Binh H. Nguyen 4 p.m., June 30
Chamoy in Chula Vista
So, during my Baja lobster trip over the weekend, I also got a quick inauguration to some of the tasty snacks from the line. Then, while marooned in Chula Vista doing errands of an industrial nature, I got re-acquainted with some off those special tastes when I stumbled into La Fresca Deli on Broadway. My first thought was that it would be just another Senor Mango's, but it has a style all its own.
La Fresca is kind of shabby. Not gross, just drab, which is weird since everything is painted in bright, primary colors. Maybe it's because the place is stuck in a strip mall that, like lots of Chula Vista locales, makes me want to keep driving. Nevertheless, it's a stone's throw from an excellent barbacoa place, so I guess the whole "location, location, location" thing just doesn't apply in CV.
Suffice to say, my expectations were low.
I was wrong.
One of the treats that I enjoyed during a 3+ hour border wait was an order of tostilocos. The clamato ($5) at La Fresca reincarnated that meal as a drink. Much more than a virgin Bloody Mary, the clamato had clam and tomato juice, hot sauce, chamoy, pork rinds, jicama, peanuts, and cucumber, and lime in it. It was like an order of tostilocos without chips! Joy! So much salty, tangy goodness in one cup. The crunchy peanuts on the top were the best part, but the acrid tang of the chamoy was what made it all hold together. Chamoy, a sauce of salted prune brine and chili powder, has a funky taste that's a little bit fermented and a little bit pickled. I think it has a lot of the qualities that soy sauce gives to food--that certain savoriness that's hard to pin down but you know it when you taste it. Japanese cooks call it "umami" and it makes your mouth water just to think about.
I don't know what I was thinking, ordering pork skin and seafood juice from a dingy strip-mall deli, but I am glad I did.
Feeling inspired towards more chamoy, I tried the pico de gallo fruit salad. Little more than a bowl of jicama, cucumber, mango, pineapple, strawberry, and melon, the fruit salad came alive when I started smothering it in Valentina hot sauce and chamoy. Bottles of sauces were up on the counter and I went nuts with both. The result--a salty, spicy, fruit explosion--beat the muggy Chula Vista evening heat like nothing else.
Fruit cups and salads are between $4 and $8 depending on how big they are. The two fruits that stood out the most were the mango and the jicama, both of which combined with the chamoy to tease my palate. Everything else was good, but those were the best and it's no surprise that there's an entire "chamango" cup on the menu, which is just chamoy and mango.
Not too bad for what amounts to a dive bar for fruit.
1037 Broadway (Chula Vista) 619-427-1713
1021 Highland Ave (National City) 619-477-4790