Post Tournament Awards: Rolled Tacos

February 25, 2009

Growing up I was a big fan of the frozen taquitos from the local mega mart.  It was not until I was introduced to taco shops that I realized just how good a true rolled taco, fresh out of the fryer, can be. 


Best Rolled Tacos: Santana’s

I have to be honest.  I was pretty dissapointed with most the rolled tacos I tried throughout the tournament.  Santana’s were okay, but this is not a full-fledged endorsement.  The beef was solid, and the cheese properly melted, but in no way were they exceptional.

Also Considered:

Caliente-Received the same score in the finals as Santana’s for their rolled tacos.  Again, pretty good, but nothing to rush out for.

Worst Rolled Tacos: Aiberto’s

Aiberto’s rolled tacos were horrendous.  The taste reminded me of frozen taquitos poorly nuked in the microwave (Note: I always prefered to cook my frozen taquitos in the oven.  The result was a crispier shell).  They were flavorless, and contained barely any beef.  The guacamole tasted like something taken out of a year old package and mixed with water.  The only redeeming quality was that halfway through my first rolled taco, the cheese melted to the perfect consistency.

Also Considered:

Nobody.  Aiberto’s was that bad…



Post Tournament Awards: Carne Asada

February 15, 2009

Carne Asada is the staple meat at most taco shops.  It goes great in burritos, quesadillas, nachos, and some believe tacos and tortas as well.  It was randomly selected as the filling in a number of match-ups, allowing me to try a wide variety of preparations.



Best Carne Asada: Santana’s

My first trip to Santana’s allowed me to critique their California burrito.  One bite later, and I was in disbelief.  Their carne asada was perhaps the best I ever had.  Generously seasoned, and perfectly grilled, I had absolutely no complaints.

Also Considered:

Caliente-I am pretty sure there is nothing they do poorly.

Worst Carne Asada: Kotija Jr.

This was an utter dissapointment.  I included Kotija Jr. in the tournament because I had been tipped off that they had “the best carne asada in San Diego.”  Not so.  The carne asada was tough and chewy, nearly necessitating a trip to the dentist following consumption of the “meat.”

Also Considered:

Cotixan-My first bite revealed carne asada that was very tough.  The beef was over seasoned in an attempt to mask its poor quality.

El Indio-Their carne asada tasted like low-grade ground beef.  Odd, for an otherwise solid establishment.

Post Tournament Awards: Service/Atmosphere

February 3, 2009

Some people think a good taco shop should be as clean as an abandoned port-a-potty.  They argue the grungy atmosphere adds to the experience.  I disagree.  A good taco shop should be sanitary, relaxing, and have friendly employees.  

Best Service: Mexico Viejo

I visited Mexico Viejo three times.  In each of the three visits, my food was ready within ninety seconds of ordering.  All of these visits took place during the peak lunch hour.  Taco shops are known for their quick service, but Mexico Viejo was so quick I am still trying to uncover their secret.

Also Considered:

Caliente-Second only to Mexico Viejo in speed of food readiness, Caliente is staffed by wonderful employees who rise to the challenge every lunch rush.

Worst Service: Roberto’s

On one visit, I waited over thirty minutes for an order of beef tacos.  Unacceptable.

Also Considred:

No other shop came close to the remarkably slow service found at Roberto’s.

Best Atmosphere: Roberto’s

Roberto’s may have room to improve in service, but it’s atmosphere cannot be beat.  Seating is on a large, clean, outdoor patio overlooking a lagoon that filters into the nearby Pacific Ocean.  The smell of the sea salt permeates into the air, and combined with the presence of a beachy clientele, Roberto’s takes on a nice Southern California surfer vibe. 

Also Considered:

Caliente-You have heard it many times before, but its true: a visit to Caliente feels like a vacation to a quaint Mexican village. The restaurant is part of a group of separately owned restaurants that share the same building-a small house on a street corner.  Cal’s is home to beautiful patio seating with chairs and tables that combine to place you at a comfortable eating height.  The patio is surrounded by lush flora and the entire facility is very clean. 

Worst Atmosphere: Aiberto’s (Who else?)

Everybody in this place, from the workers to the customers looked miserable.  After trying the food, I could tell why: the customers probably wished for a barf bag, but were just too embarrassed to ask.  The interior was dirty, and the pickled carrots had flies swarming around them.  The music was too loud and inconsistent-alternating between punk rock and spanish genres.  The only reason I awarded a single point for service/atmosphere, was I found it kind of cool that the place had a drive-through.

Also Considered:

Rudy’s-Taco shops should not be located in liquor stores.

Nico’s-Their decision to remove the video games left eatery, located in a bland Carmel Valley shopping center, with no charm.

Juanita’s-Juanita’s is small, dirty, and loud.  The indoor seating is disgusting, and the outdoor seating is subpar, basically located on the very busy, and very loud 101.  Juanita’s looks and feels like a shack.  The bars on the windows give the joint a sketchy feel.

Best Overall Service/Atmosphere: Caliente

Runner up in both service and atmosphere, Caliente was the easy pick for best overall service/atmosphere.

Also Considered:

Santana’s-Pretty solid on both counts.

Roberto’s-Chances are food does not typically take 30 minutes to prepare at Roberto’s.  With even slightly better service, Roberto’s would be an absolutely delightful place to grab a bite.

Worst Overall Service/Atmosphere: Aiberto’s

The depressing atmosphere rubs off on the employees, all of whom mope around lethargically. 

Also Considered:


Post Tournament Awards: Hot Sauce

January 25, 2009

Every year, I sit through the entire Academy Awards show, endlessly waiting for the few “big awards.”  You know, best picture, best director, and the top actors.  I care much less about categories such as “short film-live action.”  Therefore, I have complete sympathy with you, my beloved readers.  For the past few weeks, you have sat loyally by as I have announced the winners of categories such as: “best presentation,” and “most fresh,” categories that some argue did not even belong in the competition in the first place.  Today though marks the start of the more interesting categories.  We may not quite be there, but I would argue that “best hot sauce” is at least equivalent to “best editing,” which at least seems important.

Best Hot Sauce: Santana’s

Their five unique and flavorful hot sauces received no less than full marks in every visit.  The green “ranchera salsa” was my favorite of the lot, but the other flavors were nearly as wonderful.  None of the hot sauces were watered down.  All of them brought something different to the palette.  Outstanding.




Also Considered:

Caliente-Probably the best tasting of the classic, red hot sauces.

Mucho Gusto-Fresh salsas that were not watered down.

Worst Hot Sauce: Mexico Viejo

For a shop that made the Final IV (albeit in upset fashion), Mexico Viejo has extremely disappointing hot sauces.  They are consistently watery, and have bizarre flavors.  As I wrote after my initial visit to Mexico Viejo:

 The hotter version of the red sauce tasted less like salsa and more like tomato sauce.  The more mild version was nothing more than an extremely watered down version of the hotter sauce.  The salsa verde was spicy, but contained a higher proportion of H20 than the human body.  It’s aftertaste was bizarre, and not in a good way.

Also Considered:

Aiberto’s-Does the fact that they were considered for yet another award in futility surprise anybody?

***Note: I apologize for my inconsistent posting.  I will try to announce “category awards” at least once a week from here on out.

Post Tournament Awards: Presentation

January 17, 2009

Many readers have told me they think presentation was an over-weighted category.  Their argument is that value and atmosphere are more crucial to the taco shop experience and the final score should reflect such realities.  I disagree.  A well presented dish demonstrates a shop’s passion for the food, and is a real treat to experience.  

Best Presentation: Mucho Gusto

Yes, in Mucho Gusto’s Final 4 match against Cal’s, I was somewhat critical of the presentation.  However, in Mucho Gusto’s two other matches, it received perfect marks, absolutely annihilating the competition in the category.  The pride the cooks/owners take in their food is demonstrated by the appearance of every dish.  As a reminder, this is what Mucho Gusto’s wonderful cuisine looked like:






Also Considered:

El Indio-Their rolled tacos were beautifully presented.  Their torta-not so much.

Juanita’s-The beef tacos looked great due to the use of a homemade shell and sturdy white plates.

Closest Resemblance to Dog Food: Nico’s

Okay, I dropped the ball on this one.  During the tournament, I gave Nico’s 3/5 points for presentation.  They received such generous marks because their enchiladas were presented in a really nice plastic container.  In retrospect, after looking through all the food photographs again, Nico’s served the worst looking food and it was not even close.  The unmelted cheese, the grotesquely off-putting enchilada sauce, and the whole garden of lettuce combine to make an extremely unattractive dish.


Also Considered:

Aiberto’s-Some of the worst looking rolled tacos I have ever seen.  The hot sauces did not appear any more appetizing.



Post-Tournament Awards: Freshness

January 14, 2009

While some people consider a lack of freshness to be a badge of honor for taco shops, I heartily disagree.  Little is more off-putting than a rotten tomato, or a tangle of brown lettuce in an otherwise solid taco. 

Most Likely to require a puke-bag: Aiberto’s

The first eatery I frequented was also the most disgusting.  Aiberto’s served “rolled tacos” that looked and tasted like the “taquitos” from the frozen food closet at your local liquor store.  They were soggy, cold in the middle, and contained inedible meat.  The “guacamole” dished out on top of the taquitos was puke-green in color.  It was clearly a mix of pre-packaged guac and water.  My guess is Aiberto’s used 3 parts water to 1 part pre-packaged guac.  If you feel it neccesary to buck my recommendation and eat at Aiberto’s, I suggest booking an appointment with your personal doctor ahead of time.

Also Considered:

Aiberto’s won this award in unanimous fashion.

Freshest Cuisine: Mucho Gusto

Mucho Gusto epitomizes freshness.  The guac was homemade with real avocadoes.  The chicken was of a high grade, and all white-meat.  Tomatoes were used extensively in all dishes, and were vibrant as anything I have seen at my local farmer’s market.  The hot sauce was made on premises, and all dishes were cooked to order.  Truly remarkable.

Also Considered:

El Indio-All of the tortillas are homemade on the presses in front of the customers.  The guacamole and salsas are also prepared daily by the kitchen.  Unfortunatley for El Indio, their freshness did not translate into exceptional tasting food. 

Post-Tournament Awards: Value

January 13, 2009

An underrated category, value may not have decided many matches, but it is certainly an important consideration when deciding whether to frequent an eatery on a regular basis…

Best Value: Caliente

Caliente not only serves great tasting food in a wonderful atmosphere, but does so at discount prices. The massive (and absolutely delicious) quesadilla pictured in this picture, cost less than $5. In none of their four tournament matches did another eatery provide a cheaper meal than “Cals.”

***Note: Students, you are in luck. For even better value, ask for the student discount prior to paying. To ensure a level playing field, I refused to take the discount into account, but Cal’s chops a full 20% off the bill for students. Amazing!

Also Considered:
Santana’s-With a number of restaurants in San Diego County, Santana’s is managed very efficiently, and passes the savings on to the customers.

Worst Value: Mucho Gusto

What a joke. While Mucho Gusto made quite a splash in the tournament, reaching the Final IV, their prices are so ridiculous some taco shop connoisseurs are reluctant to consider them a true taco shop.

Four rolled tacos cost me $6.99 before tax, a simple chicken burrito was $7.49, and a chicken quesadilla set me back $8.98-again, before tax. It is true Mucho Gusto uses fresher ingredients than any other taco shop. It is also true that, in general, their food is delicious. However, their prices are borderline criminal. In the current economic environment, it is difficult to recommend Mucho Gusto for anything except the occasional splurge.

Also Considered:
Nicos-$5.99 for the worst enchiladas I have ever eaten.
El Indio-You pay for the repuation