Guadalajara, Basically

Editor's note: As of 2010, this restaurant is closed.

Love? This could be it. The question hits me mid-bite into my second-ever quesotaco. It’s a scrunch of crispy grilled cheese over little chunks of steak lost in a creamy sauce, hiding under avocado, with a corn tortilla lending support and a splash of red salsa adding twang.

Last time I felt like this was down in TJ, eating my virgin quesotaco at La Ermita, a taco place off Agua Caliente. Except that that one had shrimp inside and a pinkish dressing, a salsa de camarón. I also had their incredible taco dulce, shrimp with pineapple, raspberry sauce, and chopped walnuts. Ooh, man. Sweet memory…

But this quesotaco is now. This is real. Even better, this is here.

I’m in the Gaslamp, just beyond Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza on Fourth. A classy, rusty cut-out sign hangs above the entrance. “Calaco Grill,” a “Taco Lounge.” The inside has that cool, spacey, wavy-metal-arty thing that modern Mexican places often go for. I pass in beneath a canopy of cotton bunting slung across the ceiling that changes colors from blue to pink to green to purple. Back-lighting, I guess. All the way to the counter. Über cool. Plus cream walls, green wall pillars, green benches.

I plonk myself aboard a barstool at the curvy-wurvy, orangey-topped counter. There’s a full bar here, including a kind of auto tequila dispenser. Bunch of downtowny denizens toss geek talk back and forth. Words like “webmaster” and “bit torrent.” This is about nine at night. Post–happy hour, dammit. (It lasts from four to seven.)

Michelle comes up and asks, “Something to drink?” Oh, Lord. Wouldn’t half mind a shot of that Patrón. But — sigh — gotta work after this.

So, yeah, cawfee. She leaves a menu. I mean, this ain’t no catering-truck taco stand. When I first open the menu, to Platos Fuertes, ayy! I’m lookin’ at cochinita pibil (achiote spiced pork, $15.99); carne en su jugo (“a Guadalajara favorite!” — it says it’s skirt steak cut into strips and cooked in a pot with frijoles…topped with bacon, onions, cilantro, $10.99); or chamorro (pork shank in a salsa tatemado — meaning, fire-cooked, traditionally in a clay pot, topped with fried bananas, plus rice and beans, $29.99).

What happened to the tacos?

Then I see I’ve missed the first two pages. Aha. Nuttin’ but tacos. Your basic carne asada taco is $2.99. So is the salseado (with skirt steak, salsa, queso (cheese), white sauce, and avocado. A great-sounding one is the especial (skirt steak, sautéed mushrooms, chopped bacon, gravy, queso, white sauce, and avocado). But it’s $3.99, and I have but a Hamilton to spend, so we’re talking basic-price tacos, period.

The very next is tuna. Who ever heard of tuna taco? And $2.99. Comes with “shredded smoked tuna sautéed with bell peppers, queso, white sauce, and avocado.” Or salmon, same price, same treatment; $2.99 also buys tongue, chicken adobado, and carnitas (“tender spiced pork”) tacos. And if you want to go a little up-market, the shrimp’s $3.49; so is the campechanos (“straightforward”), which is skirt steak with chorizo. And $4.49 will buy you El Torres, a large shrimp wrapped in bacon “with white rice, calaco sauce, and avocado,” or the New York and shrimp taco (New York steak, shrimp, queso, white sauce, and avocado).

But no. I spot two $2.99ers that’ll fill my bill just fine. The cochinita pibil (“achiote spiced pork and pickled red onions”), and then the magic word that floats me back to La Ermita: Quesotaco. Man, if it’s half as good as the one my buddy Javier Campos Gutierez makes down south, this’ll be a find. Maybe a San Diego first.

So, next issue: To stay under $10, should I order one taco and add rice and beans for $2.49 more, or order two tacos, but no rice and beans? I pick the tacos, cochinita pibil and quesotaco. With corn tortillas. (I could have had flour.)

I mean, they’re not huge, but they’re definitely enough. The cochinita has a really interesting pork taste, which gets a kick from the little pile of pickled red onions, and that quesotaco is cracklingly delicious.

“We’re basically doing Guadalajara cooking here,” says Alex Martinez, the owner. “For a start, we hand-make all our tortillas fresh.”

And yes, he knows La Ermita. “One of our cooks, Angelica, came from there.”

Alex says all these tacos are basically pre-Spanish. “The cochinita pibil is Mayan. We marinate the pork in achiote paste, plus five different chiles that help flavor it, for 16 hours, and bake it in banana leaves.”

Turns out cochinita means “suckling pig,” and pibil means “buried.” Huh. So the Mayans used to cook their suckling pigs in fire pits, Hawaiian-style.

The good news is the kitchen stays open till 3:00 in the morning on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (the rest of the week, till midnight). And the other good news is during that three-hour happy hour, it’s a buck off the tacos. And appetizers like ceviche, or shrimp with cilantro cream, or costillitas (little “cross-ribs”), which usually cost from seven to nine dollars, go for $3.50.

One thing I have to know. What is the name “Calaco” all about?

“It means ‘skeleton,’ ” says Alex. “It’s part of the Día de los Muertos tradition.”

Turns out this is a family mission. Alex says his mom makes all the desserts. Hmm. Maybe he should drop a hint to her about that other La Ermita specialty, the taco dulce…

The Place: Calaco Grill Taco Lounge, 732 Fourth Avenue, 619-269-8032

Type of Food: Mexican

Prices: Carne asada taco, $2.99; cochinita pibil taco (with achiote spiced pork), $2.99; quesotaco (grilled cheese, skirt steak, white sauce, avocado), $2.99; tuna or salmon taco, $2.99; especial (skirt steak, sautéed mushrooms, chopped bacon, gravy, queso, white sauce, avocado), $3.99; New York steak and shrimp taco, $4.49; other dishes more expensive, e.g. carne en su jugo (steak strips cooked in pot with frijoles), $10.99; chamorro (pork shank topped with fried bananas, with rice, beans, $29.99

Hours: 11:00 a.m.–midnight, Sunday–Wednesday; 11:00 a.m.–3:00 a.m., Thursday–Saturday

Buses: all downtown

Nearest Bus Stops: Fourth and Broadway

Trolley: blue and orange lines

Nearest trolley stop: Fifth Avenue

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