616 Broadway, Chula Vista
"CLOSED,” says the sign. So, how come the place is rocking inside?
I follow these guys in through the open door and join the line. Yes, a line, even though it’s a Monday night in downtown Chula Vista. Around here, around now, your eating choice is, like, Mickey D’s or Wings-N-Things.
Okay, I know there’s a Tacos El Gordo further down H, but it’s a quarter mile away. I spotted a “Frutas 100% Natural” just across the road that looks interesting and kinda cozy. Long, low building on the dark side of the street. But, just fruit?
I cross anyway and now I see a lit-up sign saying “Breakfast, smoothies, juices, tortas, sandwiches, salads.”
Okay. Tortas. Sandwiches. This sounds doable. Then I notice the “closed” sign.
On the other hand, nobody else seems to be bothered by it. Why should I?
Inside, I recognize the whole Tijuana model. Those fruterías on Constitución that combine the fruit-and-smoothie thing with tortas and salads, along with some curandera stuff like herbs and mixes of ground-up flowers and roots to cure everything from asthma to lovesickness. Some places you can buy dead hummingbirds to wear as amulets to make somebody you’re crazy about fall in love with you.
No sign of that traditional side here. But it still feels like you’re in Mexico. Like, it’s plain. The pale green walls have no paintings. The booths are basic pine. But there’s a life in the place. “Eat better, feel great!” says the slogan beneath a wall menu. It’s filled with fruit-combo deals and healthy-sounding tortas and sandwiches and salads. The ladies call out the order numbers — “Cincuenta y seis!” — to the customers milling around at the entrance, dads and their daughters, three-generation families, guys who’ve just gotten off work. There’s a buzz, and it’s mostly in Spanish.
Bunch of ladies work away behind cabinets loaded with bowls of chopped-up pineapple, mango, watermelon. Above them, a four-foot-long pile of bananas, and on the bottom shelf, baskets of fresh pears and apples as well as a basketball locker of uncut melons.
But I’m really more interested in the tortas right now. Gotta lotta belly to fill. The nine tortas go from $6 to $6.50. The veggie, ham, turkey, and lomo (pork loin) are $6 each. And the lomo-ham combo and the chicken, tuna, salmon, and crab tortas go for $6.50. Or you can have them as sandwiches for 25 cents less.
Salads are six bucks. Choice is ham and turkey, chicken salad, tuna, salmon, crab. Green salad’s $5. The breakfast croissants or bagels are stuffed with, like, ham and cheese ($4), or they have a bagel with smoked salmon ($6.50).
But the other thing that interests me is the “fruits and snacks” section. It’s got interesting variations on the fruit theme, like the escamocha: usually fruit with sweetened condensed milk, and maybe almonds, granola, and coconut shreds ($4 for 16 oz or $5 for 20 oz). The tostilocos: jicama, cucumber, lime juice, cueritos (pork rind), and peanuts in a mess poured all over a zipped-open bag of Tostitos, is $6; and “rooster’s beak” — pico de gallo — basically fruit salad with a limey chili-powder mix on top, is sold for $5.50 and $6.50, depending on the size.
So, what the heck: I get a crab torta ($6.50) and pico de gallo ($5.50 for 16 oz). And a jamaica water, the red hibiscus drink ($2).
And, wow, the pico de gallo salad could make a meal all on its own. It’s full of pineapple, cucumber, watermelon, and jicama, that slightly savory yam bean root, with a beautifully biting, burnt-red sprinkling of a Tajin-type mix — chili with lemon and salt — scattered over the top. It’s so easy to forget, but Mexico is home to a gazillion tropical fruits. Add chili variations to these and of course their fruit salads are gonna turn out way more interesting than ours.
My pico de gallo for sure gets more interesting as you go down and the juices mix with the chili and each other.
But all this gets trumped when I bite into the torta. Oh, man. The torta! For starters, it’s a generous crispy whale of a thing bulging with lettuce, tomato, and then the interesting stuff: avocado, jalapeño slices, onion, mayo, and a ton of crab meat. Can’t tell if it’s crab or krab, but whatever, it is super moist and delicious. The jalapeño slices give it a slow-burning, warm heat, the crab-lettuce-avo-mayo combo gives it a curiously savory-sweet flavor, and the super-crisp and tender, crunchy loaf just nails the whole balanced umami feel to it. Another word for it? Addictive.
“We get these torta loaves from a Mexican bakery,” says Federico Jasso, the guy with the flying hands behind the counter. He turns out to be the owner here and at two other fruta places in the South Bay.
“I started this 15 years ago. I think I was the first to bring the Mexican-style frutería this side of the border. Now I have three.”
For sure, these traditional frutería places were doing the “health is cool” thing in Mexico way before the movement sprouted seriously here. But what I really want to find out from Federico is, well, what was with the “closed” sign?
“Oh, my God,” says one of the gals. She runs to change it to “OPEN.”
“But, actually, it doesn’t make much difference,” she says when she gets back. “They come anyway.”
Prices: Breakfast croissant with ham and cheese, $4; veggie torta, $6; ham, turkey, or lomo (pork loin) tortas, $6; chicken torta, $6; tuna, salmon, or crab tortas, $6.50; or as sandwiches, 25 cents less than tortas; salmon salad (or turkey, chicken, tuna, or crab), $6; green salad, $5; escamocha (with fruit, granola, other nuts, coconut shreds), $4 for 16 oz, or $5 for 20 oz; tostilocos (jicama, cucumber, lime juice, cueritos, peanuts, Tostitos), $6
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday; 8:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m., Sunday
Buses: 701, 703, 709, 932
Nearest bus stops: Right outside on Broadway (932); Broadway and H Street (701, 703, 709)
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: H Street (at H and Industrial Boulevard)