3627 University Avenue, Normal Heights
Super Cocina is the secret destination of San Diego gringos who love authentic home-style Mexican food. (It's no secret to local Latinos, of course.) If you're hoping to find something resembling the sophisticated Mexico City-style cuisine of the defunct Chilango's, this isn't it, but it's certainly as genuine. Instead of city-slicker chef creations, you'll enjoy simple, spicy country food -- mainly the astonishingly varied stews that are the mainstays of home cooking. (And given the cafeteria steam tables, what better than stews?) There's no professional chef here; these are the family dishes of local housewives from all over Mexico, who cook their favorites for the restaurant. Their audition? The owner's wife tastes the applicants' specialties. (No star rating here -- it'd be as inappropriate as rating a friend's dinner party.)
The dining room is simple, spacious, and pleasant, with a terra cotta tile floor, bare tables of blond wood, and craft objects (clayware, mad-looking fluffed-up toy hens, etc.) on high ledges, plus, near the cash register, a poster illustrating the various types of chile peppers. A normal-size TV at one side of the room is tuned at normal volume to telenovelas -- Mexican soap operas. Food is served on paper plates with plastic cutlery (you bus your tray to the trash bin when you're done).
On any given night, you'll find a dozen-plus entrées to choose from, rotating from a repertory of, reputedly, over 100 different dishes. For seven bucks cash, you get generous tastes of two entrées, rice, beans, and tortillas. A printed menu board and signs in the windows list such favorites as birria (goat stew), nopalitos (cactus strips), albondigas (meatballs), and menudo. That doesn't mean that any of these will be served on a given night. (When I was there, menudo was the only choice from the list.) But you're sure to find something you'll enjoy just as much -- because here, you can taste before you choose. Just ask, and the counterperson will furnish you a sample of anything you want. Which is useful, because the seasoning is by Mexicans, for Mexicans, with no concessions to tender guero palates. The dishes are cooked the way they'd be at home -- not for middle-class city folk, but for country families, where chiles make a major contribution to keeping kids and grownups healthy. And that's vital to the authenticity of the flavors, too.
Chiles are the very heart of Mexican cooking, and after Europeans discovered them in the New World, the plants became near-global nutritional saviors. Humble in their demands for space, water, and fertilizer, adaptable to numerous climates, and amenable to preservation by drying, chiles pack a nutritional wallop of vitamins A and C, with probable germicidal properties as well. Each of the gazillion varieties has its own unique flavor profile, from the sweet undertones of jalapeños to the gently seductive darkness of poblanos, from the mustardy-fruity piquancy of habaneros to the simple, scarlet shriek of serranos. Even up here, Latino markets typically carry at least a dozen types, and cooks often combine several varieties to create wonderfully complex harmonies -- for instance, the famous mole poblano of Puebla. This is why food that's "blanded down" to gringo tastes can never be authentic, or even truly good. It's not the lack of piquancy, it's that such a huge segment of the Mexican pantry is banished when a cook can't use a full array of chiles -- including the scorchers.
The dishes at Super Cocina carry the full chile component, but they don't bear nameplates -- another reason to take full advantage of those samplings. The night I ate there, I felt like a bewildered Moses, confronted with not just one Red Sea in the heat trays but six. This is not Italian-American food, where "red" normally means only tomato. Here, each red is a different blend of ripe chiles. I fell in love at first fiery bite with an incendiary shredded pork (probably picadillo de puerco) -- the spiciest dish I've tasted in any Mexican restaurant in San Diego. For a soothing complement, I chose a chile relleno, a fresh poblano (the proper pepper, not the fast-fooder Anaheim) stuffed with melted Oaxaca cheese in a puffy, greaseless batter with a toothsomely soft texture. (A local blogger from Mexico has compared it to cotton candy.) It had survived the steam-table treatment triumphantly.
My friends Dave and Barb, longtime fans of Super, brought me here. Dave sought a similar hot-mild balance: His pork stew was a large, bone-in shoulder chop swathed in red-brown chipotle sauce. Its spiciness was milder but darker and more complex than my porcine wildfire. I actually liked his better in the long run. His second entrée consisted of two small empanadas swathed in shredded lettuce and a riot of queso fresco. The crisp dough pockets were also filled with mild, grainy, unmelted white cheese, a fluffy relief for scorched gullets, although a bit bland on its own.
Barb's stew tasted best of all: shredded beef in a reasonably spicy red sauce, the right amount of heat for the meatiness of the beef. Her balancing-choice was chicken mole poblano, which proved soothing but too smooth and simple. Tasting mainly of chocolate and sugar, it lacked the fire and complexity of the labor-intensive Pueblan masterpiece.
The one other digression from authenticity is a general one, the sheer amount of meat in the stews (not that I'm complaining about it). In rural Mexico, these might be holiday dishes rather than daily dinner. I once spent a few off-season days at a resort in Chiapas. Its well-manicured grounds were tended by a half-dozen gardeners -- whose daily pay was precisely the amount that the resort dining room charged its guests for a two-egg breakfast. (The cheapest dinner for two would have eaten up a week's salary.) At that economic level, stews like these would be primarily sauces to pour over rice and/or tortillas, perhaps with a bit of meat to flavor them, and probably more vegetables to fill them out.
There are rarely many stuffed tortilla antojitos in the trays -- they often swoon away in chafing dishes but may be worth trying if you catch them early. I spotted plump chicken enchiladas in dark green sauce, but the wrappings looked soggy. Whatever you order, you get golden-tinged rice, a tad dry from the heat trays, plus delicioso loose (not refried) ranchero-style pinto beans, with some spice of their own. If you want dessert, there are a few on hand (e.g., churros). Breakfast here is reputedly a special treat, with uncompromised renditions of all the great eye-openers, including acclaimed chilaquiles verdes.
One thing for sure -- whatever meal you eat at Super, your mouth's gone to Mexico.
Luscious Local Lobsters
[Ed. note: La Jolla Rancherita is closed.]
La Jolla Rancherita, 7404 La Jolla Boulevard (Marine Street), 858-459-5877.
At the start of our local lobster season, I learned unhappily of the demise of my two favorites in Puerto Nuevo ("Lobster Village"), south of Rosarito. Most restaurants there are owned by one or the other of two erstwhile fishing families who turned their sleepy town into a huge tourist destination. Nowadays, it's rumored, most of the lobsters in their restaurants are as likely to arrive frozen from other waters as to be fresh and live. Wherever they come from, in the typical Puerto Nuevo lobster restaurant, the critters are first halved and grilled, then chilled, then deep-fried in lard and served to tourists with a dipping sauce of melted "Kitchen Maid" spread (margarine blend).
My two faves (El Galeon and Malecon) were both small independents, featuring genuine live spiny lobsters. El Galeon mixed the Kitchen Maid half-and-half with butter. I don't know why they closed -- did the butter bankrupt them? The tiny waterfront paragon, Malecon, was owned by an active fisherman who brought his catch in live in the early mornings and served it freshly grilled (no lard fry) with 100 percent real melted butter. His articulate "steerer" (they all have English-speaking steerers trying to drag in patrons) told us that the owner had been "threatened by the big boys" since day one in business. Malecon is now physically demolished.
Local lobsters are currently in season again, and I wanted a good source right here, minus the loud party scenes or inconsistencies of Rockin' Baja or the Old Town Mexican restaurants. Then I spotted an ad for La Jolla Rancherita -- local lobsters $29.95 apiece, highly lauded by a different publication. Samurai Jim and I headed thataways, hoping they might have good Mexican food, too.
The room is simple, with standard Mexican decor. The chips were fresh, the salsa very mild. The house margarita was also mild but tasty. The guacamole (mainly puréed avocado) demonstrated that this would probably not be an undiscovered authentic treasure. In fact, Jim and I jointly remade the potion by stirring in nearly all of the table salsa and a good shake of salt. It was still wimpy white-people guacamole.
Lobster isn't on the printed menu -- it's available only in season, supplied by a fisherman cousin of the owner. (Call before you go to make sure they have it.) We had to wait a while for our lobsters -- a positive sign that they really were live and cooked to order. Happily, they weren't fried but lightly grilled (as at dear departed Malecon). They arrived halved, with the tender tail meat pulled from the carapaces, chopped bite-size and returned to the shells. The upper end of one half wore chopped cilantro, the other was strewn with diced underripe tomatoes. Tortillas came alongside for diners who want to roll up the lobster and garnishes. (We didn't.) There were two ramekins of dip: One held straight melted butter, the other a delicious green jalapeño-garlic butter. Each plate also included a mini-casserole of dense, reheated mashed potatoes sprinkled with paprika (very comforting), and on the side, a mound of crunchy unsweetened (yay!) coleslaw in a light, tart dressing. The lobsters were large enough that we took home half the portion, and we were glad to have it, since they were moistly succulent enough to furnish another night's unalloyed pleasure.
The rest of La Jolla Rancherita's menu is standard border-Mex, with numerous antojito combos plus several stand-alone entrées and prime rib on weekends -- plus numerous interesting fresh salads. (Hey, it's La Jolla!) We saw no Latinos eating there (hey, it's La Jolla!). But if you're looking for local lobster treated well and purely, served with no added lard or atmospheric annoyances, the Rancherita is a find.
A shameless plug: If you love finding a chocolate mint on your pillow at a luxury hotel, here's news of something even better that you can treat yourself to, almost guilt-free (and a lot cheaper than $300 a night). It's no secret that I'm seriously gaga for Chuao's amazing local-made, all-natural artisan chocolates. The quality of the Venezuelan-grown chocolate is supreme, the fillings sophisticated and imaginative (even avant-garde, sometimes). Now, Chuao is making mini-bars called "ChocoPods" and selling them at gourmet groceries, including Henry's and Whole Foods. They come in five flavors, four of them robed in dark chocolate: Candela is a delicious, spicy macadamia praline (nuts are reputedly helpful for getting to sleep). Modena combines strawberry and balsamic caramel into an Italian goodnight kiss. Picante has an emphatically spicy cabernet caramel center. (It's a little stimulating for a bedtime treat unless you've got overnight company to share it with.) Passion (my personal addiction) is a wonderfully grown-up, sweet-sour passion fruit caramel. Banana (the sweetest, most soothing flavor) has milk chocolate filled with banana and brown sugar caramel.
What makes ChocoPods especially worth the glee is: Each bar-let has under 60 calories and six grams of carbohydrates. And each has such sensuous, powerful, intriguing flavors that it completely satisfies that evil late-night chocolate jones. If you've got any self-control at all, one is actually enough! So I'm touting these things as a way to thank Chuao for creating something that all weight-watching, part-time chocoholics secretly want and need -- a moment of pure semi-sweet joy that won't turn us, presto change-o, into instant hippopotami. For more information or to order online ($5.95 for a six-pack, plus tax and shipping): www.chuaochocolatier.com.
HOURS: Daily, 8:00 a.m.--8:30 p.m.
PRICES: Dinner (two entrée choices, rice, beans, tortillas) $7, cash only.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Cafeteria featuring rustic Mexican home cooking from many regions; choices change daily, centering on varied stews. Soft drinks only (horchata, jamaica, etc.).
NEED TO KNOW: Free parking lot. Family atmosphere. Tastes of dishes provided upon request while you're trying to decide. Some dishes very spicy. Almost nothing for vegetarians (possibly chile rellenos or nopalitos when available). No checks or credit cards.