When is a taco not not a taco?
I’ve come to this brand-new Little Italy Food Hall’s opening day to find out.
From The Princess Pub, you can see it happening at the other end of the Piazza della Famiglia. Crowds mill around the food hall entrance near the fountain. Red chairs, black umbrellas dot the piazza’s broad space between.
But I’m searching for this TV food guy who’s supposed to be here, the guy who’s invented a new take on the taco.
I make it to the food hall’s entrance, by the fountain. And right outside sits this 3-wheel, white and blue tuk-tuk with a counter cut into its side. I go up to the gal at the counter. Misa. “Is the food hall open yet?” I ask. “They’re just having a little ceremony in there,” she says. “Then we’ll be open for business.”
Turns out she’s selling beer and wine. Or will be when this whole operation launches.
“Wow. We can drink it out here?”
“You got it.”
“We don’t have to sit behind barriers or go inside?”
“You got it. Anywhere in the piazza.”
OMG. That’s a revolution. Where else can you drink on a public street?
Somebody comes running out.
“Alright. That makes you Customer Number One. Beer or wine?”
Hey hey! I ask for a beer. Get draft Pizza Port Chronic Ale. Go sip it at a public table near the fountain. Cool! That’s one small sip for man, one giant gulp for social San Diego.
523 West Date Street, Little Italy
Now I peek inside. Huh. All the different food places. Roast, a beef place from Canada; Ambrogio 15, a pizza place with a $50,000 Italian oven, so someone says; Wicked! Maine Lobster; Single Fin Kitchen, fish place, and at the other end; Mein Street, a noodle joint; and aha! “Not Not Tacos.”
Except, what da heck does “Not Not Tacos” mean?
Its sign says “By Sam the Cooking Guy.” Turns out he’s a TV cooking celeb. I join the line. Prices range from $4 to $6.50. People stew aloud over which ones they’re going to order. Let’s see: Sam’s Meatloaf Taco ($6) promises meatloaf with a chipotle apricot glaze, monterey jack, sour cream. The, uh, Mashed Potato Taco ($4), is basically that, mash, plus sour cream, cholula, and chips. You can add bacon for 50 cents. Deal.
Then there’s one called “Sunday Dinner,” (5.50). It’s chicken, stuffing, gravy, crispy onions, parsley, and sour cream.
Starting to get this. We’re pushing the taco way out of its comfort zone. Each one feels like a fresh idea. Smokey pork and mac ($6) promises real mac’n cheese on the pork, plus a bit of hot sauce and sour cream. Curried egg salad ($4.50, or $5 if you add bacon) is “Sam’s favorite,” menu says. Me too. I’ve always loved curried eggs. But in a taco?
Plus there’s a pastrami taco, a shrimp taco, an Asian salmon taco, and a Korean short rib taco. And, uh, a dessert taco? Lawdy.
I go for the top two, Sam’s meatloaf and the mashed potato taco. Figure they’ll go with my beer. And hey, the meatloaf would go with anything. The meat is herby, and with that chipotle apricot glaze and the cheese and fresh-looking spring onions, the word is lush, the feel is louche. And it sluices down beautifully with the Chronic Ale. Even this crazy idea of dumping a wad of mash in a tortilla gets me feeling Sam the Cooking Guy knows his gastronomical stuff. Because the mashed potato taco, which coulda been totally bland, is saved by the Cholula green onion, and sour cream, plus salty potato chip pieces. This one hits the bullseye.
Sam the Cooking Guy himself comes by. Have to ask him how he got this idea. “On TV, I do weird,” he says. “I’m not a purist. I’m a food agnostic. And one day I was sitting eating a taco. Good pollo asado. Then I thought ‘But why not load it with other stuff?’” It was as simple as that.”
I mean, what he’s doing takes guts. He’s stealing the taco idea out from under the noses of an entire culture. But he’s got a palate I’m starting to trust. It’s not just splotting anglo nosh into a Mexican tortilla. It’s creating new taste experiences. I find myself saying “Huh,” about every second chomp. I think he’s onto something. I know taco purists will roll their eyes just as much as Tokyo sushi chefs do at the mention of “California roll.” But I think: now that he’s done the unthinkable, it doesn’t feel unthinkable any more.
So, about a week later, I’m back, and desperate to try the taco with macaroni and cheese on it. Just because, well, outrageous, right? Can it actually be tasty too? I end up getting three tacos.
The smokey pork and mac is definitely interesting. Flavor’s bolstered by the pork’s sour cream and sriracha mix-up. The macaroni adds the cheesy note. Not bad. I move on to Kelly’s Shrimp Taco (named after Sam’s wife, turns out). Good and garlicky, and plenty of the little guys. But the standout has to be the Korean short ribs. They taste like…well, just like Korean short ribs. Dark, juicy. Sour cream and ginger garlic soy sauce carry the day. The gochujang red pepper sauce adds zip and flavor. The crispy panko gives crunch. Beautiful combo.
I’m way full. Next time, I’ll venture on to Sam’s dessert taco, the Vanilla Mango ($5). It’s a crispy cinnamon sugar tortilla with fresh mango, vanilla ice cream, almonds, spicy honey and lemon.
Finally, I’m starting to get what the name’s about. They’re not not tacos. They’re kinda tacos. Heck, let’s just call them what they are: Gringo tacos.