Old Town San Diego’s El Agave

I remember the first time I visited San Diego’s Old Town. My son was little then, and I remember walking around, reveling in the historic buildings and most of all, lifting him up so he could watch the women making tortillas by hand through the window of a restaurant. What I also remember is that we ended up eating at a place with mediocre food and I vowed never to eat Mexican food in Old Town again.

That was a long time ago, and while on a recent trip to Old Town, we stopped by El Agave, an establishment which also serves as a tequila museum housing more than 5000 bottles of the agave spirit on display, an impressive 500 of which are available for order.

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I opted to sit on the enclosed patio to take advantage of the natural lighting.

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With all the tequila available, I asked our server to surprise me with a cocktail. I let him know I like spicy and tart flavors and he brought me this. I can’t remember its name, but spicy and tart it definitely is.

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We happily sipped on cocktails while munching on the complimentary chips and salsa provided. The black bean is our favorite, but I suggest not overindulging on this because it is so easy to do.

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One of my favorite things to eat is raw seafood, therefore, Ceviche del Mar ($16) absolutely appealed to my senses. Octopus, shrimp, cherry tomato, baby corn, onion, grilled red pepper, lemon, olive oil and chile morita sauce marry together to create a perfectly tart marinade for the seafood. I want more of the serrano pepper oil served alongside as it lent a lovely kick to the ceviche.

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I love the authenticity of the menu and Ensalada de Nopal ($12), or cactus paddle salad is one good example. Cactus is widely eaten in Mexico and here, it is roasted and then cut into strips before it is assembled into a ring form with diced tomatoes, cilantro, onion, oregano and topped with avocado. You may find it a little ‘slimy’ but no worries, that’s because it’s been tossed with olive oil. Cotija cheese is sprinkled on top to add a salty finish.

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Tlacoyos Cuitlacoche ($16) was probably my least favorite dish of our meal. It wasn’t bad, however, it didn’t stand out. Blue corn masa ‘cakes’ are stuffed with black beans and then topped with cuitlacoche (corn smut, sometimes referred to as huitlacoche),  salsa verde, queso fresco, onion and cilantro. Don’t let cuitlacoche scare you off, it’s actually really tasty, and we’ve eaten it many times before, including a topping on burgers among other things. There just wasn’t enough flavor on this dish for me to want to order it again.

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Therefore, it was just as well we ordered another dish with cuitlacoche in it. Crema de Chile Poblano con Cuitlacoche ($14) is served tableside. A creamy soup seasoned with chile Poblano and cuitlacoche, it is all blended together until smooth and enhanced with spices. A perfect amount of heat accompanied the gorgeous sage-hued concoction. It was so good we were all fighting for the last spoonful!

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I was very surprised by Tacos de Atun ($14) because I generally am not fond of cooked ahi tuna. Here, it is panko-crusted and lightly fried, then topped with parsley, cabbage, red onion and cilantro. The light habanero and agave nectar dressing does not overpower. Served with agave rice and poblano chile strips, these tacos were perfect both in textures and flavors.

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However, the biggest surprise was Enchiladas de Mole ($14). I am very picky when it comes to mole and more often than not, tend to dislike what’s put in front of me. The mole poblano sauce smothering these chicken enchiladas is actually very pleasant. I like its rich, robust flavors, without any of the sweetness usually associated with mole.

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If you’re looking for a unique destination while visiting San Diego, then El Agave is a respectable choice, especially if you’re down around Old Town. Authentic Mexican ingredients are skillfully used to prepare these dishes and present it to a mainstream clientele. I enjoyed my meal here and would love to return for that stunning soup sometime soon.

El Agave — Old Town
2304 San Diego Ave
San Diego, CA 92110
Tel: 619-220-0692

El Agave on Urbanspoon

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La Terasse & AIXimia winery — Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

Another trip down to Mexico, this time to Valle de Guadalupe where a unique winery sits in the middle of nowhere like a flying saucer which has landed from space. I am here to visit AIXimia Winery with a group of food and travel writers and the newly opened La Terrasse San Roman restaurant, right on the vineyard’s premises.

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As our van stops in front of this architectural beauty, we notice some beautiful horses in the pastures greeting our arrival.

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The brainchild of Manuel Alvarez and his brother, vintner Alvaro Alvarez, a mathematician-turned-winemaker, AIXimia is a three-story circular building, an architectural anomaly of sorts. Its incredible beauty is awe-inspiring with its cathedral-like ceilings and soothing color-schemes. My photos do not do it justice, but I hope you will get an idea of how captivating it is.

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We start from the top, where the selection and de-stemming process of the grapes begin. Then, they travel to the second floor, for the fermentation process, then, to the bottom floor where they are aged in French oak barrels before finally, being bottled. The entire space can be experienced from up top, and it is a sight like no other.DSC04084

AIXimia stems from the alchemy of the combination of various elements in our universe. To reflect this, each bottle of wine — there are 10 — are all named for an element of nature. The labels display Gaia (mother Earth), Magma (molten rock beneath the Earth’s surface), Helios (sun) and Aqua (water), each significant when you put it all into perspective.

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After our tour, we sit down to a meal at the newly opened La Terrasse San Roman restaurant, by Chef Martin San Roman. It is al fresco dining at its best. A view of the sprawling vineyard serves as a backdrop for our lunch as we sipped on some selections from the winery.

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Chef Martin’s cuisine is French Mexican, and when our duo of appetizers arrive, it was quite evident. Tartin de Ratatouille y Parmesano (60 pesos/appr $4.60 a la carte) is a “tart” topped with a ratatouille of roasted French vegetables, fresh herbs and Parmesan cheese.

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Another, not on the menu, is a tartare of some sort, but we were not sure what sort of fish is used. Nevertheless, it is lovely.

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There is green salsa, smoky and spicy. We eat it up so quickly I had to ask for more.

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Carpaccio de Betabel Local (50 pesos/appr $3.90 a la carte) is a salad of fresh roasted beets, sliced paper thin and topped with capers, onions and basil. Resembling a beef carpaccio, it is a delightful dish vegetarians can enjoy. In fact, there are quite a few dishes suited for vegetarians at La Terrasse.

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I think if there is one dish we are all in agreement with is Ensalada de Nopales al Carbón (120 pesos/appr $9.25 a la carte). Everyone relished this flavor-packed skillet of Spanish sausage, fresh grilled cactus, tomatoes, onions and cilantro marinated in olive oil. The cactus is prepared well, not too soft, but gives way when you bite into it. The sausage is absolutely delicious, adding a beautiful saltiness to the mix.

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A beautifully plated Pierna de Cerdo al Horno (190 pesos/$14.65 a la carte) arrives next. The pork has been marinated in natural hibiscus and red wine and braised confit style before it is grilled on wood. The result is a richly flavored dish comprising traces of wine and a hint of tartness from the hibiscus.

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My favorite item of the meal is a simple dish called Lomo de Atun (500 pesos/$38.50). A one pound slab of tuna is grilled, brought to the table on a hibachi.

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The lightly seared tuna is perfectly rare on the inside and dipped in the lemon aioli sauce, is one of the best things I’ve eaten. Simple, fresh, and absolutely stunning. The menu says this item is meant for two people to share, but honestly, I could probably eat it all myself.

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Our meal ends with a sweet pastry filled with fruit. I apologize I do not have a description for it.

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If you are a wine aficionado, AIXimia Winery is a must stop. If you a foodie as well, then this is the perfect place for you. Take some time with the wines tasting the wines, then, sit down and enjoy a meal by Chef Martin. It is definitely worth it.

AIXimia Winery/La Terrasse San Roman
Km.3 the tiger country road (next ranch El Parral)
Valle de Guadalupe
Baja California, Mexico. CP 22766
Tel: Outside of Mexico 521 (646) 947-5256

Soho Taco isn’t just tacos anymore

It’s been several years since this initially small, one-cart catering company hit the OC food scene, and through the years have expanded through leaps and bounds to 15 carts today. For those of you who do not know, my story with Soho Taco, it happened a little like this.

A friend was looking for a taco truck or caterer for a party he was having at home. He asked me for some recommendations and since I didn’t have any, I did some research and gave him several names I came across just from googling. He selected Soho Taco and then tells me later it was the best tacos ever.

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Fast forward and I’m at a Yelp elite event at Proof Bar in Santa Ana and Soho Taco was there that evening. I fell in love after first bite. Since that fated moment, I have been an avid follower of this company, recommending them to friends for their special day.

Since then I’ve been to a wedding and a baby shower catered by Soho Taco and stop by their food truck whenever I have a hankering for one of those mouthwatering tacos. Soho Taco is not an ordinary taco vendor. Theirs are made with so much love it overflows right into you mouth. One bite and you’ll understand why. The flavors are simply stunning and addictive. Ranging from the ubiquitous carne asada and pollo tacos to the mahi mahi or shrimp ones, there’s something magical about the flavor profiles bursting in your mouth.

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Then there’s the veggie taco, filled with portabello, red and yellow bell peppers, onions, and the secret seasoning which ties it all together. These days, they are offering tofu al pastor as well as a soyrizo taco for their many vegetarian customers. This year, Soho Taco launched an add-on to their various packages offering customers the opportunity for tray passed hors d’oeuvres at their special event. I thought it was such an excellent idea, for those wanting something a little more than just the casual tacos. Some of the items I tried are listed below with photos.

Espadillas de Fruta is a refreshing start with skewers of watermelon and mango in a tangy salsa de chamoy sauce and tajin rim adding to the tartness with a hint of spice.

DSC02634 Those of you who have tried the tortilla chips from Soho Taco will know what I’m talking about when I say they are addicting. Tostaditas de Aguacate is a freshly made tortilla crisp topped with guacamole, queso fresco and microgreens, you won’t want to stop at one. DSC02649 The Red Snapper Ceviche with the perfect amount of lime is also served on this tortilla crisp. Mouth-puckering good and absolutely delightful. DSC02660 Vegetarians can choose the Rebanadas de Uva, slices of toasted baguette topped with goat cheese, sweet grapes, and sprinkled with chile lime peanuts. You get a wonderful contrast of textures in this one little bite. DSC02642 Some hot offerings like Albondigas is so delicious you won’t want to stop at one, but I highly recommend leaving some room for those tacos. Mexican meatballs stuffed with dried figs are smothered in salsa de chipotle giving it a rich, smoky taste your mouth will crave. DSC02633 Then, there is Espadillas de Camarones, shrimp skewers drenched in a house made sweet and sour sauce I absolutely loved. DSC02645 I thoroughly enjoyed the Tofu Al Pastor taco which has the same powerful flavors of the pork using tofu. Of course I’d much rather eat a regular al pastor taco, but for a vegetarian taco, it was rather delicious. DSC02652 If you’re planning a special event: wedding, anniversary, birthday, graduation, whatever it is, and you’re looking to see if Soho Taco is the way to go — IT IS — you absolutely won’t regret it.

You can contact Selene by emailing her at selene@sohotaco.com or call her direct line 714-852-2472 for more information. To reach Soho Taco‘s main office the number is 714-805-6218.

solita starts the year off right

I was invited to preview solita weeks before opening and I immediately fell in love with the number of margaritas they were sampling and the beautiful interior of the restaurant you will marvel at when you open the wooden front door. Since its opening, I’ve been back several times with friends and pretty much know my favorites here.

The restaurant is sister to Sol Cocina in Newport Beach and is once again helmed by Chef Deborah Schneider. Situated right by Corner Bakery Cafe, solita offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but my favorite place to sit is in the front room of the inside with high tables and banquette seating (not recommended for children requiring high chairs).

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A basket of duros, blue corn and regular tortilla chips are brought to the table along with some salsa for you to munch on while you’re perusing the menu.

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I am especially partial to solita because tequila is my “mommy juice” (my son says that) of choice so you can be sure I went ahead and tried a handful of the specialty cocktails on the menu. My favorites are solita Skinny Margarita ($9) a tart drink with a touch of agave nectar to cut the acidity some. Watermelon Margarita ($10) is absolutely delicious and refreshing and the watermelon is crushed and juiced before service each day.

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How about a Horchata Cocktail ($10) made with solita’s own house-made horchata? Kids can order their own glass sans alcohol. The Guava Margarita ($10) is so fragrant with pink guava nectar and all cocktails are created using Agavales blanco tequila.

I love shrimp cocktail, so Tequila Shrimp & Avocado Sundae ($12.50) is right up my alley. Served in a sundae glass, shrimp is combined with blanco tequila, salsa fresca, lime juice and chipotles layered with Marta’s creamy avocado in a sundae glass.

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One of my favorites is Yellowtail Ceviche Tropicale ($10.50) using diced fresh Gulf of California yellowtail, tossed with fresh-squeezed lime juice, serrano chiles, cucumber, tropical fruit, salsa fresca and avocado. Although this is large enough to share, you could possibly have it as your own entree if you want to hog it all yourself. It is tart, refreshing and very mouth-puckering good.

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My son loves avocado and naturally, he also loves guac. Guacamole solita ($7.75) is fresh made guacamole served old school in a fried tortilla bowl mixed with onion, serrano chile and cilantro. I like a little more lime juice in mine, and if you are the same, just ask your server to bring you some lime wedges. Or, I find the onion and cilantro mix they place on the table adds another flavor dimension to the guac.

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Mushroom lovers definitely can’t miss out on the Exotic Mushrooms (setas) with Wood Grilled Poblano Chiles & Cream ($12.50). It is a tad heavy, but only because the mixed mushrooms are sauteed with green chile, garlic, epazote, white wine and then enveloped with heavy cream and cheese. This is a great vegetarian entree you can wrap into the handmade tortillas which accompany or as a side for the table. It is so damn good!

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Those of you who follow my Facebook page know how anamored I am by the Grilled Corn Elote ($3.50) and I have had it every single time I’ve been here. A whole ear of corn is roasted and grilled with butter, chipotle salsa, California chiles, cotija cheese and green onion. You can cut the corn off your corn or your server will do it for you. I like to do it myself because I’m OCD like that and want to get every little piece of corn off that cob!

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There was only one dish I disliked and it was Perro Caliente “Changa” ($12). One would think this was a dish I would totally go for considering it is a grilled Mexican hot dog rolled in a flour tortilla with bacon, cream cheese, pickled jalapeno, onion and deep fried. I think there was just too much going on and it was a little soggy. Everyone I’ve spoken to loves it, so I’m guessing it’s just me.

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If tacos are your thing, you can order a taco sampler plate offering four tacos which you can mix and match. There are two columns depending on what filling you desire. Taco Tasters ($11 just tacos/ $14.50 el primo) we chose from the el primo section came in the form of  carne asada, beer battered shrimp, sauteed mushrooms, red chile beef borracho.

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Those of you who aren’t into sharing, there are entree-sized meals under the “solita specialties” which you can have on your own such as Snow Crab & Shrimp Enchilada ($19.75) three corn tortillas stuffed with snow crab leg meat, garlic sauteed shrimp and cheese, topped with red and green sauce, cheese and sour cream.

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Or there is the Wood-Grilled Fajitas ($15.50/chicken) with your choice of chicken or beef with roasted poblano chiles, tossed with red peppers, red onions, served with guacamole and salsa fresca.

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But the meal doesn’t end here. Make sure you leave some room for dessert. My favorites were the Grownup Churro Sundae ($8.50) bananas sauteed with butter, brown sugar, rum and Kahlua, assembled into a sundae glass with churro bits, vanilla soft ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauce. Definitely a sharer because it is quite large.

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El Domingo ($8.50) is just the sort of thing I love because it’s vanilla soft ice cream in a crispy chocolate tortilla bowl with strawberries and chocolate sauce. In fact, I just need the ice cream and bowl — maybe they can do that for me next time?

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My very first giveaway of the year is a $50 gift card generously donated by solita. Please leave me a comment with your FULL name and tell me what most excites you about visiting solita for your chance to WIN. Entries close on Sunday, Jan 5th, winner will be announced Monday, Jan 6th. Good Luck!

solita
7631 Edinger Avenue
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Tel: 714-894-2792

Solita Tacos & Margaritas on Urbanspoon

new dishes at Anepalco’s Cafe are a huge hit

One of my favorite restaurants in Orange County is Anepalco’s Cafe, and if you haven’t been there yet, then you’re missing out on one of the culinary experiences of your life. Chef Daniel Godinez is a creative genius, combining his French training with his Mexican roots for some of the most innovative and delicious items you’ll ever taste.

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I love the dinners at the Chapman location and Chef Daniel launched a new menu recently with some mind-blowingly crazy palate popping dishes. Some old favorites remain and I’m sure if he tried to remove those would create a furor among his fiercely loyal customers.

One of my favorite new items is Pambazo Ahi Crudo ($10) a piece of ciabatta bread soaked in a Guajillo chile infused sauce before it is topped with avocado puree, sushi grade ahi tuna, serrano chile, fresh lime juice, red radish and micro cilantro. The flavors make my head spin and I literally have to close my eyes to savor every moment of this before my son devours what I’m not quick enough to put in my mouth.

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Pork Belly Tacos ($9) is a version of a style of tacos Chef Daniel remembers eating after late nights of partying in Mexico. These tortillas hechas a mano — hand made tortillas — are square and served with a house made salsa, red onions topped with micro cilantro. The pork belly is crispy and unctuous at the same time and is absolutely a delight to eat.

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Meat lovers can try the Aladobo ($18.50) an 8oz all natural sirloin culotte steak topped with chimichurri sauce with a mini portion of their famous chilaquiles alongside.

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Chile Negro ($16) is a pumped up version of a chile relleno (well, at least to me). An Ancho chile is filled with all natural Arrachera steak and sits on top of arroz verde topped with red radish and micro cilantro. Soooooo good!!!

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My favorite things to eat at Anepalco’s is seafood and Huachinago ($18.75) is to-die-for. Perfectly cooked red snapper, oh so tender and melt-in-your-mouth is served with purple cauliflower, sauteed corn with an Aztec jus. I’m salivating just remembering it.

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For a taste of both meat and seafood, Surf & Turf ($19) will offer you pork belly, scallops with green potato puree, quail eggs and salsa de Almendras. I don’t know what everything is, but it all comes together so beautifully!

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To be honest, Chef Daniel can put unspeakable roadkill in front of me and I’ll probably eat it without question. I trust him implicitly when he presents me with something to eat — he has never steered me wrong. His cuisine does indeed reign supreme and I’m an avid fan! The dinners are incredible and if you’ve only experienced breakfast/brunch at Anepalco’s, I think it’s time to go back and try the dinners!!

Anepalco’s Cafe
3737 W Chapman Avenue
Orange, CA 92868
Tel: 714-456-9642

Anepalco's Cafe on Urbanspoon

San Diego’s Las Cuatro Milpas is good and cheap

When my friend said “hey, I want you to try Las Cuatro Milpas” but then couldn’t really explain to me what the restaurant was all about, it worried me. All I was told was “it’s Mexican and it’s good”. Ummmm okay!

I peeked inside the restaurant and it was a dump but there were a couple of women in the back making tortillas so that’s a good sign. The menu had only a handful of things on it and it looked like someone’s house converted into a make-shift restaurant. I would’ve insisted on leaving had there not been a line out the door and down the street with more people joining the line every few minutes.

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It took us about 25 minutes to get to the front (yes I timed it) and even with the small menu, I had no idea what to order, so we ordered everything!! The Rolled Tacos ($5/5pcs) were what everyone was ordering so we got those. These are flautas stuffed with shredded beef or chicken, topped with crema and a handful of sliced iceberg lettuce.

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There were crispy Tacos ($1.75) as well and we also got some of those. They were stuffed with the same ingredients as the flautas.

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I was intrigued by the Chorizo con huevos ($3.75/$5/$9) when I saw a bowl of something on the tray of the man in front of me. I asked and he said it was good. This wasn’t chorizo with eggs as you are accustomed to. It is that with beans and rice all together in a bowl. Strange, but weirdly tasty.

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They gave us some soft tortillas as well. I had a bite and wished I had more room for more, but I didn’t.

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The Tamales ($1.75) were not bad, but not fantastic. I liked how the masa was not dry but the meat stuffing needed a little more flavor. They have this stunning chile sauce which has a seriously good heat and consisted of a rich smoky taste of chipotle. That was fantastic over everything.

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The meal is cheap, fast (even with the wait) and really good for what it was. There is no table service. It’s cafeteria style and they make no apologies for it. I would definitely come back again when I want some greasy, reasonable and good Mexican food!

Las Cuatro Milpas
1875 Logan Avenue
San Diego, CA 92113
Tel: 619-234-4460

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