By Frank Sabatini Jr.
If it wasn’t for the fluffy, flour tortillas originating from a secret dough recipe, and used in the construction of burritos and soft tacos, Don Tommy’s Mexican Food in Ocean Beach wouldn’t be worth my repeat drives there.
Its elusive founder, Tommy Ramirez, opened the small, divey eatery some 22 years ago on Voltaire Street, about a mile east of the neighborhood’s beachside core, off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. An avid surfer from Texas, he soon established a cult following for his Tex-Mex cooking and hand-rolled tortillas. Longtime customers recall his endearing knack for striking up friendships with many of the locals.
After selling the business six years later, along with his family’s dough recipe, the subsequent owner (Don Alvarez) would occasionally spot Ramirez waving to him through the front window while passing by, though never setting foot inside.
“After that he just disappeared,” Alvarez said at the time.
Several years later, in 2013, Ramirez resurfaced in North Park with the opening of Tommy’s Original Tex-Mex. When speaking to him by phone back then, he expressed excitement over reviving such Tex-Mex favorites as carne guisada (cubed beef in brown gravy), Southwest-style queso, and of course, his famous tortillas.
But the venture was short-lived, closing before I could visit, and with Ramirez leaving nary a trace of his whereabouts.
“I think he moved back to Texas,” said a woman recently overseeing the grill at Don Tommy’s, which changed ownership yet again about five years ago. Ramirez’s culinary legacy, however, remains intact through his dough recipe, which is still made daily, cut into balls, and stretched by hand to order.
Like falling in love with a particular wine at first sip, the same magic occurs when biting into these semi-thick tortillas — defined by their hot air pockets and dark pockmarks — regardless what’s tucked inside.
In either a burrito or soft taco, my preferred fillings of late include the carnitas, which carry a savory, roasted flavor with hints of orange. Also noteworthy is the spicy chicken mixing breast meat with pico de gallo, fat rings of semi-brined jalapenos, and decent guacamole.
I’ve always found chicken or beef fajitas to be boring in restaurants. But when wrapped inside Ramirez’s floury love, and with a few dabs of the eatery’s electric-green cilantro salsa applied, they become something more than a pedestrian stir-fry of meat, onions and bell peppers.
A breakfast taco I tried recently was pleasing, despite the scant enveloping of a single scrambled egg and thick-overcooked bacon. It was the nicely seasoned potatoes and pillowy tortilla that delivered me to the finishing line.
Less remarkable are the bean and cheese burritos, which I’ve ordered twice. The refried beans are supposedly mashed with vegetable oil instead of lard, hence their bland, anti-climactic flavor.
Other menu items include chalupas made with outsourced corn tortillas, plus tortas, tamales, chille rellenos and enchiladas — all listed on a fairly new website rigged with a click button to “reserve your table today.”
But don’t be misled. It leads only to an address page, and furthermore, the eatery has only three awkwardly arranged tables inside and a few on the front sidewalk — exactly how Ramirez left it more than a decade ago.
—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.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.