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.