I have to admit, I wasn’t too thrilled to go here when my local dinner companion recommended it. It has a painfully tacky lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) running through it, complete with the masks, the fake gold trophies, signed photos of fighters and a hot pink wall, all of which reminded me of that horrible little movie with Jack Black, Nacho Libre. The place also happened to be situated in Mission Hills, right next to El Indio which I had been dying to go to during the whole trip, having heard of their awesome carnitas and because it is said to have been the birthplace of the taquito. The concept of a “gourmet taco shop” repelled me for some reason. Plus Adam Richmond had shot a segment there – nuff said.
The worry lifted a bit when I glanced the salsa bar, loaded with eight very different salsas and some pickled veggies as well. Next to the bar was a fountain with a number of different Mexican sodas readily available for the same price as the American fountain drink – Jarritos, Escuis, Manzanita Deliciosa, all that good stuff. I actually got to try horchata for the first time. Mexican horchata is a beverage made by soaking rice and a cinnamon stick in water for a few hours, then blending the three together, straining the liquid out through a cheesecloth and chilling the liquid over ice. It is sometimes flavored with vanilla or combines with milk/almond milk to make the texture a bit more luscious. This one was really good. The liquid picked up the delicate flavor of the rice and seasoned it with the comforting, festive flavor of cinnamon. It reminded me of the rice pudding my mom used to make when I was a kid. A little bit rich, and kind of a strange combination with the hot chilis and acidic lime which makes up some Mexican food, but enjoyable when consumed as liquid dessert at the end of the meal.
But yeah, the salsas were fantastic and they came in a wide range of spiciness and strength of flavor. There was a mild jalapeno one, flavored with lime juice, that I was particularly fond of. There was one with chunks of mango which, when combined with red chilis and cilantro, were deliciously juicy and sweet. There was also a sour cream based cilantro thing, a fattier, more comforting dipping sauce which stood its ground on the crispy tortilla chips we were given to munch on while waiting for our tacos to be prepared. My favorite item from salsa bar was, by far, the lightly pickled carrots and onions. Delicate, still crunchy strings of onion and large, beefy blades of carrot were pickled to the point where they still maintained their texture, just barely touched with cider vinegar and a tiny bit of jalapeno juice for some heat. The heat and acidity made my mouth water and fanned the fire of my appetite. As it turned out, the tortilla chips and salsas with all different ratios of garlic to chile to lime juice ended up being my favorite part of the Lucha Libre experience.
Classic Adobada Taco with cilantro and onions. The corn tortilla was okay, soft but firm enough to stand up against the ingredients within. The adobada was very nice, made of pork shoulder (I think) and marinated for hours in an adobo made of red chile pepper and vinegar, until the meat became fall-apart tender, juicy soft and packed with flavor. The pork had some fatty parts which became slightly gummy, but that’s not something I mind texturally at all. The adobada was left alone to shine, for the most part, topped with only some cilantro and chopped white onions for a zing, to cut the grease of the pork. A squeeze of lime brought out the natural sweetness of the meat.
(Not so) Undefeated Seafood Burrito – A grilled and blackened chunk of mahi mahi, topped with shredded purple cabbage, pico de gallo, some jack cheese and a creamy serrano sauce. The corn tortilla was fresh, firm at some points but soft and mushy on the sides – not for some people but the way I prefer them. Inside, a few pieces of mahi mahi filet, which were a tad too firm for me and did not fall apart into natural fishy flakes of flesh readily enough when bitten into. Perhaps it was overcooked. I would have preferred the fish to have a rub or marinade to give it a boost in flavor, instead of most of the flavor coming from the sauce that was slathered on top. The latter was ok, a nice white sauce flavored with the heat of serrano chiles, though maybe a tad too salty for my liking. The sauce overpowered the pico de gallo, which barely added anything to the taco and could have easily been left off altogether. The cabbage added some crunch but there could have been more of it and the cheese was blanketed the thing, making it a bit too cheesy for a fish taco. A good taco, but just good, definitely not the best I had on this trip.
TJ HOTDOG – Having heard of this regional specialty, I thought I’d try it out, and got pretty much what I was expecting. An all beef hotdog, wrapped in bacon and fried, then topped with ketchup and mustard as well as some grilled onions and bell peppers. The bun was soft, slightly toasted around the edges. The hotdog was not bad, dried out a bit at the ends, but breathed juice back into by the fatty bacon wrapped around it. The bacon was actually pretty crispy at some parts, though mostly chewy altogether. Grilled veggies were a nice surprise, adding some sweetness and caramelized char to the meat. Nothing gourmet but what I imagine would be a perfect late-night snack after a few too many Negra Modelos.
Overall I had a fine dinner at Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop. The highlight was the complimentary stuff, the rainbow of chunky and smooth salsas made from a variety of different chile peppers, as well as the experience of tasting different Mexican sodas available, with free refill, at the fountain. The adobada pork, I thought, was delicious and I appreciated that it was not too heavily garnished. The opposite happened with the fish taco, in which the protein was overburdened by too much creamy sauce, cheese and not enough fresh stuff. I did not end up trying their signature Surfin’ California Burrito, which combines a San Diego tradition (fries inside of a burrito) with LL’s juxtaposition of shrimp and beef. Maybe I should have, since it is their specialty, but I’m generally not a fan of beef and shrimp in the same dish, nor fries stuffed inside of anything (Greek gyro, being a notable example). The Surfin’ California Burrito I leave to you, Adam.