Before we head south to navigate the late night street carts and hole-in-the-wall taqueros of Tijuana, let’s check in at one of our most widespread (with at least 14 locations countywide) Diego-Mex institutions: MXN.
There are a lot of things to like about MXN. Nevertheless, those of us who know and love her predecessor, Santana’s, remember when, about four years ago, many of their locations underwent a rebranding that included dining rooms renovated to look like a combination Rubio’s/Starbucks, some baffling menu updates (I’m looking at you, Caesar fish burrito) , and — for shame! — visibly smaller ‘rito portions.
But MXN’s merits far outshine her shortcomings, and for the price point, it’s hard to go wrong. For starters (and this is a big one), they are open 24/7 and often on holidays. Every location I’ve been to has a rippin’ jukebox and no less than 5 varieties at the salsa bar. It’s cheap, it’s quick, and — in prototypically Diego-Mex fashion — it approaches its zenith with hybrid, stonerly embellishments on traditional Baja fare.
I’m talking about 1-pound California burritos, carne asada fries, and, for our purposes, heaping adobada nachos at $5.49 for a half order or $7.69 for the whole stack.
In the absence of a shawarma-style trompo, MXN takes coarsely chopped pork and marinates it in a sweeter-than-spicy adobo, which saturates the meat via a greater surface area (compared to the thin, wide cuts of pork used on the trompo spit).
The pork is then cooked to order on the plancha, soaking up flavor like steak in a skillet. As such, the resulting texture is more akin to a chewy carne asada than the crisp, glazed shavings of traditional adobada, which has the benefit of days of spinning before an open flame.
Regardless, the stuff is delicious, and serves as an all-hours metric for the Diego-Mexification of adobada.
The swine truly shines in nacho form (and doubly so after bar close), when it accompanies globs of crema (not sour cream), refried beans, a thin guacamole sauce, shredded cheddar, pico de gallo, and fine shavings of cotija cheese. Don’t forget that lime!
The adobadass in all of us will delight to know that the menu also offers achiote shrimp and chicken, which brings us to…
The bonus: the achiote chicken taco ($2.49) finds tender chunks of chicken stained red with ground annatto seeds and a handful of seasonings that impart a mild bite and hints of Christmas-y sweetness. Of course, the texture is just as much a part of the experience as the flavors.
So imagine: the moment you crunch through the hard shell, your teeth sink into juicy cubes of bird and half-melted cheese. Maybe your mouthful is greedy enough to encompass some shaved lettuce which, if you’re doing things properly, releases a bittersweet dew of lime over your taco’s succulent contents.
This is Diego-Mex at its most naked. It is a white t-shirt’s worst enemy and a hangover’s best friend.
Now grab your passports and pocket phrasebooks, fellow pork dorks, and join me on our next Adventure in Adobada to the downtown streets of magical Tijuana.