Salsa fea saves the day

The “ugly sauce” brings burritos back to life at Ferny’s

The vaunted salsa fea. Also, a burrito.
  • The vaunted salsa fea. Also, a burrito.

Ferny’s Mexican Grill

10320 Mission Gorge Road, Santee

When you’re hungry and in an unfamiliar part of San Diego, finding a local taco shop is usually an easy bet. Which isn’t to say you always win that bet. For all the great, jewel-in-the-rough taco and burrito stands we have in San Diego, there are certainly a number to be avoided.

Ferny’s Mexican Grill is not one of them. I was in Santee visiting nearby breweries Butcher’s Brewing and Twisted Manzanita and needed something in my belly to soak up some suds.

Ferny’s Mexican Grill. We’re not sure if the scorch marks are an affectation or if there was an actual fire.

Ferny’s Mexican Grill. We’re not sure if the scorch marks are an affectation or if there was an actual fire.

I almost drove right past Ferny’s and never looked back because, frankly, it looks a little run down. But there’s not a lot in that area that isn’t a chain restaurant, and neither Chili’s nor Chick-fil-A hold more appeal than a hole-in-the-wall taco shop.

In addition to some non-standard Mexican items (think buffalo chicken fries), I found an interesting assortment of “gourmet burritos” on the menu. The Nacho Burrito includes almost everything you can think of: grilled steak, beans, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, jalapeños, and tortilla chips wrapped inside a flour tortilla. The Sultan goes a step further with grilled steak, nacho cheese, sour cream, and two rolled beef tacos inside.

My choice was the relatively pedestrian Diablo: grilled steak, grilled onions, beans, rice, potatoes, and Diablo sauce — a version of every spicy salsa you’ve ever tried. By itself, the burrito wasn’t special, and calling it “gourmet” might be a stretch. But the steak wasn’t tough, and the Diablo sauce had enough enough flavor to stand up to the triple-starch of rice, beans, and potato.

What made the meal great was the salsa bar. Specifically, Ferny’s salsa fea, or ugly sauce. It’s basically a tomatillo-based salsa verde, but it includes smoked chiles, giving it a pastier texture and reddish-brown hue that, I suppose, makes it uglier than most salsas.

But like the roadside stand itself, you can’t judge this book by its cover. The salsa had spice, it had acidity, it had umami richness, and as I poured a little on each bite the burrito came to life.

Without the salsa fea, I’d call Ferny’s a good option. With that salsa, I’ll say that if you are in Santee and love burritos, don’t forget the ugly sauce.

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