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El Indio Mexican Restaurant

3695 India Street, Mission Hills




It's one of those sunny, breezy cool days. Lunchtime, top of India Street. Hmm. Notice a clump of people on the little V-shaped pedestrian island where India starts to divide. They're on a patio, chatting, eating Mexican-looking stuff under bright red-and-white metal umbrellas.

"JOHN, 396, BURRITOS. JOHN?"

A loudspeaker blasts out from the roof of a white stucco building across India from the patio. Of course. This is El Indio, one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in town.

"JAMIE, 393, JAMIE?"

Can't resist plopping down at one of the red-painted concrete tables. Couple of other guys do, too, only they're laden with a ginormous bag of tortilla chips and four pots of red and green salsa.

"Always start with the chips," says the bearded guy. "Crowds they have in there, you're going to have a wait. Maybe 20 minutes. Plus, they make their own chips. The best."

I'm remembering more about El Indio now. Politicians come here. They've cooked for presidents, and they invented taquitos -- little rolled tacos. I should give it a try, wait or no wait.

Inside, I join a line. It's a low place with orange tile floors, plum-colored skirting, cream walls, earthy orange ceiling. It buzzes with people, kids, parents, granddaddies.

"I flew Navy for 14 years," Henry says. He's in front of me, waiting for his "to go" order. "But I used to come here in high school. I graduated in '66. Loved those taquitos. Cheap, less messy than tacos, and, well, they threw real well. We used to take them up to the presidio at lunchtime..."

Huh -- little missiles? Unrolled, flying saucer-style? No, that wouldn't work. Whatever...the menu over the counter lists an array of "Sonora-style" dishes, combination plates like cheese enchilada and beef tamale with rice, beans, and chips ($7.90), carne asada plate ($8.15), or chile relleno and cheese enchilada ($7.95). That's all high end. Shredded-beef tacos cost $2.35, bean-and-cheese burritos are $3.00. More interesting burritos include the "California" (carne asada, fries, and cheddar, $5.30); the "San Diego," which is appealing 'cause it has grilled chicken in there, with guacamole, sour cream, and cheddar ($5.30); and in the vegetarian section, a potato burrito, $3.55, and "Burrito Indio," a wheat tortilla stuffed with zucchini, corn, beans, onions, cheese, and tomato that goes for $4.70.

Shuffle shuffle. Now we're standing under pics of Aztec gods. Ehcatl, god of the wind, Xipe Totec, the god of spring, Tlaloc, the god of rain. Finally, make it to the counter. Can't help noticing a monster machine. "That's our tortilla maker," José the order-taker says. "It works in the mornings."

To get things going, I pick out a packet of their tortilla chips ($1.60) and a pot of salsa ranchera ($1.99). I order a taquito (80 cents) just to find out what it's like, and a fish taco ($2.70).

But then I think, well heck, gotta work with Señor Hank this afternoon. Laying down a carpet in his mom's living room. May as well pick him up something. So I add a Burrito Indio for him and potato burrito for me.

I take my chips and salsa out to the tables on the island across the road. Chips taste great. Muy salty, and spicy-hot, with the salsa, but so much fuller flavored than your supermarket variety.

"ED, 451, TAQUITO, FISH TACO, TWO BURRITOS? ED?"

Thar she blows. I come in and grab my tray and this time head for the sit-up counter inside. Just because there's so much buzz in here. I grab a stool next to Pat and Clark. Both musicians, turns out. "I'm here once a week," says Pat. "Rehearse with the San Diego Symphony till 12:30, then straight up here."

The fish taco's at least as good as at Rubio's. My taquito's tight-rolled, deep-fried, with shredded lettuce and plenty of chicken inside. Clark says it's the only place in town you'll find chicken taquitos. As usual, I have regrets. Pat says El Indio's also famous for its mordiditas ($5.75). "Little kickbacks?" No, mordida first meant "bite," correcto? So we've got "little bites," chopped-up taquitos covered with nacho cheese and slices of jalapeños. Dang. Should have ordered that.

I chomp into my potato burrito. Mmm. So satisfyingly squelchy inside. So well marinated. Uh, maybe too well. It's a little salty for my taste. Maybe if I, like, cut this part off and seal the end, I can bequeath it to Hank? And do the same with the Indio burrito? Like, take half for me. It just looks too good.

The Burrito Indio comes with a salad, and all the veggies are wrapped inside a big whole-wheat tortilla. I chomp in. And yeah, baby. This is a lot more interesting. The zucchini, corn, and the marinade, along with that wheat tortilla, go well together. Now: I'll just make a neat cut across the halfway mark, fold it up...

"My father started this in 1940 further down India Street, at Grape," says Ralph Pesqueira Jr. He works behind the counter like everybody else, but he's the man. He runs the place. "It was a tortilla factory. Then customers started asking him to make lunch items. That's when he came up with the taquito, 'little taco.' And it's been our number-one item ever since. After the war, he invented his own tortilla-making machine. Pretty much like this one. He moved here in 1947. I grew up in this place."

I'm about to head for the door when I spot the desserts. Rice pudding ($1.10), buñuelo chips ($1.30), flan ($1.65), fruit burrito ($2.35).

Fruit burrito? "Flour tortilla filled with apple, cherry, or peach, deep fried and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar."

Oh man. Got $2.50 left. So it's fruit burrito or trolley. I invest 50 cents. On a pay phone. "Hank: Got this food. For you, man! Except you'll have to come and get it."

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