By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The Taco Stand’s main attraction sits in the front kitchen window. It’s a luscious, cylindrical piling of reddish-hued pork on a vertical spit. A thick ring of pineapple serves as its hat while a pan underneath catches whatever juices escape.
Known as al pastor, the meaty mass is a descendant of Lebanese shawarma, which arrived in central Mexico more than 200 years ago.
The problem with many north-of-the-border taco shops that sell al pastor is that you never really see the actual rotisserie. Even in places where I’ve stared deeply into their semi-open kitchens, I rarely spot the sweaty spectacle. Oftentimes I discover later that their al pastor is conjured up in the oven. In my opinion, that’s cheating.
Situated in The North Parker where the former Tacos Perla operated, this is the fourth and newest branch of The Taco Stand within San Diego County. There is also one in Miami, Florida and another in the pipeline for Orange County. All of them are owned by San Diego-based Showa Hospitality, which operates Himitsu in La Jolla and several restaurants in Mexico City.
Bigger than an actual food stand and smaller than most fast-casual taco joints, the place is designed to give customers a Tijuana experience, both aesthetically and gastronomically.
As with the other locations in San Diego, lines often snake out the door to the cadence of Mexican pop and folk music playing loudly.
Here, a cinder-block wall opposite the open kitchen is the backdrop for several tables and metal folding chairs. Where there is paint, it appears faded. There’s also a long narrow shelf on the wall harboring an array of bottled hot sauces. However, you won’t need them; the salsa bar in the back accommodates with habanero and mild red versions, as well as creamy cilantro and chipotle sauces. They’re all terrific.
While today’s culinary hipsters flaunt their coolness over tacos, I happily digressed by initially ordering a burrito — packed with al pastor, of course. I wanted as much of the spiced meat as my mouth could handle per bite opposed to small plops of it you get in a street taco, which The Taco Stand constructs with house-made corn tortillas.
The burrito was big and divine. The meat offered the proper flavors of clove, cinnamon, garlic and paprika. What tumbled out quickly got snapped up by my plastic fork. Along the way little chunks of pineapple surfaced, giving the pork the exotic, fruity flavor it deserves. Locally, nobody else’s al pastor beats this.
With a ravenous companion in tow, we shared a cob of Tijuana-style corn, a massive piling of carne asada fries and several tacos.
The sweet, crisp corn was thinly veiled in mayo and finely grated cotija cheese, just as I like it. Yet the judiciously applied ingredients were upstaged by an over-sprinkling of what tasted like Tajin seasoning, hence a dominating tang prevailed.
The carne asada fries, though salty, played harmoniously to flame-grilled Angus beef — probably the best quality I’ve encountered in this American invention of a dish that’s tailor-made for putting drunken nights to rest.
Our pollo asado taco offered no surprises in its composition of charred chicken, cilantro, onions and guacamole. As with the other tacos we ordered, the corn tortilla was fresh and pillowy.
My favorite was the camaron taco, which the menu says is made with “spicy shrimp.” The shrimp, however, didn’t strike us as spicy — but the creamy chipotle sauce tucked inside with the additions of cabbage, cheese, avocado and tomatoes sated our appetite for heat.
My companion was hell-bent on a nopal taco featuring grilled cactus as the star ingredient. Over the years, I’ve tried to acquire a taste for this celebrated plant flesh but can’t get past its slippery texture. Complemented by cilantro sauce and melted cheese, it was the plumpest taco in our trio. He gobbled it down effortlessly after I took an obligatory bite.
The Taco Stand’s menu is succinct compared to the barrage of choices that send you aflutter in other taco eateries. The additional taco options are battered or grilled fish, Angus steak, and steak with cheese and beans. The same fillings extend to a few quesadillas and several burritos, which are hefty in size.
Churros are hot sellers here. They’re made on-site and supposedly receive generous doses of vanilla extract. They were sold out on our visit, so we instead fished out of the cooler a paleta (Mexican popsicle) on a thick, wood stick. Pistachio was our flavor of choice. Similar to Italian spumoni, the dessert was a cool, semi-sweet ending to a soulful meal.
—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. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.