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Dear Matthew:

How many variations are there of the fast-food Mexican restaurant Roberto's in San Diego County? I've seen Royberto's and Humberto's, to name a couple. Is there any relation between the various mutations?

-- Paul Harris, Clairemont

We're not quitters here, but when we organized the 'Berto's Task Force, we had no idea what was in store. We now have a bunch of elves laid up with hyperguacamolemia. They seem a little better after Grandma Alice put them to bed and fanned them with quesadillas. But anyway, as promised, here's our Big 'Berto's Data Base, with rolled-taco review.

Baby 'Berto's: They're a slippery bunch, but by our best count, San Diego County currently has 15 versions of the name, with a total of 123 outlets. The 15 'Berto's are Ro-, Al-, Ali-, Fili-, Ai-, Gual-, Jil-, Hil-, Adal-, Roy-, Ram-, Ham-, Hum-, Ru-, and Rol-. The mamas and the papas of the genre are Ro- and Al-, of course, with 43 and 20 outlets respectively. La Jolla and San Marcos are the only major centers without an active 'Berto's.

Rolling Taco Revue: Here we learn that the rolled taco is the gringo of Mexican food. Just try placing your order boldly and with pride when all about you are eating the real stuff -- tripe tacos, cabeza tacos, menudo. You expect somebody to come out from the back and ask to see your papers. Anyway, purists that we are, we begin sampling them neat. Wrong. The plain rolled taco is the Anti-Food. Gustatorially invisible. A rolled taco is simply an awkward, tubular platform for condiments.

We rated 'em on the following scale: crispness, toppings, the 30-minute guacamole test, and latent-grease factor. Going in, we assumed that all rolled tacos begin life in some central kitchen and are shuttled to the hinterlands, frozen in large bags. We weren't too far wrong. The difference among rolled tacos, countywide, is so small, we could hardly draw a distinction. They live or die by their guacamole. Filiberto's has the flavorful, lumpy kind of guacamole, and they did so well on the 30-minute and latent-grease tests that we had to give them the prize. The 30-minute test is how well the taco holds up after sitting under a blanket of guacamole for half an hour. Is it hard and dry? Mushy? Nicely al dente? The latent-grease measurement is how much frying oil seeps out after half an hour, assuring moistness and flavor for those of you who order take-out. We, ourselves, would never order take-out Mexican. It doesn't travel well. There are six Filiberto's locally; we went to Linda Vista.

Filiberto's only demerit was for using yellow cheese only, without the added tang of the white queso añejo. They made up for this with free cilantro and chopped onion. So that's how we see it. If you disagree -- well, we figured you would. We don't care. We also don't care that some of the chain's owners had some embarrassing tax problems here in 1994. And that they were just slammed with a $1.3 million fine for employing 200 aliens without green cards in their 15 Phoenix-area shops and for fiddling with the books.

Natural History of the Rolled Taco:Fill in the blank. "San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, is to baseball as (what city) is to fast-food burritos?" Answer: Santo Domingo, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. That's the home town of Roberto Robledo, founder of Roberto's Taco Shops. Later, the Robledos' cousins, the Rodriguez family, arrived and eventually founded the Alberto's chain. (There was no "Alberto" of Alberto's.) After that, well, chaos and confusion. Consider Roberto's on Poway Road. The sign on the window says El Roberto. Get inside and everybody's wearing Rolberto's caps. Taco shops come and go and change names with regularity. The phone book will never keep up. Some taco-shop owners have several outlets, and not necessarily with the same names.

'Berto's de los Muertos: Definitely existed but don't anymore: Noberto's, Gilberto's, Elberto's, Jiliberto's, Reybertos (now Royberto's). Rumored to have existed but remain unconfirmed: Solberto's, Juanberto's, Anaberto's, Alaberto's, Rigoberto's. We also couldn't confirm the existence of the following ringers found on a 1994 sdnet.eats newsgroup compilation. We suspect they're wiseguy jokes or really dumb mistakes: Abierto's (abierto is Spanish for "open," like on a taco-shop sign); Chuckberto's in La Jolla (Chuck's Steak House used to be in La Jolla); Ailiberto's (Aiberto's merged with Aliberto's? Ay-yi-yi). Names Alicelanders submitted to try to fool us: Eseberto's; Vatoberto's; For-Here-or-to-Go-To's.

Rolled Credits:We must acknowledge help from former San Diegan Bob Kitzberger, with updates by still-San Diegan Steve Lamont, in the form of the 'Berto's list compiled by the Internet newsgroup sdnet.eats. Thanks also to photographer Michael-Leonard Creditor. Creditor has put together a slide show of pics of local 'Berto's signs, with narration and original poetry. The show can be booked for wedding receptions and quinceañeras.

A Bevy of Berto's

Thanks to Philip Salomone of San Diego for entry-number 18 in our taco-shop fiesta: Loberto's. One of their two outlets is at 28th and Main, across the street from the shipyards. Number 19 is Eriberto's (Vista and O'side). And add Solberto's to the used-to-exist list. So if you are playing the home version of our game, your new list should look like this. Active 'Berto's (19 names, about 130 outlets countywide): Adal-, Ai-, Al-, Ali-, Ei-, Eri-, Fili-, Gual-, Ham-, Hil-, Hum-, Jil-, Juan-, Lo-, Ram-, Ro-, Rol-, Roy-, and Ru-. 'Bertos de los Muertos (used to exist but don't anymore): El-, Gil-, Jili-, No-, Nor-, Rey- (now Roy-), Rigo-, and Sol-. And in the "Desperately Seeking 'Berto's" category, we still need a definite location for Floriberto's, Edelberto's, and Rowberto's, rumored to exist somewhere in the county. Though it doesn't qualify for our San Diego County-only list, this name's too good to ignore: Alerto's, a chain in Orange County. -->

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