Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop
1810 W. Washington St. (Mission Hills)
By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Restaurant Review
About a year ago when I spoke to Jose Luis Rojano, who owns Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop with his two brothers, Rojano revealed that he had never seen a first-time customer enter the eatery with a straight face. Count me among those stunned and amused patrons when I initially encountered the eatery’s hot-pink walls plastered with bold, colorful pictures of masked wrestlers.
“Lucha libre” is the Spanish term for “free wrestling,” which showcases the high-flying moves of masked fighters who emerged famously from the rings almost a century ago. At the namesake taco shop, the Latin sport is memorialized in kitschy glamour that extends also to zebra-print seat cushions, disco balls, chandeliers and a sparkly gold “champion’s booth” that requires reservations.
These days the lines to get inside often snake a few doors down, resulting in the 45-minute wait I endured when visiting on a recent Sunday afternoon. The commotion centers largely around the eatery’s unconventional tacos and burritos laced with creamy sauces and filled with things like soft cubes of queso panela, French fries or veggies that you don’t usually see folded into tortillas.
The open-faced queso taco with crispy grilled cheese, for example, derives its novelty from a pinkish special sauce that is mysteriously tangy. It’s layered with a choice of steak, chicken or fries. The spuds reappear in greater volume as a key ingredient in the mondo “surfin’ California” burrito with chipotle sauce, which helped put Lucha Libre on the national taco trail after it was touted on Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” show.
The “veg out” burrito mixes mushrooms and zucchini with rice and guacamole, though much deeper flavors arise from the “holy moly” burrito presenting a cascade of chicken breast and chocolate-kissed mole sauce. Also blended into the scheme are chunks of white queso panela, a jiggly curd that resembles Indian paneer cheese, but turning creamier when it hits the heat of your mouth.
My current favorite is the “undefeated seafood burrito,” constructed with lots of grilled shrimp or blackened mahi. I’m partial to the latter as the feisty Serrano cream sauce inside cranks up the blackening spices on the fish. No salsa is needed here, although a visit to the high-traffic salsa bar reveals about seven different varieties that defy the norm.
Most salsas are thick, such as the creamy cilantro sauce. Another, containing mango and peppers, is as chunky as fruit salad, ranking perhaps as the spiciest. Because the choices are not labeled, you will need to employ your palate to navigate through them.
Lucha Libre is among those rare taco shops in San Diego that serves Tijuana-style hot dogs. The all-beef frank is wrapped in bacon and garnished with ketchup, mustard, mayo and grilled onions. It sounds a little frightening on paper, but in most cases it’s love at first bite, especially after a vigorous bar crawl.
There is also “TJ corn” punctuated with chilies, lime and mayo. Served in paper bowls, it’s a fantastic concoction when the kernels arrive slightly firm from a fresh batch rather than when they turn up chewy after sitting a while in the cooker.
The gourmet offerings share billing with the usual battery of rolled tacos, enchiladas and bean-n-cheesers. But the real slice of Mexican culture is undoubtedly captured through the shop’s fun and vibrant theme, which reportedly made famed masked wrestler Blue Demon Junior feel right at home when he dropped in once to taste a piece of the action.