Red mole over chicken
2172 Ocean View Blvd,, San Diego
Perhaps the most overused cliché in all food writing is to call a restaurant a gem. One might be an absolute gem, or a neighborhood gem. Most trite of all would be the term “hidden gem.” Yelpers have been particularly active in wearing the term out: a search for “hidden gem” on Yelp turns up about 1.8 million hits. That’s more hidden gems than you’ll find anyplace not guarded by a dragon.
A pombazo wet sandwich, with chorizo and potatoes
That said, I can’t find any better way to describe Logan Heights restaurant Rincon Azteca than the neighborhood’s hidden gem.
I’ll even double down on cliché: this gem is hiding in plain sight. A fresh paint job covers the small Mexican restaurant with an Aztec-inspired mural, whose brilliant blue and green hues attract the eye. However, its location in the middle of a mostly residential block of Ocean View Boulevard means there’s not a lot of drive-by traffic to spot the place.
Chicken enchiladas in green sauce
For the better part of ten years it has been doing business with a far less flashy paint job, under the name Mama’s Kitchen. That’s the same handle as a local charity dedicated to feeding impoverished families, so the recent Rincon rebrand makes sense.
However, neither the namesake Mama nor her kitchen have gone anywhere. Alicia Lorenzo told me she’s been in there cooking pretty much every day for the past decade or so, primarily by herself. Her homestyle dishes include daily cauldrons of soups; tacos made with hecho a mano tortillas; chicken enchiladas smothered in either green or red sauce; tamales of pork or beef; mariscos from aguachile to ceviche; and antojitos including sopes, huaraches, and gorditas.
Casual Rincon Azteca dining room, with mismatched dining furniture and pretty tablecloths
It’s a lengthy menu for any restaurant, and an especially impressive lot of recipes for one woman to deliver with as much consistency as I’ve found. A plate of deep, savory mole rojo over chicken ($8.50) floored me: when I ran out of tortillas and chicken I resorted to spoonsful of the dark red sauce. Enchiladas verdes were tangy yet soulful ($5), and worthy of repeat tasting. The beef birria sope ($3.50), pork tamal ($1.50), and asada huarache ($5.25) all left me wanting more.
A blue and green mural announce the name change from Mama's Kitchen to Rincon Azteca.
I even found a Mexico City style pambazo here ($5.50). The wet sandwich features chorizo and grilled potatoes on a long telera roll, dipped in guajillo salsa, grilled crisp, and finished with shredded lettuce and crema. It’s messy, but goes so well with a juicy agua fresca de Jamaica, a.k.a. hibiscus water. While I haven’t yet tried any of Lorenzo’s soups, which include menudo, goat birria, and pozole, I did witness another customer stop in one hot afternoon specifically to order the caldo de res. I figure, if someone wants soup on an 80-degree afternoon, it’s got to be something special.
Rincon Azteca is cash only, and Lorenzo’s English is nary better than my own restaurant Spanish, but if you can forego the convenience of paying through your smart phone, and can pronounce the words mole or birria, I suspect you’ll be glad you did. Let this gem be hidden no more.