Usually when I make it this close to the Mexican border, I eat on the other side. But this day I was taking a late breakfast in Otay Mesa. Though I stayed north, I still got to try some enjoyable Mexican food.
9335 Airway Road, Otay Mesa
I barely make it Otay way at all, which is the chief reason I've never visited La Loteria before. It's the older sister restaurant of Cocina 35 in Cortez Hill. Each operates similar to a cafeteria counter, with servers doling out mix-and-match meals to order. There are steam table pans filled with stewed meat guisados, rice, and beans; there are the fresh, cleaned, and chopped vegetables of a small salad bar — indicative of the owners' healthful mindset.
Fixed items on the from-scratch menu include tortas, burritos, and the reason for my visit: what the proprietors term the best chilaquiles in San Diego.
Turns out, chilaquiles aren't a one-off dish here, so there are options to weigh. While all three include avocado, sour cream, cilantro, cotija cheese, and pickled red onions served over fried tortilla strips, their meat and sauce toppings differ. Grilled chicken pairs with a creamy chipotle salsa, carnitas with salsa verde, and La Bomba: cochinita pibil with creamy habañero.
I went for cochinita pibil, a slow roasted pork dish credited to the conjoining of Spanish and Mayan traditions in the Yucatan. Characteristic to its warming spice blend is achiote, which lends a flavor somewhere between cinnamon and nutmeg. While these might invoke the sensation of holiday cookies, the presence of chili here wards off any comparison. The tender pulled pork atop my chilaquiles bore an understated sweetness, but mostly I enjoyed the much lower salt content than I find in most pork dishes.
While the creamy habanero sauce did well to soften the fried strips of house-made corn tortilla, I expected a heftier dollop of spice. It's possible the friendly staff behind the counter dulled it down for me — they'd initially seemed concerned whether I was prepared to handle it. Happily, that didn't stop them from dropping in a few thin slices of pickled serrano pepper. The pickling dampened its spice as well, but accentuated the fruitier notes sometimes lost in the serrano's heat.
The tang of the pickled onions and cotija added brightness, and the avocado brought nuttiness and creamy texture — on the whole, these chilaquiles were as easy to enjoy as they were colorful to behold.