Desperate for warm rays of sunshine and the sound of crashing waves, my first day in San Diego found me walking around Ocean Beach, looking for a bite to eat. My guide and lunch companion had a few too many recommendations to choose from – some famous taco shacks, an over-hyped and Fieri-frequented burger joint, some pizzas pahlahs and microbreweries. It was one of those moments when I needed a scene first and foremost, one of those very rare occasions where the need to actually feel what kind of environment I’m in outweighs the desires of my pampered belly. So I chose the bar with the rooftop hangout with a view of the street, good for people-watching and smoking my first $3/pack cigarette in months. To go with the latter, my first San Diego craft brew: the Ballast Point Yellowtail Pale Ale, a fruity, easy-going Pilsner-like thing ideal for sunshine and snacking. The place was called the Sunshine Saloon.
The Sunshine Saloon has a very spacious ground floor, which I assume gets pretty full on weekend nights. In the center is a bar with a good number of beers on tap, many of them local. Across from the bar, built into one of the walls of the place, there is a tiny little kitchen fronted by a counter and a menu listing the typical Cali-Mex beach-day favorites. A short, mustached Mexican man stands behind the counter and patronizes you if you order carnitas in a dish that doesn’t GO with carnitas. As I had heard that taquitos (a.k.a. rolled tacos, a.k.a. flautas, a.k.a. tacos dorados) are kind of a thing in San Diego, I decided to try one of these as my intro to all things guac-topped and cheese-laden. My lunch companion explained they are actually traditionally called rolled tacos in San Diego and taquitos everywhere else in Cali. Noted.
Taquitos are known to have been invented in California, based on something that might have originally been Mexican. They consist of a corn tortilla rolled around shredded beef or chicken and fried, topped with avocado and/or salsa and/or cheese. Apparently a version of the taquito, known as the flauta or taco dorado also exists in Mexico, where they add queso fresco or crema. It’s probably more prevalent the closer you get to the border and the less women you see around, as I have a hard time picturing a Mexican abuela NOT having a problem with something like this. But whatever, it’s a cool little snack for some who like it, so good for them.
“Authentic” is relative always, and in border communities that descriptor loses its traditional meaning. Border cuisine results from the fusion of two or more regional cuisines and represents the birth of a new, authentic entity. There is, of course, non-authentic border food out there. Taco Bell and Chipotle’s and any little taco-nacho-quesadilla shack above the Mason-Dixon line ran by someone who is not from and has never been to California, to Mexico or to the border between the two. The taquitos and nachos and Baja fish tacos at these joints might be delicious, but they are not authentic – these two are not mutually exclusive. However, border food in California should not be confused with not-authentic Mexican food. The two cuisines have danced around in the sun for decades and have formed a combination, which is now its own thing. And there is nothing wrong with that.
…There isn’t nothing wrong with that, conceptually. But the taquito was, personally, not my favorite. I had the beef taquito (alright señor, no carnitas, I got it…) Though the tortilla was nice and crunchy at some parts, it was a bit hard to chew towards the center. The beef seemed dried out and there was nothing inside of the tube to moisten it up and add the juice back in. There was too low a ratio of meat:tortilla, and the beef just kind of disappeared (both in flavor and texture) against the thick, chewy corn wrapper. The salsa on the side wouldn’t have really helped, because it would’ve just made the thing spicy without lifting up the flavors of the beef. There was an overwhelming amount of guacamole topping the taquito, which didn’t really make any sense when it came to eating the thing, as it would coat the outside of the tube and just kind of topple off when the latter was raised to the mouth. Though the guacamole was nice in flavor (not too much citrus, left natural) and texture (left a bit chunky) and was obviously both fresh and ripe, there was simply too much of it and it was served in kind of a dumb way, along with the flavorless shredded cheese which accompanied it in the overburdening of the rolls.
In general, not a fan of the famous flauta, not here nor in the place it is claimed to have been invented (which I will get to in a later post). The texture of the corn tortilla (something so comforting when prepared correctly) is stolen by the deep-fry and the beef within dries out and disappears along with it. If guac-and-cheese is your thing, just get nachos instead. They are easier to eat, less phallic in shape and also better for sharing. Don’t waste money and belly space on invisible protein.
While the food was meh, I did like the place as a bar and casual hangout. It was very mellow and people seemed down to earth and friendly, no doubt mollified by the peaceful and sunny environment.