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

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