North Regional Final: Filliberto’s (3) v. Mexico Viejo (6)

December 30, 2008

Let me be honest.  I had completely discounted Mexico Viejo’s chances of defeating Filliberto’s.  In fact, I had already delved into deep internal debate regarding how well Filliberto’s would match up against Santana’s in the final 4.  Well, guess what? Mexico Viejo, which had a very average performance in round 1, was anything but average in round 2.  In the battle of carnitas burritos, Mexico Viejo upset Filliberto’s 40.5-23.5.

***Note: I know some of you will have trouble believing the result.  All I can do is ask you to try the carnitas burritos at both establishments.  Anybody with a tongue should be able to taste the difference.

Mexico Viejo (Encinitas)

 

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Overall Taste (24/25 Points)

This carnitas burrito was one of the best I have ever had.  The tortilla was warm, soft, and light.  Juicy, seasoned, and cooked the perfection, the carnitas was masterful.  Perhaps most impressive was the care Mexico Viejo took to ensure the ingredients were presented in the proper proportion.  The guacamole, carnitas, tomatoes, onions, and tortilla all complimented each other nicely, without any of the individual flavors being too prominent.

Service/Atmosphere (3.5/5 Points)

Previously I awarded Mexico Viejo 1.5 points for service/atmosphere, writing:

Mexican Viejo is located in a small shopping center next to Brett’s BBQ (pretty decent for SD BBQ), and a Dairy Queen.  It is a large establishment, and while not spotless, cannot be considered dirty by taco shop standards.  While it was disappointing that there was no outdoor seating, the real problem is the place has no charm about it.  Too big, not enough energy.

This time, I was more impressed.  The eatery was buzzing, yet somehow, within 2 minutes of ordering, my burrito was ready for consumption.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (1/5 Points)

My previous opinion still holds:

Like Aiberto’s, Mexican Viejo displays an offering of 3 different types of salsas at a bar with pickled carrots, cucumbers, and spicy peppers.  There were 2 red sauces, and 1 salsa verde.  The hotter version of the red sauce tasted less like salsa and more like tomato sauce.  The  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.

Presentation (4/5 Points)

It is hard to do too much with burrito presentation, but Mexico Viejo pulled through.  Their burrito looked nearly as good as it tasted.

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Freshness (4/5 Points)

The carnitas was very lean, and clearly not canned.  The guacamole may or may not have been homemade, but at the least was a quality, pre-packaged brand.  The onions were fresh.

Value (4/5 Points)

$4.19 for a very large, and very tasty burrito is certainly decent bang for your buck.

Filliberto’s (Encinitas)

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Overall Taste (10/25 Points)

After tasting such a fantastic burrito at Mexico Viejo, me and my fellow eaters were in great moods as we walked into Filliberto’s.  Unfortunately, the jubilation did not last long.  Two bites into our burrito, the mood at the table turned somber.  The carnitas pieces were hard and burnt.  Additionally, the meat was overly fatty.  The tortilla too was overcooked, and the guacamole poor.  Onion played too prominent of a role in the flavor.

Service/Atmosphere (3/5 Points)

Before I paste what I previously wrote, I would like to mention something I overlooked.  The tinted windows make the shop very uninviting.

 

Filiberto’s is your classic, somewhat grungy Southern California taco shop situated a short hop from the ocean.  It contains a drive through, but more interesting, it maintains a unique method of delivering the food to the drive through customers. Rather than setting up a delivery window in the kitchen (think McDonalds), the delivery window is placed in a separate room in the seating area.  An employee walks 0ut from behind the counter and into the “delivery room,” passing off the food to hungry customers waiting in their car.  Bizarre, but cool.

Filiberto’s also contains a number of interesting wall decorations.  For no apparent reason, dozens of pictures of babies line the wall near the service counter.  Paintings of running horses, and other works of art adorn the other walls.  These artworks look a little tacky, but nonetheless add further charm to the establishment.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (3.5/5 Points)

Last time, I raved about the hot sauce.  This time, the sauce was more watery, and contained less flavor.  Still good, just not exceptional.

Presentation (2/5 Points)

The onion chunks were way too big (hence the overly strong onion flavor).  The tortilla did not appear soft, instead looking a bit stale.  I did appreciate the customized paper used to wrap the burrito.

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Freshness (1/5 Points)

The meat was terrible.  The guacamole was not fresh.  The tomatoes were not at all vibrant.  The only fresh ingredient was the previously mentioned onions.

Value (4/5 Points)

The pricing in this match was the closest I have ever had.  The differential in price (compared to Mexico Viejo) was only 1 cent: $4.20 before tax.


West Regional Final: Caliente (1) v. Roberto’s (9)

December 29, 2008

After getting stuck with the universally feared enchiladas in round 1, Caliente rebounded and put up a 41 point performance in round 2. While Roberto’s was not at all terrible, it was simply no match for the more talented Caliente. In the tournament’s second battle of beef tacos, Caliente defeated Roberto’s 41-32.5.

Roberto’s (Del Mar)

 

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Overall Taste (16/25 Points)

Roberto’s beef taco was very average.  The shell was over-fried, and the taco as a whole was too greasy.  The beef was both too chewy, and inappropriately burnt on the edges.  

Service/Atmosphere (3/5 Points)

Previously I awarded Roberto’s 5 points for service/atmosphere, reporting:

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.

This time, I was immensely disappointed.  The atmosphere remained incredible, but the service was the worst I have received since I began reviewing taco shops.  My tacos were not ready for consumption until a full 30 minutes after ordering.  This length of wait is unacceptable, and was so long that the unthinkable happened…The proximity to the beach became a negative.  The ocean winds eventually became too much to handle, and I, along with my fellow eaters, became uncharacteristically grouchy while waiting for our tacos.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (4/5 Points)

My previous report explained:

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.  

This time, I felt the hot sauce was a bit more flavorful, and not at all watery. 

Presentation (3.5/5 Points)

My taco was wrapped in paper.  It was a bit on the puny side, but at least the shell was homemade.  The cheese was slightly melted and even contained a nice sprinkling of white cheese on top.  Major problems included the sickly looking full (not chopped) tomato slice, and a complete crack in the bottom of the shell.

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Freshness (3/5 Points)

Nothing notable to report.

Value (3/5 Points)

$2.75 per taco.  This value grade may be a tad too generous, but oh well.

Caliente (Sorrento Valley)

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Overall Taste (21/25 Points)

The taco beef was perfect: stringy (but not chewy), juicy, and flavorful.  The shell was perfectly, and freshly fried.  Only complaint was the cheese: it tasted good, but could have been more melted.

Service/Atmosphere (4/5 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.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (4/5 Points)

In my previous visit, I noted the hot sauce had a “nice smokey flavor, and was spicy, but not too spicy.  Additionally, the sauce was mixed to the perfect viscosity.”

Presentation (4/5 Points)

Stuffed to the brim with juicy meat, vibrant tomatoes and lettuce, and two types of cheese, these taco looked supremely tasty (and it was).  Only negative was the overload of unmelted cheese.

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Freshness (4/5 Points)

The shell was fried fresh.  The tomatoes and lettuce appeared fresh.  The beef was fine.  No complaints.

Value (4/5 Points)

My magnificently huge taco (the picture does not do it justice) only cost $2.25.


South Regional Final: El Indio (2) v. Santana’s (7)

December 27, 2008

Another heavyweight has fallen.  In a battle of carne asada tortas, Santana’s knocked off El Indio 40-32.  This performance marked the second consecutive time Santana’s has crossed the 40 point barrier, becoming the first establishment to do so twice.  

***Note: To read the first round review of the restaurants in question, click the links on top of the pictures.

,El Indio (Downtown San Diego)

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Overall Taste (15/25 Points)

El Indio’s torta was somewhat bland and their carne asada tasted too much like ground beef.  The sandwich was also a bit too mushy.

Service/Atmosphere (3.5/5 Points)

Previously, I wrote:

El Indio was fairly busy, yet the operation was efficient.  It is very clean, and run by a friendly staff in a professional manner.  The combination of clean indoor and outdoor seating is a nice touch.  The only thing El Indio is missing is that extra little charm found at some of the coastal taco shops.

Everything except for the comment about efficient service still holds.  I was forced to dock one half point for inefficient service on this visit.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (3.5/5 Points)

El Indio’s hot sauce is more of a “salsa fresca” than a traditional taco shop hot sauce.  It comes in 2 varieties: mild and hot, and is made with what appears to be fresh tomatoes.  It lacks the smokey flavor found at many establishments, and although fresh, is really only average in flavor.

***Note: This time around, I found the flavor slightly more delightful, resulting in an additional half point.

Presentation (2/5 Points)

The torta was wrapped in tin foil, and placed on a sturdy, black plate.  An unwrapping of the foil revealed a soggy and smushed down sandwich.  Compared to the fantastic presentation found at my last visit, I was extremely dissapointed.

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Freshness (5/5 Points)

Much like Mucho Gusto, El Indio excels in their freshness.  Unfortunately, this time around, the freshness did not result in added tastiness.

Value (3/5 Points)

Tortas tend to be among the pricier menu items at taco shops, so I was not too disappointed in being asked to fork over $5.70 for my sandwich.

Santana’s (Pacific Beach)

 

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Overall Taste (18/25 Points)

Overall, Santana’s cooked up a pretty solid torta.  The bread was much, much tastier than at El Indio.  The carne asada actually tasted like carne asada.  The only serious problem was the overload of lettuce which overwhelmed some of the other flavors.  While it is easy enough to brush off excess lettuce, I feel that burden should be on the chef, not the customer.

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.

Quality of the 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.

Presentation (4/5 Points)

The torta was placed in a large styrofoam container which helped hold the sandwich together without flattening it.  The bun was not soggy looking and even contained a fair share of toasting marks.  As an added bonus, the torta was pre cut, allowing me to eat in a more organized manner, and worry less about the filling spilling out.

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Freshness (4/5 Points)

Fresh carne asada.  Fresh salsas. [Freshly toasted bread].  Not quite Chipotle level, but no complaints.

Value (5/5 Points)

At only $4.50 for a good sized torta, Santana’s must be rewarded for its great value.

 

***Note: I finally found my camera charger, so, going forward, you can expect a return to the higher quality pictures.


East Regional Final: Juanita’s (13) v. Mucho Gusto (12)

December 25, 2008

Coming off strong wins against much higher ranked opponents in round 1, both competitors were eager to prove their first round performances were no fluke.  Mucho Gusto did just that, while Juanita’s struggled to such an extent, I am no longer able to recommend it for anything except it’s beef tacos (round 1 menu item).  The final score was Mucho Gusto: 38, Juanita’s: 14, in a battle of chicken burritos.

Juanita’s (Encinitas)

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Overall Taste (5/25 Points)

At Juanita’s, I was served what may very well be my worst chicken burrito of all time.  The chicken was soaked in grease, yet somehow completely dry.  The tortilla was rubbery and undercooked.  The other ingredients were…well, there were no other ingredients; just chicken and tortilla.  Compounding matters were the hot spots in the burrito, suggesting the employment of a microwave in the cooking process.  I carried a nauseous feeling with me the rest of the day.

Service/Atmosphere (1/5 Points)

 My opinion of the atmosphere is unchanged.  Previously I wrote:

“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.”

Quality of the Hot Sauce (1/5 Points)

Again, the hot sauce tasted watery, providing a little kick, but not much flavor.

Presentation (2/5 Points)

The burrito was too greasy, and the chicken too stringy.  Juanita’s brought back their sturdy white plate, but this time the entree was too hideous for the plate to hide.

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Freshness (1/5 Point)

The chicken was of an incredibly low grade.  Reminded me a bit of those “other chickens” in the Foster Farms commercials.

Value (4/5 Points)

$3.25 for a burrito is not bad, especially compared to the prices at Much Gusto (read below).  Gets docked a point just because the burrito was so bad.

Mucho Gusto (Del Mar/Carmel Valley)

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Overall Taste (20/25 Points)

Again Mucho Gusto excelled in the food.  The burrito was made with tender, flavorful, all white-meat chicken.  The tortilla was soft and fluffy.  The fresh tomatoes tasted exactly that: fresh.  I was slightly disappointed by the guacamole which was under-salted, but overall, Mucho Gusto did a great job on their chicken burrito.

Service/Atmosphere (4/5 Points)

As previously written: “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)

Presented in a nice basket on a bed of chips, the burrito looked fantastic.  The healthy looking chicken located on the interior of the tortilla caused my mouth to salivate prior to my digging in.

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Freshness (5/5 Points)

I am not sure any taco shop is going to rival Mucho Gusto’s freshness.

Value (0/5 Points)

At $7.49 (before tax) for a simple burrito, Mucho Gusto again received no points for value.  Value seems destined to be Mucho Gusto’s downfall.


North Regional Match 2: Filiberto’s (3) v. Kotija Jr. (14)

December 18, 2008

In the final match of round 1, Filiberto’s put up a solid performance defeating Kotija Jr. 29.5-24 in the battle of Carne Asada Chips.  Filiberto’s, a heavyweight amongst North County coastal taco shops, looks poised to do some serious damage going forward, and is sure to benefit from a different menu item since the eatery is not exactly known for their nachos.

***Note: I apologize for the grainy photographs.  My camera battery was on empty, and I was not able to find my charger.  Photos were taken on a cellular phone.

Filiberto’s (Encinitas)

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Overall Taste (13/25 points)

The nachos were fine, but nothing special.  The 2 types of cheese (one white, and one orange), were a nice touch, but the guacamole was mediocre and the chips were burnt.  The carne asada was moist, but not entirely flavorful, and I am certain would have complimented a burrito much better than the nachos.  The refried beans were notably tasty.

Service/Atmosphere (4/5 points)

Filiberto’s is your classic, somewhat grungy Southern California taco shop situated a short hop from the ocean.  It contains a drive through, but more interesting, it maintains a unique method of delivering the food to the drive through customers. Rather than setting up a delivery window in the kitchen (think McDonalds), the delivery window is placed in a separate room in the seating area.  An employee walks 0ut from behind the counter and into the “delivery room,” passing off the food to hungry customers waiting in their car.  Bizarre, but cool.

Filiberto’s also contains a number of interesting wall decorations.  For no apparent reason, dozens of pictures of babies line the wall near the service counter.  Paintings of running horses, and other works of art adorn the other walls.  These artworks look a little tacky, but nonetheless add further charm to the establishment.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (5/5 Points)

Things started off well when I saw the “squeeze tubes,” and only got better from there.  The flavor of the hot sauce was fantastic, and the spice level perfect.  No complaints.

Presentation (2/5 Points)

Predictably, the nachos arrived in a styrofoam tub.  The cheese was not totally melted, and the abundance of sour cream made the nachos look a little too much like puke.  Nonetheless, it is pretty difficult to make nachos look too bad.

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Freshness (3/5 Points)

The guacamole was not homemade, but the fact that the chips were burnt suggest they might have been.  

Value (2.5/5 Points)

Nachos tend to be one of the more expensive items at taco shops, so I was not too shocked when I was asked to pay $6.40 for my huge platter of chips.  Still not a value though.

Kotija Jr. (Encinitas)

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Overall Taste (10/25 Points)

There was little I liked about these nachos.  The carne asada was tough and chewy.  The guacamole was almost non-existent, but this might not have been such a bad thing because the little I was able to taste had a weird mealy flavor.  Yuk.

Service/Atmosphere (3.5/5 Points)

Kotija Jr. is a massive restaurant with lots of different seating options.  Customers can choose between indoor seating, street-side balcony seating, and two different covered patio options.  In addition, there are both booths, and traditional chair seating to choose from.  Like Filiberto’s, Kotija Jr. is located near the ocean, but unlike Filiberto’s is missing that extra little charm.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (4/5 Points)

The hot sauce came in a squeeze bottle, but not the type of squeeze bottle I have become accustomed to.  Rather than being placed in a clear vessel, the hot sauce sat in a yellow bottle.  At first I was concerned they had mistakenly given me mustard, but after one bight, my fears were relieved.  The hot sauce was flavorful and had some spice…very nice.

Presentation (2/5 points)

Somebody call a doctor, because the salsas sitting out at the salsa bar (used for takeout customers) looked sick.  The nachos themselves were not much better.  They were topped by loads of cheese, but the cheese was unmelted.  The carne asada looked about as good as it tasted, which is in no way a compliment.

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Freshness (1/5 Points)

The meat tasted canned, the guacamole was not fresh, the cheese was of a poor grade, and the chips were not homemade. 

Value (3.5/5 Points)

$5.50 for a reasonable sized platter of chips-not bad.

 


London “Taco Shop” 2: Tortilla

December 1, 2008

Located close to my lodging and recommended by Time Out London, Tortilla was certainly worth trying.  As it turns out, Tortilla is an eatery that follows Chipotle’s model to the tee.  The interiors are eerily similar, and the menu has the same layout and food options.  Even the burritos are served the same way: wrapped in tin foil and placed in a plastic basket.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Tortilla as a Chipotle replacement for Americans living abroad.  The food is just not good enough.

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Overall Taste (10/25 points)

Bland.  That’s the best word to describe the flavor of a Tortilla burrito.  The “braised pork” in my burrito contained absolutely no flavor.  The “spanish rice,” added nothing more than texture.  The tortilla-standard. I was appreciative of the homemade guacamole, but come on, how hard is it to add some seasoning to the meat and rice?

Service/Atmosphere (3/5 points)

As I said, the restaurant was pretty much identical to your typical Chipotle, and really, there is nothing wrong with that.  The interior was clean and modern, and the restaurant was buzzing with positive customer energy.  Communal seating added to the fun atmosphere.  With that said, there was minimal seating, and there was only room for me to park one of my butt cheeks on the edge of the bench.  The other cheek was forced to maintain mid-air suspension for the duration of my meal.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (1/5 points)

Again, bland.  I had the burrito maker add pico-de-gallo, and salsa verde to my burrito.  I finished the entire burrito without tasting either of the two salsas.  The supposedly medium-spiced salsa verde added absolutely no heat to my burrito.

Presentation (3/5 points)

As previously mentioned, the burrito was rolled in tin foil and placed in a plastic basket.  It’s a nice way of presenting a burrito, certainly better than just plopping it on a tray.  Unfortunately, my burrito was poorly rolled, and upon unwrapping the foil, I immediately noticed large soggy puddles on certain regions of the tortilla.  Proper draining of the beans and meat, combined with some employee training in “burrito rolling 101” would have contributed to a much higher score in this category.

tortilla-burrito

Freshness (4/5 points)

Freshness was the one area Tortilla shined.  While I could not taste the food, I am certain it was fresh.  The grill where the meats are cooked was in plain site, and an inspection of the raw meats revealed the use of high quality freshness.  Likewise, the guacamole was made from real avocados-not extracted from a pre-packed bag.  The salsas contained nice color and also appeared to be made on premises.

Value (1/5 points)

Not only was the burrito mediocre, but I had to shell out 6.10 pounds for it.  While I refuse to take exchange rates into account, instead treating a pound and dollar equally, I cannot possibly award more than 1 point for a bad burrito that cost two times what many of the best San Diego taco shops charge for their much superior burritos.

 

***Note: The Official Tournament will resume in approximately 2 weeks time.  Round 2 should present some intriguing match ups, and much closer battles than what was seen in round 1!