Battered and fried thresher shark with chipotle tomato sauce, jalapeños, and frisée
Even in this city, it’s rare for a taco shop to emerge as a city’s must-visit dining destination. Still only weeks removed from its first day in East Village, counter restaurant Lola 55 has proven just that.
1290 F Street, San Diego
Day or night since it opened, should you cast your gaze around Lola’s verdant, photogenic atrium of a bar and dining room, you’ve been likely to spot a who’s who of San Diego’s food and beverage industry mixed among a crowd of early adopter foodies. Online, the feeds of acclaimed chefs, bartenders, baristas, and entrepreneurs have lit up. Not to be left out were food media, each formulating a more glowing review than the last.
Mesquite grilled chicken, with crispy skin balanced against cucumber and coconut rice.
Mine won’t be any less. I met Lola chef Drew Bent at a dining event in Valle de Guadalupe last year, and got to hear stories about his preparations for Lola 55: time spent researching the cuisine of Mexico’s culinary hubs, digging in to cook in hallowed kitchens of Oaxaca, and diving deep into the country’s aboriginal ingredients with the kitchen crew of celebrity chef Rene Redzepi, for last year's internationally attended pop-up phenomenon in Tulum, Noma Mexico.
All for Lola. It’s an incredible amount of preparation for a place where dishes cost as little as $2.75.
That $2.75 taco is arguably Lola’s best. Mesquite grilled chicken, with crispy skin balanced against the surprising inclusions of cucumber and coconut rice, and flavored by macha, which the handy glossary on the back panel of Lola’s trifold paper menu defines as “salsa made from dried chilis and nuts;” in this case the sublime savor of roasted arbol chilis and crushed peanuts fathom greater depths with the smoky fowl.
I normally order a taco de pollo only as an afterthought. They’re rarely as satisfying as fattier beef or pork options, nor nuanced as seafood. But, from side dishes to dessert, there are no afterthoughts on the Lola 55 menu. Each item has been thoughtfully assembled to reflect the ambitious goals of this future taco chain, modeled after the success of Tender Greens. A few dishes stand out, and few will sort out, as the place sets out to simultaneously honor the heritage of Mexican cuisine, while meeting the practical demands of an oak-fired kitchen devoted to ethical, regional sourcing. That’s somehow also scalable.
It might be tough to notice the chicken taco behind more likely to tantalize constructions, such as $4.25 mesquite ribeye with mashed potatoes and crispy leeks, or $4 achiote seasoned slab of pork belly al pastor with mesquite pineapple and frisée. A ball of masa is pressed and grilled into tortilla form per each.
It would be prudent to leave room for a fish taco. The cleanly crispy, $3.75 Baja fried fish taco makes exquisite use of thresher shark, sustainably caught in local waters. Or the menu’s showpiece, the $4.25 Spicy Smoked Fish, features opah stuffed jalapeño with bacon and a salsa of Carolina reaper, reputed to be the world’s hottest pepper. It’s assuredly hot as hell, but the intense combination of flavors beneath make for a fun ride while the heat creeps in, so keep a beer or cocktail close, and suffer a little for your pleasure.
Lola 55 doesn’t come by surprise. It’s been in the works for a couple years, and city native Bent has been a visible ambassador, cooking for previews and pop up events. What caught me off guard was Lola making a full third — three out of nine — of its tacos vegan. And one of them provides yet another menu highlight: an almond "cream cheese" stuffed squash blossom relleno. That shares a tortilla with potato chicharrons and a beet soyrizo that does both beets and chorizo justice.