Much Ado About Mutton


delete, City Heights

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

We're talking a little end-of-year chowdown.

"So," I say. "Lamb okay?"

"Baa-humbug!" says Hank. "What's this, the Mutton Jeff show?"

We're cruising in Hank's Camry up El Cajon, near Fairmount. Bad sheep jokes rule.

"Would I pull the wool over your eyes?" I say.

Hank sighs. "May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I guess. What do they have there again?"

"Baa-becue, buddy, baa-becue. People flock to the joint. That's what I herd."

"Oh please. But how expensive? Don't wanna get fleeced."

"They don't skin you. Besides, we can split. Shear and shear alike."

Suddenly, I spot it. A low, orangey-brown place. "Pull this Lamb-orghini over!" I yell. "We're here."

"Tell me one thing," says Hank. By now, we're stepping inside a bright, orange-and-yellow-washed place with Mexican serapes and art on the walls, large Mexican dolls set in niches, an open kitchen, and a dozenish brown tables with those creaky woven-wicker chairs. "Why all this trouble to find lamb?"

"Flavor, ol' buddy, fer-lavor," I say. "Lamb, goat, they've got it. Ground beef, chicken, they taste of nothin' except what you put on them. Mere vehicles for salt and batter. When it comes to meat, people are afraid -- of sabor."

A tall, statuesque gal comes up. Rodnia. "Welcome," she says. "Sit anywhere. Is this your first time? You must try our barbacoa."

"Any particular reason?" says Hank.

"Hey, man, 'tis the season," I mumble.

"No, I wanna know. I'm interested."

"We bring the lamb-eating traditions of Hidalgo to San Diego," Rodnia says. "The state of Hidalgo's just north of Mexico City. Up here, people confuse birria with barbacoa. There's a world of difference. The birria is made with beef or goat, but it is like a broth, a soup, with the meat inside. And it has spices. Peppers. The barbacoa is a special treatment of lamb, with the meat on the inside, wrapped in maguey leaves -- no spices -- and cooked slowly, for ten or more hours. It comes out with the flavor of the maguey."

She says that traditionally, down in Hidalgo, the barbacoa is slow-cooked in a large cooking pit dug into the ground. That's impossible here, with health department rules. "So we put the lamb into a vaporera -- a steamer -- instead," she says.

"And the maguey?" asks Hank.

"Wait a minute," says Rodnia. She goes over to the kitchen and comes back with her mother Rosario. Together, they're carrying a great, way-big "leaf." Maybe four feet long, with vicious spikes up each side.

"Now, see the very thin underskin we can just peel?" says Rosario. "This we use for another dish, our mixiote. It's lamb with a special taste. We rub the lamb with that and steam the lamb in it, with a mix of spices and chili pepper."

She says it's spicy-flavored but not spicy-burning. "The flavor's rich," she says. Then again, so's the price: 12 smackeroos.

"All French to me," mutters Hank, as we get heads-down into the menu. They have a bean soup for $3.99 and a lamb broth ($2.25 single, $4.25 double). It comes with garbanzo beans, rice, and "chunks of barbacoa." Barbacoa tacos are $1.50 each, quesadillas with guisados (different stuffings) are $1.99. And three rolled tacos filled with lamb barbacoa, with cream cheese and rice, cost $5.99. Then there's the "lamb special," with a lamb taco, a rolled lamb taco, a lamb quesadilla, cactus salad, and rice, all for $7.25.

They also have a "lamb pancita," lamb organs cooked inside its own sewn-up stomach, but only Friday--Sunday. Supposed to be a really good morning-after reviver, like menudo.

Hank, natch, jumps in and orders first, picking the "Order of Barbacoa" ("250 grams of barbacoa served with rice and beans and eight tortillas, $10.99"). Me, I'm Mr. Modest. I get a barbacoa taco ($1.50), a quesadilla -- with huitlacoche, the Aztecs' "corn poop" (that's what huitlacoche means) mold that's supposed to put hairs on your chest -- and a single-size bowl of soup. And the lamb broth, of course ($2.25).

Rodnia explains that my soup is basically the drippings of the slow-cooking lamb barbacoa. Like, juices drip down from the steaming meat. So it's concentrated, and oh man, it sure is delicious when she brings it. A meal in itself, what with all the goodies added in, the garbanzos, rice, and plenty of chunks of lamb. But the taco is the real thing: a concentrated flavor of beautifully moist, nonchewy lamb meat that's somehow plenty flavorful, just tasting of...itself. I get a tamarindo drink too ($1.99), to sluice out the mouth. My three dishes more than fill me.

But, really, have to admit, Hank has the prize. Hey, at $10.99, he should. Okay, it comes in a polystyrene box, but he gets two big squares of compressed barbacoa lamb meat, and red-brown rice and beans, along with fresh greens like cilantro, and fresh hot tortillas, and a squeeze of red salsa. Plus an extra side of frijoles ($1.99). The boy's in pig heaven. Uh, make that Mutton Jeff heaven. He gives me a taste of the meat, and it's so full of flavor you wonder why we bother with beef. But Rodnia says the lamb mixiote has the strongest, maybe most interesting flavors, with that thin maguey skin, and the spices, and again, the slow steaming.

No way I can fit that in now. Even if I had the dinero. But it's been a blast, one of those days when you discover something you've been missing all your life.

"Man," coos Hank outside. "That place really raised the baa...

The Place: El Borrego restaurant, 4280 El Cajon Boulevard (not far west of Fairmount), City Heights, 619-281-1355

Type of Food: Mexican

Prices: Breakfast chilaquiles, beans, $6.25; rancheros eggs, $6.25; bean soup, $3.99; lamb broth (with garbanzo beans, rice, lamb), $2.25 single, $4.25 double; barbacoa taco, $1.50; quesadilla with huitlacoche, $1.99; three rolled tacos with lamb, $5.99; lamb special, with lamb taco, rolled taco, quesadilla, cactus salad, rice, $7.25; lamb barbacoa "order" (with rice, beans, tortillas), $10.99; lamb pancita "order" (lamb's organs, same sides, Friday-Sunday only), $10.99; lamb mixiote, $12

Hours: 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Saturday, 8:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Closed Monday

Buses: 1, 1A, 15

Nearest Bus Stop: Eastbound, El Cajon and Van Dyke (1, 1A); El Cajon and Fairmount (15); westbound,

El Cajon and 43rd

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