1810 West Washington Street, Mission Hills
San Diegans reserve a special sort of judgment for Mexican food — one where quality is less associated with fine dining as it is a feeling that the food could have been wrapped up and tossed over the border fence by a short order cook whose abuela taught him how to squeeze the most flavor out of a tub of lard. Ask locals the best place to find great Mexican, and they'll often refer you to some tamale cart in a liquor store parking lot, or a 24-hour drive-thru affixed with the suffix "–berto's." Attempt to make it healthier or more refined, and risk receiving the sneered-at label, "inauthentic."
So what to think about Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop? Named for Mexico's cultish masked wrestling culture, Lucha Libre doesn't merely conflate the notions of gourmet and taco, it dresses them up with an absurd, over the top decorative motif that makes TGI Fridays look like a public library. Sparkly masks hang from bright pink walls alongside framed photographs of luchaderos, in a room where any object that casts a shadow seems to have been coated in gold paint.
For a city of casual diners who half-expect their Mexican food to be served through bulletproof glass, this trumped-up vibe could be a big turnoff. This sort of kitsch may be great for tourists, but not for those of us who know what real Mexican food is all about. Still, something about the place seems to work, and you'll often find a line out the door. Maybe the food really is a step above; maybe the décor makes for a quirky, yet affordable date night; or perhaps its freeway-adjacent location just means it's easy to get to.
The truth may be a little disappointing: behind the glitzy exterior, at its core Lucha Libre essentially is authentic. You wait in line to order grilled tacos, California burritos or bacon-wrapped hot dogs, fill small plastic cups at a salsa bar, then — when your number is called — pick up your food, which is served on styrofoam plates atop plastic cafeteria trays. Your beef or potato rolled tacos will still come piled high with grated cheese and cabbage, and still result in greasy heartburn whether you order them in batches of three or five.
Of course, that's only half the story. While it's embraced these cheap So Cal Mexican tropes, Lucha Libre does also try to rise above them. The salsa bar includes mango and cilantro cream options in addition to various shades of picante and verde. The California burrito features "fresh" french fries and an option to include shrimp. Vegetarian offerings factor zucchinis and mushrooms into the mix, and the ingredients are, let's say, at least comparable to the best cuts available from the carnicería.
I picked out a grilled fish taco as sort of the baseline dish for cheap Mexican food, though at four bucks and a quarter, it's a mite costlier than I typically pay when I head to Baja for the genuine article. It tasted fine, well seasoned, but ultimately unremarkable. So I turned my attention to taco number two: the so-called Flaco Taco. What's the gimmick here? Rather than a soft corn, or even a — blasphemy! — flour tortilla, the Flaco gives you taco ingredients wrapped in a fold of crispy lettuce. Inside I opted for grilled chicken, which had just enough flavor to hold its own against the salsa I poured onto it. But what really sold me was the inclusion of sliced avocado. Not some watered down take on guacamole, but fresh avocado. Such things can make a huge difference, and however many times I try, I cannot get my favorite go-to taco joints to do me this favor.
Lucha Libre can't compete with the authenticity of our regional abundance of cheap-ass taco shops, though it's willing to try. Order any of the basics, and you'll need repeat visits to the salsa bar to satisfy the experience. To make the most of the amusing ambience, ditch your expectations and go for the unusual items you would never find at any other taco shop in the city. The ingredients and preparation will be better, and won't suffer the comparison to those special in-the-know spots you hold dear to your heart. If it helps, pretend for a moment you're just visiting town from Seattle.