Best in San Diego beef lumpia: minced beef, carrots, celery, and onions, hand-wrapped and deep fried
Nobody’s out to bad-mouth underperforming restaurants during a pandemic, shutdown or otherwise, so I’m not here to name names. But I will say that we took the family out to try out a new to us Filipino restaurant last week, and found only bitter disappointment. The food just didn’t taste good, and not even the lumpia could salvage our meals.
3876 38th Street, San Diego
Bottom line here, is that I owed the kids good lumpia. So with restaurant dining closed this week, I went looking for what’s said to be the best in town.
That would be Fredcel Lumpia & Catering. Combining the names of married owners Fred and Cecelia Rodriguez, the small, fourteen-year-old business sits on a side street in the Cherokee Park area of City Heights. And as my colleague Mike Madriaga reported a few years back, the shop’s hand-rolled beef lumpia is so popular, [it sells upwards of 6,000 a day].
A small shop that has made millions of lumpia over 14 years
It’s cash only, but one aspect that certainly bolsters Fredcel’s business is the price. Currently, lumpia run about 50 cents apiece, meaning my order of 20 cost just 10 bucks. That twenty might have been plenty — if I were eating them all myself. But these crispy, savory rolls are so tasty, and so instantly addicting, I had barely taken the vented foil cover off the box before I turned around and they were gone.
Fortunately, lumpia wasn’t the only thing on the menu. In normal times, Fredcel operates as a traditional Filipino turo-turo — or “point point” — type eatery. Meaning customers get to look over a cafeteria-like line of hot dishes in large chafing pans, and point to which ones look best.
The pandemic slowed down turo-turo business, but can't stop lumpia cravings.
However, in covid times, Fredcel’s glass counter is off limits to customers, so a hand-written menu sits at the front, revealing which dishes are offered this day. I wound up choosing between a classic adobo chicken and a pork menudo, before settling on the afritada, featuring braised, bone-in chicken, swimming in a slightly tangy tomato sauce with potatoes.
Again, the cost was marvelously low. A combo with two sides (steamed rice and pancit) went for $9.50. I might have added a second protein for a buck or so more, except the portion of rice, noodles, and chicken was already so heaping, my Styrofoam to-go container could barely contain it and refused to stay closed.
So much pancit and chicken afritada for 10 bucks, the take-out container can barely close.
This simple and huge — if not very photogenic — meal was twice the amount of food and good flavor than the spread we’d spent 40 bucks on the week prior. I can only imagine how many parties Fredcel Catering has made affordable and delicious over the years, with its variety of dishes.
But for anyone who loves food, it has to start with the lumpia. In plotting this story, I had planned to cut a lumpia in half, hoping to offer a good look at the mixture of minced beef, onions, carrots, and celery that make them so good (vegetarian lumpia are also available). But small hands grabbed away all the lumpia so quickly that, in retrospect, I was lucky to get a shot of their fried wrappers. Whether dipped in a very slightly spicy sweet and sour sauce, or straight out of the box, these were in fact the redemptive lumpia my family needed. A box of these makes the perfect pandemic comfort food. And, however many you think you can eat in one sitting — order twice as many.