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

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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.


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