Temporary Suspension of the Taco Shop Bracket

September 26, 2008

If John McCain can suspend his campaign for president, I can surely temporarily suspend my campaign to crown the best taco shop in San Diego County.  Unlike Senator McCain, who seemed to have made a strategic political decision, my decision to suspend my campaign is one of necessity.  

Tomorrow, I board a plane for London, where I will be studying this upcoming year.  The taco shop tournament will be completed either over the winter recess, or sometime next summer.  If you wish to be notified when the tournament resumes, send an email to: betterdealsinaugust@gmail.com with “sdtacoshops notification request” in the subject line.  Until then, I encourage all of you to get out and sample some of the great taco shop cuisine available here in San Diego.


East Regional Match 2: Karina’s (5) v. Mucho Gusto (12)

September 23, 2008

Every good bracket style tournament has a 5-12 upset, and this tournament is no different.  In a battle of chicken quesadillas, Mucho Gusto defeated Karina’s 42-31.  Karina’s was good, but Mucho Gusto rose to the challenge with a lethal combination of great food, service, presentation, and freshness.  Unlike most match ups, this battle featured taco shops with two different styles.  Karina’s played it by the book, offering cheap, greasy cuisine.  Mucho Gusto offered a more unconventional approach, serving fresh, healthy food items, but at a hearty premium.  Karina’s was unprepared for Mucho Gusto’s style, but I am sure subsequent opponents will be more adequately prepared.

Mucho Gusto (Del Mar/Carmel Valley)

Overall Taste (24/25 points)

Mucho Gusto delivered a quesadilla that was light on grease, but heavy on flavor.  A high quality jack cheese was used, and the perfect amount was measured out and included in the quesadilla.  The all white-meat chicken had a unique curryish spice, which tasted excellent.  Guacamole, and homemade chips were provided on the side.  Both tasted amazing.

Service/Atmosphere (4/5 points)

Ordering was a pleasent experience as the cashier was very friendly.  The clean establishment had a hand written menu that helped further develop the theme of a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (4/5 points)

The lovely salsa bar included 3 salsas, lime wedges, fresh cilantro, pickled carrots, and whole jalapenos.  The three salsas included: “salsa fresca”, “picosa”, and “verde mild.”  The salsa verde in particular was less watery than found at most eateries.  All of the salsas were refreshing, but not quite as flavorful as at Caliente(s) or Santana’s.

Presentation (5/5 points)

The presentation was the best I have ever seen at a taco shop.  Since some say a picture is worth 1,000 words, I won’t even bother to describe the spread, just take a look at the pic…

Freshness (5/5 points)

Fresh tomatoes, fresh cilantro, fresh guacamole, real chicken.  Not scared to try the pico.  FRESH, FRESH, FRESH.

Value (0/5 points)

The owner of this place clearly has no idea the word “value” exists.  I paid an unbelievable $8.98 for my small chicken quesadilla.  I was tempted to give a half a point because all of the ingredients were super fresh, but $8.98 before tax for a quesadilla is criminal.

Karina’s (Encinitas)

Overall Taste (17/25 points)

Not bad.  The chicken was seasoned and grilled nicely.  The sauteed onions tucked inside the quesadilla were tasty.  Unfortunately, the queso was way too hot, so much so that I was unable to tell whether the cheese lacked flavor, or whether my taste buds were just burnt.

Atmosphere/Service (3/5 points)

Karina’s has a decent location on the corner of the 101-Leucadia Blvd. intersection.  The menu has pictures, and unlike at Ricos, the food in these pictures actually looks good.  The interior has seen better days, and the tables should have been wiped down, but overall cleanliness was not a major problem.  The food took a little too long to prepare.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (3/5 points)

The hot sauce was flavorful, but way too spicy.  The hot sauce (which does come in a squeeze bottle), could have been thicker.

Presentation (2/5 points)

The quesadilla was placed on a very flimsy styrofoam plate.  The plate was garnished with pico de gallo and carrots, neither of which looked remotely appetizing.  Props though for the squeeze bottled hot sauce.

Freshness (1/5 points)

A key indicator of a lack of freshness is the onset of nausea on the drive out.  The red light on this indicator was flashing brightly, as I felt a bit dizzy upon exiting the eatery.  The pico was so discolored that it reminded my fellow taster of the tomatoes banned by the FDA just a few months ago in the salmonella scare.

Value (5/5 points)

At Karina’s, I paid a very respectable $4.85 for a hearty portion of quesadilla.  Considering the relative nature of this category, Karina’s clearly earned a full 5 point advantage in value over Mucho Gusto.  

South Regional Match 2: Santana’s (7) v. Cotixan (10)

September 18, 2008

I need to stick to presenting reviews, because this prophetizing thing is not working out.  Yesterday, I predicted Caliente(s) would be the first taco shop to cross the 40 point barrier.  Today, Santana’s did it.  In an amazing demonstration of all around strength, Santana’s defeated Cotixan 42-24 in a battle of California Burritos.

Santana’s (Pacific Beach)

Overall Taste (23/25 points)

This California burrito was one of the best I have ever tasted.  The generously seasoned carne asada was perfectly grilled.  The potatoes were nicely cooked and properly textured.  The cheese was nicely melted, and the tortilla tasty.  Because I still needed to visit Cotixan, I had only planned to consume half of the burrito, but it was so good I finished the entire helping.

Service/Atmosphere (4/5 points)

Santana’s is home to a clean, attractive interior.  An open view of the kitchen reveals cleanly cooking conditions.  Outdoor patio seating is available, but the view of the surrounding area is nothing special.  The juke box and drive through are very nice touches.

Hot Sauce (5/5 points)

The salsa bar contains 5 unique salsas, some of which I have seen nowhere else.  The five flavors were “original,” “ranchera,” “chilanga,” “tomatillo asado,” and something else that was unlabeled.  All of the salsas were flavorful, and brought something unique to the meal, but my favorite was the green “ranchera” salsa.

Freshness (4/5 points)

Fresh carne asada.  Fresh salsas.  Not quite Chipotle level, but no complaints.

Presentation (2/5 points)

The burrito came wrapped in white paper and placed on a brown plastic tray.  I was a big fan of the hefty stack of napkins placed on the tray by customer service.

Value (4/5 points)

$5.00 for a huge burrito made with high quality ingredients.  Very solid value.

Cotixan (Clairemont)

Overall Taste (10/24 Points)

My first bite revealed carne asada that was very tough.  The beef was over seasoned in an attempt to mask its poor quality.  Cheese was not only not melted, but cold.  The potatoes were hard.  Although the food was better than what I tried at Aiberto’s and Nico’s, this California burrito did not make me want to try their shrimp cocktail (yes, I actually saw someone order a shrimp coctail at Cotixan).

Service/Atmosphere (1.5/5 points)

The interior was neither clean nor dirty.  Service was very quick, but the covered patio seating offered nothing more than an ever lovely view of Discount Tire, Pep Boys, and a very busy Genesee Avenue.

Hot Sauce (3.5/5 points)

Cotixan did not quite match the 5 quality salsas of Santana’s, but they did offer both a red and a green hot sauce.  The red sauce provided a nice kick to the burrito, but the flavor was a bit too ketchupy.  The salsa verde was quite refreshing.

Freshness (2/5 points)

I could not pinpoint any specific problems, but nothing tasted all that fresh except for the salsas.

Presentation (3.5/5 points)

The burrito was presented in a thick styrofoam tray placed on a larger green plastic tray.  The hot sauces looked amazing, with the red sauce taking on a particularly interesting orangish-red glow. They were of course placed in the always nice squeeze tubes.  The only major problem was the unmelted cheese made the burrito look pretty gross when cut open.

Value (3.5/5 points)

The $4.70 price was actually better than Santana’s, and all else equal, would have received a great value score.  Unfortunately, this seems to be a classic case of “you get what you pay for,” as the ingredients were almost certainly not of high quality.


Rules Update

September 17, 2008

In the interest of full disclosure, I wish to update you on some rules changes I have recently implemented:

1.  If you are wondering why I have not yet repeated a food item even though the selection process is supposedly random, it is because I have decided to not eat the same item more than once per round. Once a round has ended, the item can once again be eaten.  Note: foods with different fillings are not considered the same item.  However, I do adjust the weights to make it less likely that any type of food will be chosen a second time in a round.  For example, a chicken burrito is not considered to be the same food item as a carne asada burrito.  However, if a carne asada burrito has already been chosen, I will adjust the probabilities to make it less likely that another type of burrito can be chosen.

2.  Due to popular request, the Final 4 will be completed in December, rather than September as previously indicated.

3.  The food item in the finals will not be randomly generated.  Instead, I will ask the eatery itself what their best item is, and will eat that item.  If I do not feel I will enjoy their best dish due to personal tastes, I will ask the taco shop for a second recommendation.   The finalists deserve to be judged on their house special, and not get jipped by being forced to prepare an item that is rarely ordered.

Alright, enough with rules updates.  Tune in tomorrow for the ever intriguing match up between Santana’s and El Cotixan!

West Regional Match 2: Caliente (1) v. Nico’s (16)

September 16, 2008

Caliente’s clearly established itself as the front runner for the title.  Even though it was forced to contend in a battle of cheese enchiladas-not exactly a taco shop speciality-it pulled through, and absolutely romped Nico’s 34-13.  Assuming enchiladas are not Cal’s tastiest menu item, it seems poised to be the first taco shop to break the 40 point barrier.

Nico’s (Carmel Valley)

Overall Taste (3/25 Points)

No, that is not a typo.  Nico’s actually accumulated only 12% of the possible points for flavor.  The enchilada’s were so horrendous that after observing the facial expressions of the other eaters, my sister was scared to take a bite.  The taste was so grotesque that the three eaters could not bear to consume the complete serving.  What made the enchiladas taste like regurgitated snail waste was a sauce that was so disgusting I am failing to come up with the proper words to describe it.  The tortilla not only looked rubbery as it jiggled on my fork, but it tasted so as well.  The cheese, which was at least edible, was not at all melted inside.  The three points were earned for two reasons: first, cheese whiz was not used, and second, I did not throw up following my two bites.

Service/Atmosphere (2/5 points)

Nico’s is located in a Carmel Valley shopping center.  It is moderately clean, and has a few pictures on the wall-none of which stand out or add to the ambience.  I was dissapointed  they had removed the game systems that had been a staple in the place for years.  Sans Pacman, Nico’s is left with little uniqueness.

Hot Sauce (2.5/5 points)

Nico’s serves 2 types of hot sauce: red and green.  The salsa verde was very watery, but at least at some kick to it.  The red sauce was much better-spicy and with some flavor.  The red hot sauce was thick, but not in a good way-more of a jelloey sort of way.

Freshness (2.5/5 points)

The previously mentioned enchilada sauce was obviously not fresh, but direct from a can.  The lettuce though was very green, and somewhat makes up for Nico’s other freshness shortcomings.

Presentation (3/5 points)

The enchiladas are presented in a very nice clear plastic container.  They are topped with the fresh lettuce and some shredded cheese.  If it were not for the presence of the very dark, nasty looking sauce they were drowned in, and the undesirable looking hot sauces, the presentation score would have been outstanding.

Value (0/5 Points)

Unbelievable.  Nico’s charged me $5.99 for two horrendous tasting enchiladas.  That is more than many sit down restaurants charge.  I guess it turns out you pay for that nice clear container.

Caliente (Sorrento Valley)

Overall Taste (15/25 points)

The fact that a taco shop was able to churn out an average tasting enchilada is pretty impressive.  The tortilla was soft and flavorful.  The enchilada sauce pretty tasty.  The cheese inside could have been more melted.

Atmosphere/Service (4.5/5 points)

A trip to Cal’s feels like a vacation to a quaint Mexican village.  I have never experienced anything quite like it.  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.  To top things off, the restaurant buzzes with the positive energy of hungry cubicle workers on their lunch break.

Hot Sauce (5/5 points)

Wow.  This hot sauce was by far the best I have tasted so far.  It had a nice smokey flavor, and was spicy, but not too spicy.  Additionally, the sauce was mixed to the perfect viscosity.

Freshness (3.5/5 points)

If it were not for the amazing freshness of the hot sauce, Caliente(s) probably would have been given a 3 for freshness.  The enchilada’s seemed homemade, but nothing jumped out as super fresh.  Not bad, but could be better.

Presentation (2/5 points)

The presentation was not great.  The enchiladas were placed in a small, flimsy styrofoam container, which did not make me happy.  The garnishing though was not bad.  The enchiladas were topped with lettuce, shredded cheese, and some enchilada sauce.  The hot sauce though looked amazing.  It was rich in color, and even though not presented in a squeeze tube, made the rest of the food look more appetizing than it would have otherwise appeared.

Value (4/5 points)

Compared to Nico’s, Cal’s is the steal of the decade.  I paid only $3.25 for 2 cheese enchiladas.  I am sure I can find cheaper enchiladas somewhere, but this grade is somewhat relative.  Also, I doubt I can find them much cheaper elsewhere.  (Note: Caliente(s) offers a 20% student discount.  I elected to bypass the discount in an attempt at fairness.  Had I used the discounted price, the value score would have clearly been a 5/5).


West Regional Match 1: Don Carlos v. Robertos

September 11, 2008

Another hard fought match, as Roberto’s edged out Don Carlos 32-28 in a battle of carne asada burritos. Both establishments served edible food, but the difference came down to Roberto’s superior atmosphere and value.

Don Carlos (La Jolla)

Overall Taste (17/25 points)

The first bite burned my tongue, as the burrito was too hot to be served.  Once the burrito cooled down, I was able to enjoy fully seasoned carne asada.  Unfortunately, it may have been a bit too seasoned, as the carne asada was so peppery, I watched and felt small, yet firm drops of sweat drip off my forehead into the napkin on my lap.  The guacamole was not great, but at least had some flavor.  Not bad.

Atmosphere (3/5 points)

Don Carlos is located on Pearl Street in La Jolla.  It is not right on top of the ocean, but when sitting on the outdoor patio, you get an “ocean peak.”  The interior and kitchen are both dirty, but two recycling bins (one for aluminum, and one for glass), are a nice touch and speak to the character of the management.  The service was exceptional with the cashier bringing my burrito to my table on the outdoor patio.  Here’s the problem: my description makes the atmosphere seem more fun than it really is.

Hot Sauce (4/5 points)

Finally, a quality hot sauce.  It not only comes in a squeeze bottle, but has a nice roasted flavor.  The sauce is spicy, but not too much so.

Freshness (2/5 points)

The guacamole is almost certainly not fresh, but at least has clumps of avocado in it.  The tomatoes did not look great.

Presentation (1/5 points)

The burrito was small and scrawny.  The tortilla crusty, and flaky.  Wrapped in foil and some thin yellow paper, the burrito tasted better than it looked.

Value (1/5 points)

Big dissapointment.  The carne asada burrito burned a serious hole in my wallet, setting me back $5.45. Unaceptable for such a small burrito.

Roberto’s (Del Mar)

Overall Taste (17/25 points)

The carne asada was not as flavorful as at Don Carlos, but did not suffer from an overload on pepper.  The guacamole was okay-probably a bit tastier than at the Don.  Solid, not stupendous.

Atmosphere (5/5 points)

The atmosphere at Roberto’s 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. The restaurant is busy, but run efficiently.  No complaints, and a great place to take in a quick bite on the way to the beach.

Hot Sauce (3/5 points)

Roberto’s is home to two styles of hot sauce: rojo y verde.  The red sauce is a bit watery, but still contains a kick and a little bit of flavor.  The salsa verde is the same way.  No squeeze bottles 😦

Presentation (2/5 points)

As seen at Don Carlos, the burrito was on the smaller side, and overly crusty.  A nice touch was the custom made Roberto’s place mat that is placed on every tray.

Freshness (2/5 points)

Nothing memorable to report on the freshness front.  Nothing stood out as being super fresh, but it was not terrible.

Value (3/5 points)

$4.60 for a carne asada burrito is somewhat standard.  The burrito could have been larger though.

New Logo

September 10, 2008

Thanks to “Melvin” who writes over at The Sacrifice Bunt, SD Tacoshops now sports a logo that would make any taco shop lover proud.