Signs advertising the specialties of the house hang inside and out.
2455 Imperial Avenue, San Diego
It’s dark around here.
Just jumped off the Orange Line trolley at 25th and Commercial, around 7:30 at night. Headed up past Imperial. Looking for that tent-and-garden coffee place with the great title: Chicano Perk.
Yeah, I know it changed its name, but Chicano Perk is imprinted on my brain.
Except — whack?! I get up past the gas station, and…nothing. Just a bare, five-foot-high wooden-plank fence where Chicano Perk used to be.
Owner Alfredo posed with his sister Eugenia.
“It’s been closed about two months,” says this guy coming down the hill.
Dang. Was hoping to grab a bite, too.
So I cross 25th. Thinking I might walk back the dozen blocks to the bus ’n’ trolley station at 12th and Imperial.
Then I spot a place across the road that’s dimly lit behind trees. All I can see is a sign. “Ma Eugenia’s Kitchen. Traditional Mexican Cuisine.”
Hmm…what’s up with “Ma”? Mama? Madama?
I cross Imperial and make for the net-curtained entrance.
Right outside, there’s a tall wooden menu. “Restaurant Chentin.” Another name?
I push through the curtain, into this bright white stucco-walled room with brick arches and lots of signs on the walls. “Rico Menudo!” “Tacos de Pescado.” “Birria de Chivo.” “Tortillas hechas a mano.”
Steaming chafing dishes fill the counter in front of me. They’re loaded with hot stews. This is definitely old school. I’m the only customer.
Three girls at the end of the room seem to be doing their homework, chattering in Spanish and English. Behind the counter, two ladies and a gent stand stirring the stews. Debra asks me in English what I’d like.
’Course, I haven’t the foggiest idea. She points me to the list behind: ten items called “Comida Corrida” — “Fast Food.”
“Fast for you, but each one takes us hours to prepare,” says the guy, Alfredo. “Because my mother, my wife, my sister, and me, we make them every day.”
This is looking better and better.
First to catch my eye on that menu is Lengua en Salsa Verde — cow’s tongue in green salsa — with rice and refried beans (all dishes come with that, natch). Other items include shrimp cakes, pork in red sauce, pork in green sauce, chicken mole, Tinga de Pollo (sounds like shredded chicken), pork cracklings in green sauce, Chiles Rellenos, barbacoa, and quesadillas with your choice of sauce.
One thing I know: gotta have the mole. I’m on an eternal search for the perfect mole. Sweet enough with chocolate, and sexy-spicy enough not to be just cocoa gunk.
“You get two different items with the combo dish,” says the other gal, Martha-Eugenia (Alfredo’s sister).
I choose shrimp cakes with nopales — cactus-paddle slices — and the chicken mole. This mix costs $7.50, and for that you get a lot. Breast of chicken in a chocolate bath of mole, lots of shrimp cakes in their own guisado — stew — frijoles, and golden rice.
Plus, I get a bottle of Sangria Señorial ($2), ’cause it tastes like wine, although it’s a soft drink.
Alfredo says that the shrimp cakes are made of powdered shrimp and eggs, which he forms and deep-fries. The taste’s okay, but nothing compared to the chicken mole.
The mole is smooth, rich, savory as well as sweet, spicy. It sexes up this chicken to no end.
“This is mole Poblano,” Alfredo says, “meaning, from the state of Puebla, where mole was born. But we make it here. We get the paste from Mexico, mix in different chilis, sesame, meats, cheeses, onions, bay leaves from the laurel tree, seasonings…”
His voice trails off because now he’s venturing into their private formula.
“That’s my mom’s secret,” he explains. “And mine.”
I’m no mole expert, but when I taste their version, it’s smooth, rich, savory as well as sweet, spicy, and, well, interesting. It sexes up this chicken to no end.
The topper comes when Debra brings a small pile of steaming-hot corn tortillas from the stovetop. Man, these are thick, corn-grainy, corn-tasty, stiff, fresh and totally delicious. She’s just made them.
“We do them here as the Aztecs did,” Alfredo says.
I can tell. What a difference from store-bought.
And the name?
“‘Ma Eugenia’s Kitchen’ is for ‘Mama Eugenia,’” says Alfredo. “The ‘Ma’ is also short for Maria, her first name.”
His mom’s gone home for the day, but she’s the backbone. She ran an eatery a bit like this down in the state of Michoacán, in Mexico.
How did they get this place? It’s that oft-told, never-old story.
“My mom and I dreamed together,” Alfredo says. “We first came to America in 1991. She wanted a better life for us. I was working at another restaurant when this was still El Chentin. That’s the Mexican nickname for ‘Vicente.’ I used to come for lunch here. I got to know the cook. A few months ago, he told me the owners had decided to sell. I made an offer with all our savings, and now we are living our dream.”
Wow. After 20 years. Cool.
They are also working that dream to the bone. Alfredo’s here every morning at 7:00, to open the place for breakfast. He leaves at 8:00 at night. “If you’re not here, you’re worrying something will go wrong,” he says.
I eat my mole and rice and beans and shrimp cakes. So glad Alfredo was watching when I was about to spoon red salsa onto the chicken. “That will ruin the taste of the mole,” he says. “For me, anyway.”
Ho-kay. Of course. Good mole’s like good wine. You don’t mix it with other stuff.
I chomp away, listening to the bilingual burble of the kids; Alfredo’s kids, it turns out. They’re just a few tables away from mine.
Have to ask him: Is this anything like his mom’s old place in Michoacán?
“Well, that had more tile everywhere, and no walls,” he says. “It was open to the breeze. We have to adapt to here. But the one thing we won’t change is the food. No border compromises! My mom would never allow it. Here you know you are eating the real thing.”
The Place: Ma Eugenia’s Kitchen, 2455 Imperial Avenue, 619-236-0187
Prices: Breakfast special, two eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, salsa $5.50, with free coffee; two-entrée lunch/dinner serving, with rice and refried beans, $7.50 (e.g., cow’s tongue in green salsa, small shrimp cakes, pork in red or green sauce, chicken mole); all other standard Mexican dishes are on the menu
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., daily
Nearest Bus Stop: 25th and Imperial
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: 25th and Commercial