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

Post-Tournament Awards

January 13, 2009

As previously mentioned, I will be awarding a number of “post-tournament” awards.  These special honors are intended to recognize the best (and the worst) performers in individual categories.  Awards will range from “best hot sauce,” to “most likely to require a puke bag.”  Awards will be posted over a period of time rather than all at once.  However, before we delve into post-season honors, I once again want to congratulate Caliente for their overall excellence, resulting in their being named tournament champions.

Tournament Championship: Caliente (1) v. Santana’s (7)

January 9, 2009

They saved their best for last.  In the closest, and highest scoring (at least from an aggregate perspective) match in tournament history, Caliente bested Santana’s 41.5-39.5.  While Santana’s more than demonstrated it belonged in the final, Caliente was able to gain a distinct edge in service/atmosphere, as well as value.  Following the match, Caliente ownership was informed of their tournament championship.  In response, Cal’s issued the following classy statement:

Thank You…we’ve been around here for 20 years.  The same cooks have been making the same fine food.”

Here’s to another 20 great years at “Cal’s.”  Lets hope other taco shops begin to follow their lead.

***Note: In the coming days, I will be unveiling a selection of “end of tournament awards.”  These special awards will include highly sought after honors such as “best presentation,” “best guacamole,” “best hot sauce,” and of course “least likely to feel sick the next day.”

Caliente (Sorrento Valley)


Overall Taste (20/25 Points)

  • California Burrito (4/5 Points)
  • Carne Asada Quesadilla (5/5 Points): Absolutely phenomenal.  Caliente serves up two gigantic quesadillas that are filled with cheese, carne asada, refried beans, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, and onions.  This dish is very close to a 25 pointer on the typical scoring scale.
  • Carnitas Taco (4/5 Points): The carnitas was immensely flavorful, and very juicy.  I would have preferred the shell to be their famed homemade hard taco shell, but instead, the carnitas was placed inside two overlapping corn tortillas.
  • Chicken Torta (3/5 Points): The generous portion of chicken was certainly a prevalent flavor.  I am still not sure whether I enjoyed the flavor, but at least there was flavor.  The bun was terrible-very soggy.  Other ingredients included green Ortega chilis from a can, cheese, and onions.
  • Beef Rolled Taco (4/5 Points): Very solid.  Cheese, beef, and shell all tasty.  Guacamole not amazing.

Service/Atmosphere (5/5 Points)

I am sure you are getting tired of hearing this same description every time, but too bad, it’s an accurate representation that never changes:

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 (4.5/5 Points)

The only problem is the lack of hot sauce diversity as Cals only serves one red hot sauce:

Cals delivers a consistently high quality hot sauce that combines a smokey flavor with the proper level of spice.

Presentation (4/5 Points)

Everything was placed in sturdy styrofoam vessels.  The quesadilla was MASSIVE, and looked delicious.  The torta was overstuffed: stringy chicken, globs of cheese, green peppers, and onions spilled out of the toasted (but soggy) bun, and onto the tray.


Freshness (3/5 Points)

The carnitas was very fresh.  Everything else was only okay.  The guac was not homemade.  The tomatoes lacked color.

Value (5/5 Points)

The massive hodgepodge of greasy goodness (including the super-sized quesadilla), totaled only $20.82.

Santana’s (Pacific Beach)


Overall Taste (19/25 Points)

  • California Burrito (4.5/5 Points)-In my first round match, I described Santana’s California burrito as:

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.

This time, I still immensely enjoyed my burrito, but it was not quite as good as during the first visit.

  • Carne Asada Quesadilla (4/5 Points)-Much better than it’s showing in the Final 4.  This time, I noticed the subtle complexity of the carefully selected cheese complimented the fantastic carne asada beautifully.  I still feel the quesadilla would be better if contained a few more ingredients.
  • Carnitas Taco (2.5/5 Points)-Like Cal’s, Santana’s wraps their carnitas meat with two soft corn tortillas.  These tortillas were bland.  The carnitas itself was overcooked, and the weak guacamole  was overwhelming. 
  • Chicken Torta (4/5 Points)-The bread was tasty, and toasted to perfection…not at all soggy.  The chicken was good, but overwhelmed by the expansive farm of lettuce.
  • Beef Rolled Tacos (4/5 Points)-The beef was solid.  The cheese was properly melted.  One of my fellow eaters* who does not typically enjoy rolled tacos described these as “the best he has ever tried.”

***Note: Once he tried them, this taster thought the rolled tacos at Cal’s were comparable to Santana’s.

Service/Atmosphere (3.5/5 Points)

The restaurant is clean, and efficiently run, but is not nearly as relaxing, nor as interesting as Caliente.  A little too “corporate.”


Quality of the Hot Sauce (5/5 Points)

Again, phenomenal:

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)

Pretty much identical presentation to Cals.  In fact, in selecting the photo for Cal’s presentation, I accidentally uploaded the Santana’s picture first.


Freshness (4/5 Points)

The guacamole was processed, but the carne asada was great, and the tomatoes were vibrant.

Value (4/5 Points)

At $23.71 for the entire meal, the value was still pretty good, but not quite as great as Cal’s.

Semi Final 2: Santana’s (7) v. Mexico Viejo (6)

January 6, 2009

The cinderella story is over for Mexico Viejo.  After just eking out a first round victory, Mexico Viejo shocked tournament followers by offering up a 24/25 carnitas burrito in round 2.  Unfortunately, in the Final 4, Mexico Viejo reverted to something closer to their true talent level, losing 17.5-34, in a battle of carne asada quesadillas.  Santana’s, which is already preparing for its much anticipated face-off against Caliente in the finals, was dominant once again.

Mexico Viejo (Encinitas)


Overall Taste (6/25 Points)

Yuck.  The carne asada tasted like overcooked pot roast, and was quite possibly boiled rather than grilled.  The quantity of cheese was minimal, but due to Mexico Viejo’s ill-advised choice of “American cheese,” the lack of “queso” may have actually been a good thing.  The tortilla was dry.  No other ingredients were included in the quesadilla.

Service/Atmosphere (3.5/5 Points)

Once again, Mexico Viejo churned out my selection in unbelievable time.  I ordered, and within 2 minutes, my quesadilla was ready.  The atmosphere though is nothing more than average.

Quality of the Hot Sauce (1/5 Points)

At least Mexico Viejo is consistent with their hot sauce:

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 (2/5 Points)
The quesadilla was presented in a styrofoam tray, and appeared a little dry.  The carne asada looked and smelled unappetizing.
Freshness (1/5 Points)

The carne asada was poor.  The tortilla was stale.  The cheese: the cheapest possible.
Value (4/5 Points)

No complaints as I paid only $4.50 for a sizable quesadilla.
Santana’s (Pacific Beach)


Overall Taste (16/25 Points)

The carne asada was delicious-generously seasoned, and grilled (not boiled) to perfection.  Unfortunately, the quesadilla contained no ingredients other than cheese, tortilla, and carne asada.  Not bad, but certainly not one of Santana’s stronger menu items.

Service/Atmosphere (4/5 Points)

Same as in previous visits:

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)

Hands down, “quality of the hot sauce” is one of Santana’s strongest categories:

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 quesadilla was presented in a white styrofoam box.  Accompanying the quesadilla inside the box was a plot of tortilla chips, guacamole, and sour cream.  The quesadilla was cut into slices, and layered in a lovely arrangement.  Grill marks gave the tortilla some nice color.


Freshness (4/5 Points)

The cheese used was a white cheese that tasted (even if it wasn’t actually) sophisticated.  The carne asada was grilled fresh, and was of decent quality.  The guacamole was not all that fresh.

Value (1/5 Points)

Other menu items at Santana’s are more affordable, but at $6.50 for an only average sized quesadilla, I was not at all impressed.


So there you have it: SANTANAS v. CALIENTE in the final.  Results will be available on Friday afternoon.  I anticipate a tight battle that may come down to categories other than “overall taste.”