1021 Highland Avenue, National City
Looking for food in all the wrong places?
Here I am in the Price Breakers indoor bazaar in National City, hot afternoon around 2:00, desperate for something to give me energy and tank up ye ol’ belly.
This bazaar is full of gold-jewelry counters, busy nail-repair clinics, clothing outlets. You can see it’s the go-to place for stuff, ’specially cheaper stuff.
Hey, maybe the food’s cheaper, too.
If there is any.
“Any place where a man can eat?” I ask the gal at the first jewelry counter inside.
“Oh, yes, the best,” she says. “Just behind us.”
I navigate around the stall, hang a right, and, lo and behold, there’s a counter with half a dozen red stools, all occupied. Behind the counter two ladies are working at high speed, one pouring cream and chopping strawberries, mangoes, and bananas, the other at a cutting board, making sandwiches.
“I come up from Chula Vista,” says this gal. Mariam. “They’ve been open eight years. The fruit’s the freshest.”
Strawberries and mangoes and cucumbers and jicama cram the front of a glass-fronted cabinet. Bananas and different melons sit piled on a shelf.
And now I notice the sign: La Fresca Deli. That means they go beyond fruit here, into sandwiches and salads.
The lady behind the counter, Alicia, asks what I want.
I see the fruit salads come in three sizes: $5, $6.75, and $8. All have mango, strawbs, watermelon, banana, melons, and papaya in them, plus honey and granola. You can top them with cottage cheese, yogurt, whipped cream, ice cream, even condensed milk.
But I’m hankering for something spicy — picante — and savory right now.
For $4, you can get a sandwich stuffed with anything from ham to tuna, shredded beef to lomo (the tasty beef loin meat) with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and cheese. You can get these same fillings in a toasted torta ($4), which looks big and thick. They’re both a good deal. They also have a $6 grilled-chicken-breast salad.
But Mariam says the “tostilocos” ($5) are pretty danged tasty and, guess what? I’ve never tasted one — not here and not in TJ. Which is crazy, because Mariam swears they’re the latest, greatest invention from Tijuana.
So I go for that and a bionico ($6), basically a bunch of chopped fruit with house cream and granola on top.
Mariam gets herself a small plate of cheese nachos ($2). She starts telling me about what’s coming in my tostilocos. “You’ve got cueritos, jicama, japoneses, pepino, chamoy, saladito, Tajin, Valentina…”
Jicama, I know, and pepino’s cucumber. But what the heck is the rest?
Ready or not…wow…here comes my first-ever tostiloco. It’s served in clear plastic salad box, a brilliant mess of I don’t know what-all, white and red and yellow. Before I can ask, Alicia is holding a bottle of chamoy over it.
“Yes?” she says.
“Oh, yes,” says Mariam to me, like a policy adviser to a president.
“Okay,” I say, and Alicia squirts. “What is it?” I ask.
“Chamoy?” says Mariam. “It’s a sauce made from pickled plums. They soak the fruit in brine. That draws out the moisture, and you get this salted fruity brine. They call the dried fruit saladitos. When they add chili powder and lime, you get chamoy.”
Alicia holds up another squeeze bottle. This one’s labeled “Valentina.” She’s waiting for my okay.
“That’s just a hot sauce,” Mariam says. “Salsa picante. Gotta have that.”
I nod, and Alicia squirts another ribbon of red around the top.
Then, she’s got a third bottle! Tajin.
“It’s another fruit seasoning,” says Mariam. “Dried lime, salt, chili peppers.”
“Yes?” says Alicia.
“I guess,” I say, and she scatters on a rusty, dusty powder. Then, for luck, she does another round of all three.
She swings the bowl over to me. There’s chunks of white jicama and cucumber and crisp Frito-Lay chips sticking up like shark teeth. These swirling spaghetti-looking things…
“Cueritos,” Mariam explains. “Pickled pork skin. Like chicharrón, but without the fat.”
Then there are these little round balls. They look like M&Ms, but pale yellow.
“Japoneses,” Mariam says. They’re Japanese-style peanuts, coated with a soy-based shell.
I chew down on one. Crunchy. Savory. Delicious. What a combo.
I start chewing into the whole deal. The sauces kick up the flavor; where they’re concentrated, the taste is volcano-hot. I bite into something dense and darkly fruity.
“Tamarindo,” says Mariam. Chewy tablets of dehydrated tamarind fruit. They add a sexy sweetness.
The Tostitos underneath mediate among all the flavors. It’s a heckuva dish, mostly fresh, and strong-tasting, with plenty of heat.
And all for $5.
I’d like to find the Tijuana street-food guy who invented this and go and shake his hand. ’Course, shaking is what started the whole idea: grab a bag of Tostitos, toss in the flavorings, and shake up a storm. Someday, I need to try that bag version at home.
I’m so full, I have to take my bionico to spoon out as I head west down to the 8th Street trolley. It’s rich and fresh, with that cream and granola on top. But no way as interesting as the crazy Tostito dish.
My bet: give tostilocos a year and they’ll be appearing on the menu at, like, Mr. A’s.
And the inventor in TJ? He should be getting fat licensing fees, what you might call his just desserts.
I know. Fat chance.
The Place: La Fresca Deli, 1021 Highland Avenue, National City (inside Price Breakers indoor bazaar in South Bay Plaza at corner with East Plaza Boulevard), 619-477-4790; also 1037 Broadway, Chula Vista, 619-427-1713
Prices: Fruit salad with cottage cheese or other toppings, $5, $6.75, $8; tostada de ceviche, $2.50; tostilocos, $5; bionico, $6; beef loin (lomo) torta, $4; chicken-breast salad, $6; pastrami melt toasted sandwich, $4
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Monday–Saturday; 10:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m., Sunday
Buses: 929, 962, 963
Nearest Bus Stop: Plaza Boulevard and Highland Avenue
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: 8th Street