- Matthew Schniper
The woman behind the counter, eyes wide, raises her hand to her mouth to cover a big smile, then laughter, before pointing at me and saying, "You?! But you're small!"
I'd just ordered the Wet Super Burrito, because naturally, when you see something called that on a menu, you should. And for $9.99, I figured it couldn't be that big. I of course was wrong. But I didn't know that yet, so I raised an arm, defending my manhood and pretending to flex a bicep, and said "Esta bien, soy fuerte." ("It's okay, I'm strong.")
We were doing that thing where we talked to each other in one another's language, playfully practicing. It seemed appropriate given all the other customers around me were speaking Spanish. Next she said "okaaay," in a mock-hesitant tone, typing the item into her tablet above the register, along with an assortment of street-style tacos plus an horchata and tamarind juice.
Moments later we're at the table when she arrives with a burrito truly the size of a muscular man's forearm, like to make a bull blush and a modest eater whimper. We instead admired the beast with superlative cuss words before slicing in like mad surgeons. It is wet (from deep and spicy chile rojo on one half and chile verde on the other) and super (from loads of flavorful pulled pork and chicken mixed with superior refried beans, and perfectly restrained amounts of rice and melted cheese). And big enough for three meals' worth of food, requiring two tortillas to bring its might to bear.
The burrito's already good, but greatness happens when we begin goofing with three bottles of sauce the woman left us: a creamy and mild jalapeño-avocado; a scorching tomatillo-jalapeño, and an equally spicy and vinegary chile de árbol, kind of like a more badass version of Tapatío. We try different combos and nothing sucks; in fact, we sear our tongues into submission delightfully, having already earned a first burn with complimentary chips and salsa dropped earlier. Oh, and by salsa, I mean the most non-gringo holy-hellfire-aggressive-hot, chunky tomato puree that you can't stop eating even after it hurts.
The sauces amp the tacos too, each fine for its style: a tender shredded beef crispy taco of the day, a softer-than-most lengua (tongue), earthy pastor (gyro-style pork) and fatty, crispy tripa (intestine) — always the best. The drinks come to the rescue, appreciatively undersweet and natural tasting, non-synthetic, unlike most on the market. The horchata's a touch thin, but cinnamon strong, while the tamarind's no more tart than a cran-apple juice. On a next visit, the jamaica (hibiscus) also proves less sugary and lovely.
We return to the tidy space, peach walls over cream-colored tile, this time using the Spanglish to discern that owner Elvira Muñoz opened six months ago, having previously run a place outside San Diego for 14 years — hence the "Estilo California" ("California style") banner across the top of the large printed wall menu. The other woman, my language buddy, turns out to be Muñoz's niece. When I ask her to explain how the food's any different tasting than other Mexican outfits locally, she ponders the question for a moment before saying it's "comida de la casa" ("house food"). I interpret that as her basically saying it's Muñoz's own style, how she's come up cooking at home.
Being close to the ocean must have informed a dish like our Botana de Mariscos (seafood appetizer), composed somewhat like a ceviche, with scallops, octopus, oysters and shrimp tossed with onion, tomato and cucumbers in a curing citrus sauce — orange segments and twists of lime make the beautiful dish pop with color. We abstain from the offered saltine crackers and fork it straight, though any leftover tortilla chips work pleasantly too. Only the oysters feel less than peak freshness.
From an all-day breakfast section, we can't resist trying the chilaquiles con bistec (tortilla chips fried with chile verde), which arrives more as a steak and eggs plate with queso fresco-garnished green salsa chips and refried beans on the side. The egg's nicely under-fried, primed for a hearty yolk bleeding over whatever you wish. And the meat's presumably pounded and sliced very thin, tenderized to a chewiness and finishing with a carne asada-like tanginess. A thick Cubana Torta (having nothing to do with the Cuban sandwich with which you're familiar) piles pastor, chicken and halved sausage links onto spongy telera bread with lettuce, tomato and avocado relish. Unfolding flavor layers of salt, char and the respective meat flavors all combine for a damn good sandwich, once again enhanced by the house sauces in the bottles.
We're only left unimpressed by the house flan and tres leches cake for dessert, the first being lightly caramel kissed and too egg-y (my colleague dubs it breakfast flan), and the latter being more like a layered and iced chocolate and vanilla cake, not so wet with cream as usual and desired. Neither are bad, just not great renditions of the dishes. Which runs counter to the whole savory experience on display. With much more on the menu we have yet to try, and the assurance of Elvira's amazing sauces to garnish, we'll return here ahead of many other Mexican outfits in town. Even if my Spanish fails to improve, my mood in the moment most certainly will.