The menu is divided, fittingly, into several cat-egories
‘Escondido Columbus Club,” says the sign above a wall-size mural of an American flag. “One Nation Under God.”
511 West Valley Parkway, Escondido
“That’s the one!” says Maggie. She swings her blue Hyundai round and into the parking lot.
“The, uh, Escondido Columbus Club?” I ask. Maggie’s promised me a “taco surprise.”
“No,” she says. “Over here.”
Ah. She leads me towards this little low place with a tile roof, square brown stucco pillars, and a lime-colored annex. A large painting of a cat in tux, monocle, and top hat sits beside the words, “Craft And Taco.”
“Geddit?” says Maggie.
Chefs Daniel and Héctor
“Craft And Taco. C.A.T. They just have a thing about cats here. And tacos that are half sushi.”
“Say that last part again?” I say. But straightaway, inside, we have to join a line and check the wall menu. It has cat’s ears peeping out from behind. TV’s playing videos of kittens getting terrified by cucumbers, cats suckling puppies, cats dressed up as Spiderman.
There’s quite a crowd in here. A yellow neon sign in a bar area says, “Let’s Taco ’Bout It.” One wall features a black felt painting of a bright angry cat, the next has a big menu chart. And wow, it’s divided into four parts, “fish and seafood,” “pork/chicken/lamb/beef,” “vegetarian/vegan/paleo,” and “extras.” Underneath, they have colored symbols for flour, corn, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, and spicy. For a taco spot, it’s sounding more like a health food joint by the minute.
Blackened mahi mahi taco
This is when Héctor Lozano comes out from the kitchen with a tray full of tacos. They look so colorful, nothing with just a dump of grilled pork in the middle of a patty.
“The sushi connection?” says Maggie. “This guy’ll tell you.”
So on his way back, I ask him. “What’s your game here? Because it just feels like you’re doing something different.”
And the great thing is, Héctor’s interested in explaining. They are trying to start something new here. Turns out he’s a sushi chef. He and his cousins, all chefs originally from Mexico, decided to start this place using their Asian and Californian cooking experience. “Sushi and Mexican food changes under California’s influence,” he says. “There’s a lot of experimentation. So we brought in sushi-style sauces like chipotle aioli, use of sushi-grade fish, like tuna and salmon, poke cut in cubes, not slices, seasonal fish like rock fish, and not just shrimp but scallops too. And krab. And we use sushi flavors like Chinese ginger, microgreens, leeks, sweet and sour sauce.”
Wow. This sounds interesting. And I see we’re talking mostly $3.50, $4 per taco, so it’s not like we’re paying Mr. A’s prices.
By now, we’re at the head of the line. Quick look at the board. Seafood includes a blackened grilled mahi mahi taco with chipotle aioli, mango, microgreens, avo, salsa ($4), the Atun-A-Taco ($5) has “sushi-grade” tuna plus a bunch of micro-veggies, including seaweed salad. (There’s that Asian thing again.) The salmon poke ($5) has seaweed salad too, plus wasabi aioli, and fried leeks on a wonton tortilla ($5). El Pescado comes with tempura rock fish, chipotle aioli, and hey, raspberry salsa, habanero, actual strawberries, microgreens, and cilantro serrano aioli ($3.50). Sounds delish.
A langosta taco (fried lobster, mashed potatoes, bacon, rice noodles) goes for $6.50, but that’s top o’the line.
Me, I’ve got to go for the “Escondido Coco Loco,” because it has coconut shrimp, bay scallops, sriracha aioli, krab, coconut flakes, and toasted sesame seeds ($4). This is new stuff! Mag asks for the blackened mahi. I resist the choripapa (grilled chorizo, grilled potato, grilled pineapple, Oaxaca cheese, $4), and paleos such as Heirloom (even though it has a jicama tortilla plus big wads of tomato and queso fresco, $3.50) and the spicy vegan pastor (soy meat marinated in chilies and spices) with cilantro, onion, guac and grilled pineapple, $3.50. Actually, we pig out with an elote (a delicious corn on cob with cotija cheese, lemon aioli mayo, and Tajin sprinkles, $3.75), then Mag wants the “mushroom taco,” the Portobellini, with corn, Oaxaca and cotija cheeses, spring mix, and avo, for $4. So, dang it, now I can’t resist the Borrego (shredded lamb, shrooms, cotija cheese, onions, leeks, $4.)
Oh, and they’re just opening up the “Craft” side of their name, this interior bar loaded with interesting brews. The cashier gal, Laiya, brings us two Oktoberfest-size steins, a melon drink for Maggie, and a dee-lightful “No Güey!” mango IPA beer for me.
Results? Love the elote, borrego taco’s fine, the mahi’s got a nice burned, mango-sweet tang to it (Mag gives me a bite), and the mushroom taco’s good. But hands-down winner’s the Escondido Coco Loco.
We don’t talk much. We’re either nose-down in the tacos, or Mag — she’s a cat addict — is heads-up and squawking with laughter at the cat antics on the television. Doesn’t matter they’re repeating every 15 minutes.
The presentation of the tacos, with purple flowers and green cilantro, is totally classy. And you could really fill yourself for eight bucks, no problem. We went all-out because we were splitting the tab.
Even ordered up churros for something sweet ($6) to finish. Maybe because we’re so full, they taste a little dull. The chocolate and caramel sauces aren’t that interesting. But these aside, the guys here are being dangerously original. Who knew sushi and tacos could make whoopee like this?
The Place: Craft and Taco Lounge, 511 West Valley Parkway, Escondido, 442-999-5858
Hours: 10am – 10pm, daily (till 11pm, Friday, Saturday; till 9pm, Sundays, Mondays)
Prices: Blackened mahi mahi taco with mango, microgreens, avo, $4; Atun-A-Taco, with tuna, seaweed salad, $5; salmon poke taco, on wonton tortilla, $5; El Pescado taco (tempura rock fish, raspberry salsa), $3.50; langosta taco (fried lobster, mashed potatoes, bacon, rice noodles), $6.50; Escondido Coco Loco, with coconut shrimp, bay scallops, krab, $4; Choripapa (grilled chorizo, potato, pineapple, Oaxaca cheese), $4; vegan pastor (soy meat, guac, grilled pineapple), $3.50; Portobellini taco, with mushrooms, spring mix, avo, $4; borrego taco (lamb, mushrooms, leeks), $4; elote (corn on cob), $3.75; churros, $6
Buses: 305, 308, 350, 351/352, 353, 354, 355/357, 356, 358/359, 371/372, Flex, 388, MTS 235, 280, RTA 217, LIFT, Sprinter, Greyhound
Nearest Bus Stop: Escondido Transit Center, 700 W. Valley Parkway, Escondido