By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Upstaged by trendy restaurants and bars in the area of 30th Street and Adams is Senor Mango’s, a small Mexican eatery where you won’t find tacos, burritos, quesadillas or enchiladas.
The focus is instead on torta sandwiches, fresh fruit salads, smoothies and escamochas. The latter is what originally drew me here a couple of years ago after learning about them. Along with the cheap prices and some of the springiest, liveliest tortas in Uptown, I’ve come knocking several times.
Escamochas were a novelty to me back then. They’re a Mexican dessert made with cubed pieces of tropical fruits piled into tall glasses, and with sweet cream or condensed milk poured in. On top are fluffy nests of sliced almonds and shredded coconut.
Beautiful to the eyes and refreshing to the palate, they are common to Tijuana popsicle shops or paleterias. And because of their simplicity, I’m astounded it had taken me so long to discover them, and that they continue evading American kitchens.
The establishment’s humble exterior leads into a cramped dining area with only four or five tables. There are a couple of high tops out front, as well as picnic tables next door at Leon Produce. Customers are welcome to sit there since both businesses supposedly share the same ownership.
A cornucopia of fruits occupies the order counter in a festive display of bananas, pineapples, mangos, papayas and more. If you weren’t craving something sweet and juicy before walking in, you certainly will after entering.
But eat a torta first.
Their fresh, airy rolls are sourced from a local Mexican bakery. They envelope fillings such as chicken salad with Provolone, avocado and lettuce; tuna salad with minced celery and onions; and for vegetarians, one that is stacked with avocado, lettuce, tomato, onions and buttery panela cheese.
The “lomo” torta is my hands-down favorite thanks to a filling of fast-addicting pork loin accented with guajillo chili peppers. Expect a fair amount of heat with each bite. Also, if the yellow American-type cheese that comes on it isn’t your thing, ask for the panela instead.
Fruity things ultimately dominate the menu — agua frescas, licuados (smoothies made with low-fat milk and shaved ice), salads, yogurt cups, the escamochas, and even a hefty banana split that comes with the addition of granola. I’ve only seen it, but the visual told me to never attempt it alone.
Though summery in flavor, the “pico de gallo” salad consisting of watermelon, oranges, mango, jicama, and cucumber dressed in lime juice is available year-round. It skews your seasonal clock when eaten in the winter because of its sweet and citrusy components. It also offers an unexpected kick from chili seasoning residing on some of the fruit.
Traditional smoothies are in abundance here. They range from “sunset peach” and “very berry” to “tropical treat” and “vanilla mango.” They’re pure, thick and filling. I buy one only when I’m able to resist eating a whole torta. Should you do the same, boxed, leftover tortas hold up remarkably well in the fridge for a couple of days.
Either way, Senor Mango’s is a healthy alternative to traditional Mexican eateries. And yet I come away each time with the same level of satisfaction I get from eating a big, meaty burrito.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.