No love lost for Spanos family and how they pulled Chargers out of town.
“Believe me!” says my new friend Timothy. “It’s like ‘When burrito met Philly.’ It’s just meat, Philly cheesesteak carne asada, onions, bell peppers, and Monterey Jack cheese, melted. But that’s all you need! Slices of beef wrapped in a flour taco instead of a hoagie. Angus beef! You’ve never had better meat in a burrito. They know what I want as soon as I walk in the door. It’s ‘Hey, Timoteo! Usual?!’”
7836 Broadway, San Diego
Hmm. Burrito charro, they call it. But Philly cheesesteak in a burrito? Can’t wrap my head around that. Only thing to do is head on out to Lemon Grove and acquire me one.
So I turn up at El Pollo Grill. Name sounds like a big chain franchise. But it’s just a mom and pop chicken joint that grew. “In 1987, Rafael and Constanza Lopez took over a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant in downtown Lemon Grove,” says the menu’s blurb. They called it “Pollo Charro.” Then they expanded down the street to this spot in 2002. and now have another place in Bonita and a third in Otay Ranch. And even though chicken has always been their thing, there’s plenty of carne alternatives, from beef to chorizo.
El Pollo Grill on Lemon Grove’s main strip.
For sure, a lot of people confuse it with El Pollo Loco. That chain now has around 500 franchises in six states. But Timothy says these guys have their own dedicated following.
“Here’s the thing,” he says. “The burrito charro doesn’t have a lot of extra stuff. Just asada meat, bell peppers and plenty of melted Monterey Jack cheese. And the thing is, the flour tortilla isn’t a big thick wad. You don’t have to fight through it to get to the meat and the flavors. It’s thin and you’re into the meat instantly. And it’s marinated!”
Timothy says yes, he has a bias. He has been eating at El Pollo Grill long enough.
Whatever, I haul off the Orange Line and fifty yards up Broadway. The first thing you notice inside is the covid-emptied seating area facing a giant kitchen, and three cooks having at it with all sorts of chicken, plus meats such as chorizo and beef smoking and sizzling on the hot plates.
I take my place in a little line. Gives me time to see what’s on the wall menu. First thing I notice is this sign advertising a “Spanostaco” giveaway. “It’s the owner’s way of saying what he thinks about Mr. Spanos taking his Chargers and abandoning San Diego the way they did,” says the guy ahead of me. “So after each game that the Chargers lose, he offers a free ‘Spanostaco’ to customers who want to celebrate.”
Simple, but simply delicious - Philly Cheese Steak Burrito.
Huh. Who knew? But now it’s my turn. So lessee: Salads, which I should have, start at $3.99 (for a side) and go up to $13.99 for a shrimp salad. Bunch of breakfast plates go for $10.99. Dinner plates like chicken fajitas, $13.99, with guac, frijoles, rice, tortillas. But my main hunt is for burritos. Amazingly, I haven’t had one for months and months. Had a couple of experiences of mealy-mouthed ones elsewhere last year that seemed like they were all doughy tortilla and no filling. But it’s been long enough.
Besides, I’m interested as to what’s hot in burritoland these days. I know Rule #1: you’ve got to be hungry. And Rule #2: don’t be squeamish about meat. Yes, you can get bean and cheese, and they’re usually the cheapest option, but honestly, they’re space fillers for your collapsing gut.
So I’m interested in Timothy’s passion for this hybrid Philly cheesesteak-carne asada burrito. The standard issue carne asada burrito runs $9.99, which tells you there’s gonna be plenty of meat in there. But they have lots of varieties: chile con carne, shredded chicken, and a, uh, “619 Mysterio Burrito,” which is — spoiler alert! — shrimp, carne asada, pollo asado, guac, cheese, sour cream, for $12.99.
And, ah! Holding fast at $9.99, Timoteo’s Burrito charro. It’s a Philly cheesesteak of carne asada or pollo asado, with grilled onions, bell peppers, and Monterey jack cheese, and a fountain Coca Cola ($2.69). I go for the beef.
I take it all outside to the two tables they have going on their little streetside balcony. I unwrap the foil and man, this is going to be a steaming mishmash. But what Tim said is true: the meat is marinated slices and chunks, munchy, and made lush by the onions and big melt of cheese. Above all, tender. I guess what they say about Angus beef must be true.
I’m a complete mess, of course. But so worth it. I had forgotten about the simple pleasures of burritos. No extras to worry about. The Philly’s magic comes from laying melted cheese all over sautéed meat. As simple as that. “Philly cheesesteak is a sandwich made from thinly-sliced pieces of beef steak and melted cheese on a long hoagie roll,” says Wikipedia. You can blame Pat and Harry Olivieri. They had this idea for a chopped steak in a roll in Philly in the 1930s.
And there’s still that feel here, the mom-and-pop thing. “Mama Lopez’s beans are the best!” says the menu. An extra of rice and beans costs $2.
Next time, and there will be one, I hope to actually taste the pollo that’s their main thing. I mean, when a whole roasted chicken costs only $19.99 with tortillas ($9.99 for half, $6.99 for a quarter), and 50 pieces of chicken plus four quarts of beans or rice, and tortillas, chips and salsa costs $149.99, I can see a feast coming with ten of my best friends. Timothy, you’re invited!
- The Place: El Pollo Grill, 7836 Broadway, Lemon Grove, 619-697-7153
- Hours: 10am-8pm daily (till 7pm Monday; 9am-5pm, Sunday)
- Prices: Breakfast grande burrito (with eggs and ham or bacon), $8.99; chorizo and eggs breakfast plate, $10.99; salads, from $3.99 (side) to $13.99 (for shrimp salad); shredded chicken bowl, with cheese, rice, beans, guac, $10.99, w/free drink; chicken fajitas, $13.99 (guac, frijoles, rice, tortillas); carne asada burrito, $9.99; chile con carne burrito, $9.99; shredded chicken, $9.99; “619 Mysterio Burrito,” $12.99; fountain Coca Cola, $2.69
- Buses: 856, 936
- Nearest Bus Stop: Broadway and Grove Street
- Trolley: Orange Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: Lemon Grove Depot, Lemon Grove Avenue and Broadway