290 North Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
“Juanita’s Carnitas of Encinitas! Juanita’s Carnitas Encinitas!”
This is Ted’s kid, chanting. Best way to get the carnitas tacos he loves.
“Juanita’s Carnitas of Encinitas…!”
“Ah, you mean ‘Little Jane’s Little Meats of Little Oaks,’ ” says Ted, doing the direct translation. He’s seen to it that his kid understand as much Spanish as he can, early, while learning’s easy. This is all happening as we shake hands goodbye. I’d popped in to see my old buddy, seeing as how I was up in the Land of Swamis.
“We’re Juanita’s carnitas fanatics,” he says. “They do it à la Tepatitlán…famous little town, Jalisco, right? Can’t beat it. Except no way we can go today…. But you’ve got time before the Coaster. Go have one for us.”
Juanita’s sits on Highway 101 among surf shops, eateries, bike shops, airbrush-tanning salons. It’s a low, salmony-brown stucco place, sea-green window sills, with both black and white grilles protecting the windows, and lots of surfer-type stickers. Like “W.R.O.N.G.: World Riders Of the Next Generation,” and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Longboard.” They have two outside tables and an extra room with its own street entrance, but the original space is tiny, a warm, low, basic room, with three tables and a counter, a blue-and-white Pepsi felt-board menu above the counter, and lots of hungry people. Yolanda takes the orders, flicking each ticket onto a wheel while she calls them through to three cooks in the kitchen.
And the thing I notice is how everyone — all the customers — seems to know exactly what they want.
“Rolled tacos and guac,” says this CEO type.
“Carnitas tacos,” says this woman. “Sour cream, no guac.”
“Flautas with chicken and cream,” says this guy, DJ.
“For here or to go?” Yolanda asks him.
“You kidding? For here,” DJ says. He turns to me. “You’ve got to eat it here or it’s not special,” he says. “I’ve been coming in for 20 years. The first 15, I had pretty much only chile relleno burritos. Last 5, I’ve been into flautas with chicken. I live in L.A. There’s nothing like this up there. Here, you get a good price and fast, good food. But you’ve got to eat it hot, on the spot.”
I cut him some slack on the L.A. claim. Hey, I understand. It’s like first love, nothing ever matches it. Will, the guy who ordered the rolled tacos, has settled down at the third table. He looks 45 but says he’s already retired. To Carlsbad. Must be a dot-com kid. Still frugal, though. “You can’t beat these, three for $2.60,” he says.
Tempting, but I should test Ted’s “carnitas” claim. I ask for a carnitas taco ($2.25), and when it comes (30 seconds later), sit down to, yes, a really rich, overstuffed pork taco on a plate, with onions and tomatoes and cilantro and a big puddle of guacamole in a double corn tortilla. Plus pickled carrots/onion/jalapeños on the side. I wash that down with an horchata, the milky Mexican drink made from things like chufa nuts and tasting like chestnuts, and maybe cinnamon. It’s the best, gentlest thirst-quencher around, in my book. Costs a buck.
Whew. Feel quite full already. But here’s what happens next: This guy Brooks comes in and orders a carne asada taco ($2.25). “Been getting them since I was a kid,” he says.
Honest to God, seems like everybody has bought lifelong tickets to Juanita’s. Brooks gives surf lessons. And pretty soon a bunch of kids who could be his pupils come in and, to a man, order up a stack of french fry–stuffed California burritos.
So heck, I order a California too. “These guys are why we make them,” says one of the cooks, Alex, looking at the kids. “Call it MexCal culture. Surfers are crazy for them.”
I may not be the world’s greatest surfer — heck, paddling out just about does me in — but when I get my California burrito and burst it open to chew down, I can see how great the surfers of Encinitas have it. You can’t beat that combo of marinated carne asada and fat, juices-soaked french fries and sour cream. ’Specially — and this may be just me — if you stuff in some of those pickled carrots and onions.
I notice how a lot of the customers spend time talking with Alex. Mainly about the economy, natch. “Right now, there are just no tourists here,” says a surf-shop guy. “Everybody’s working hard, nobody’s making money,” Alex sighs. ’Course Alex seems to be doing fine, judging from the counter line. I guess the worse the economy, the more people appreciate the bang you get for your buck here.
It turns out Alex is one of the two sons of Juanita, the woman who started this place back in March 1984. “She had to support her kids alone,” he tells me. “She came up from Michoacán. Our dad died. She worked so hard to make this succeed. She cooked Jalisco-style. This was her dream. Now my brother Ricardo and I run it. She can take time off for the first time.”
Before I go, I order that chile relleno burrito to share with Carla. I like the idea of battered poblano chiles stuffed with jack cheese, wrapped in a tortilla, making a nice hot mess all over both our faces tonight. Yeah, I know, DJ: Should eat it fresh, hot, here. But, hey, there’s always the microwave.
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: Tacos (carne asada; carnitas, al pastor [pork]), $2.25; fish taco, $2.10; rolled tacos (3), $2.60; breakfast burrito (with chorizo; machaca [beef and egg]; ham; or bacon), $3.75; with potato, $3; carnitas burrito, $4.10; chicken burrito, $3.75; adobada burrito (beef and pork, seasoned with pineapple), $4.10; carne asada torta with rice and beans, $6.25; chicken tostada, $3.05
Hours: 7:30 a.m.–midnight, seven days (till 2:00 a.m. Friday–Saturday)
Nearest Bus Stops: Outside, on N. Coast Highway 101
Nearest Train Stop: Encinitas (one mile south)