecedented marketing push (not to mention my affection for the Mexican wrestling iconography upon which their brand is based) I had never been to Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop until they "liked" Taco the Town's Facebook page, when it became clear the time had come to get over my reservations and face this challenger head-on in the ring.


A mini-museo of wrestling artifacts
I knew to expect over-the top decor at Lucha Libre, but I'll admit I hadn't bargained for the extent of it all. With masks and El Santo DVD sets for sale at the register, lucha memorabilia filling every inch of wallspace, and even their very own iPhone app (why didn't I think of that first?), the tacos were going to have to compete for my sensory attention. The menu is short compared to most local taco shops, with significant nods to California culture, including grilled veggies for the meat-abstinent, whole wheat tortillas for granola smokers and a low-carb, tortilla-less taco in a lettuce "bun" that should appeal to any remaining adherents of the cult of Atkins. I'd say it's safe to take visiting relatives here next time they stay in Old Town - there isn't any pig esophagus or cow eyeball on the menu to spoil their outtatown appetites. Heck, they can even get a hot dog if they want.


Who orders a hot dog at a taco shop, anyway?
The TJ Hotdog is a kitschy, bacon-wrapped guilty pleasure that is more typical of trucks, stands and Tijuana street carts than taquerias, but is increasingly popular as an after-hours snack in the social set for whom pork fat is considered decadent and "slumming" actually means something. Too bad mine came without bacon, making it a mere hot dog with grilled peppers and onion - hardly greasy and low-down enough to make me feel hip. Sure, I could have sent it back, but it would have taken some kind of magical bacon to get me excited about the below-average frank. I decided the cool thing to do was to just leave it sitting there at the edge of my table with barely two bites taken out of it.



Mahi-mahi taco with pineapple salsa
I was a little disappointed that no fried whitefish tacos were available, but vegetarians can probably be thankful that the fry oil stays fish- and meat- free. In any case, the "Undefeated" seafood taco comes with your choice of grilled shrimp or "blackened" mahi-mahi. I had the latter, and the taco came with a thick slab of crispy fish accompanied by finely shredded green and purple cabbage, a rather bland pico de gallo, cheese and a pale green serrano cream sauce that contributed more texture than flavor. The fish was fresh and moist, and while I am not one to complain about healthy portions, it was large enough that it should have been broken up a bit - a taco is something you eat with your hands, and this begged for a knife and fork. Is that what a gourmet taco is?


Classic carne asada taco
Lucha Libre's "Classic" carne asada taco was much more successful, and not only in the sense that it is a harder formula to screw up. The meat was fresh, tender, well-grilled and flavorful, not overcooked like so much carne asada in San Diego. The guacamole, too, was top quality - thick and rich, not watered down or adulterated, with the incomparable flavor of ripe avocados (and is there really any excuse for lackluster guacamole in San Diego?). I wish I'd found a hot sauce I could get excited about at their salsa bar: I tried several of the half a dozen or more choices, and they were all pretty tame and underseasoned. Too bad, because a great salsa might have made for a perfect taco.


Toasty Surfin' California burrito...
The "Surfin' California" burrito is LLGTS's take on a regional favorite that is really nothing more than a burrito with french fries in it. Their deluxe "surf'n'turf" version is also one of few burritos on their menu that isn't stuffed with rice in that "gourmet" San Francisco style. Fortunately, they grill their tortillas at Lucha Libre rather than steaming the burritos, a key regional difference that makes the whole thing much more palatable, enhancing the color and texture of the potentially doughy flour tortilla (especially critical when it is lardless).


...but it's what's inside that counts!
Mine was pleasantly toasty, and a peek inside revealed some nice big chunks of whole avocado, which you definitely don't always get at a taco shop. Together with the very fresh shrimp and great carne asada I mentioned earlier, this makes for a satisfying burrito. I should admit, though, that I took mine home and added my own hot sauce from the fridge!


Villano estaba aquí
For all its friendliness (and believe me, I appreciate the add! Do you tweet?) it seems to me that if LLGTS were a luchador, it would be a rudo - not the kind of bad guy who is a dirty street fighter, but an arch-villan with a haughty air of class and refinement that sneeringly mocks the peasants who shell out their hard-earned pesos to see him get his ass handed to him by the hero. I'll let you in on a little secret, though - it's not real, it's just a circus act. Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop on Urbanspoon

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