By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
It has the smallest menu of any taco shop in San Diego, with about as many food choices as what you’ll find at In-N-Out Burger. Actually, until El Tianguis added rice and beans to its lineup last month, it was even less.
Welcome to San Diego’s one and only house of rolled tacos, a colorful and pristine eatery where burritos, quesadillas and traditional folded tacos have no place.
Instead of the dizzying menu boards inherent to most neighborhood taco joints, at El Tianguis you’re faced with three easy decisions.
First: Choose the desired number of rolled tacos that suits your appetite. They’re sold in quantities of three to eight, or a full dozen. Second: Decide on the fillings — beef, chicken, potato or lentil-quinoa — and feel free to mix and match. Third: Indicate if you want them naked or dressed in Mexican sour cream, lettuce and “chihuahua cheese,” as owner Oscar Ancira calls it.
My dining companion and I had never heard the term before. Common in south-of-the-border households, Ancira compared the off-white curds to mozzarella, adding that it doesn’t become quite as melty as jack cheese, but offer the same buttery flavor. A little cotija cheese is dusted over it for extra zing.
Ancira is a native of Monterrey, Mexico. Prior to opening El Tianguis, he carried the torch of his father’s South Bay-based business, Delimex, which became a wholesaler of rolled tacos to major retailers across the U.S. The company was apparently making 2 million rolled tacos — known otherwise as taquitos — per day when he decided to sell the business.
Hence the idea of opening an eatery specializing in the flute-shaped tacos he knows best.
Vibrant wall colors and a hodgepodge of tasteful art capture the vibe of Mexico’s bazaars, which are known as tianguis throughout Latin America. Missing is a salsa bar.
“I think they’re disgusting,” he quipped.
The salsas instead come straight from the kitchen with your order. There are three different types, including tomatillo. The spiciest is a tame, red version that won’t send sensitive palates screaming for water.
A friend and I ordered the entire menu, including side orders of the rice (made with chicken broth) and beans (made with a little canola and corn oils). Both dishes were as clean-tasting as the rolled tacos. And everything washed down superbly with a bottle of apple soda (sidral mundet), which is popular throughout Mexico City.
For the shredded beef tacos, the meat is trimmed of excess fat and marinated overnight in tomato paste and spices. It offered a little more zip than rolled beef tacos served everywhere else.
The chicken tacos contain a 50-50 mix of finely shredded dark and white meat that is subtly flavored with a pinch of salt and pepper in the boiling process. In all of the taquitos, Ancira prefers gently seasoned fillings so they don’t dominate the delicate, natural essence of the corn tortilla casings.
The tortillas are made onsite a few days a week with drier-than-average dough using corn flour. The result is a crispier, thinner finish that we enjoyed across the board, and which proved to be the ultimate beauty of these taquitos.
Imagine some of the tube-shaped tacos packed with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes common to holiday dinners. They were fluffier and tastier than any potato taco I’ve had in recent memory.
Surprisingly, the lentil-quinoa taquitos floated our boats as well. Who would have thought a mulch of legumes and grains could mimic ground meat so closely? Granted, we nudged them out of their vegan state with the chihuahua cheese topping and dipped them into various salsas, only to savor every last bite.
In total, we devoured nine rolled tacos and came away perfectly sated, with nary a craving for more variety.
When asked if other types of Mexican fare will ever land on the menu, Ancira gave a firm “no.” “I only know how to make one thing,” he added.
Indeed. And he does it well.
—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.