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Lola 55: respectful of Oaxacan tortilla quality

“My aim is to treat the taco like a great plate. The tortilla is the plate.”

Crew Lead Kennedy brings the first tacos. Surprisingly filling.
Crew Lead Kennedy brings the first tacos. Surprisingly filling.

Last week’s tortilla-throwing incident came just as I was discovering a new dimension in San Diego’s tortilla/taco world.

Place

Lola 55

1290 F Street, San Diego

It was an accidental discovery. I got off the 235 rapid bus after an hour-long ride (and then some) from Escondido. Wrong stop. And, dang. I found myself in East Village, around 14th street, short of City College. Like, right where F and 14th cross. But hey hey! Suddenly, I was looking at a brand-new taco place, at least, new to me. Not a little joint, but the whole corner. And not the usual tiny counter and giant menu set-up, but a way-big, spacious space with a whole cluster of comfy, bright sofas where you could drink cocktails. Yes, they had cocktails and a whole bar setup, along with a wrap-around outside patio. The sign was even uber-cool and mysterious: “Lola 55. Tacos. Cocktails.”

Rainbow cauliflower taco. Cauliflower “bacon” on top.

And the surprises kept coming. Right to what was on the menu, and how they served it up. I knew it the moment I schlepped up to the counter, and checked the menu. It had a mere eight tacos to choose from. And half of them were kind of standard choices like chicken taco with chicharrones, coconut rice, and peanut macha salsa; or Baja-style fish taco, with, they promised, “local fish.” But it did come with what looked like sophisticated extras: a remoulade, chorizo-tomato vinaigrette, baby mizuna (Japanese mustard greens, turns out), pickled Serrano, and purple basil. The al pastor taco was there too, with achiote (red spice from - can you believe? - the Lipstick Tree). We’re talking pork belly, mesquite pineapple, baby mizuna, avocado mousse, and crema.

So yes, even these mainstream flavors promised an exotic take. But for me, the most amazing thing were the prices. Chicken was $3.75. Baja-style fish tacos were $4.50. Al pastor, also $4.50; and a steak taco, $5.25. It all seemed so cheap for such a rico-suave place.

Gentle giant: Gareth spends a lot of time explaining the tacos.

But I decided to boldly go where no animal had been sacrificed. I asked for a rainbow cauliflower taco ($3.95), expecting, yes, a flavor-starved mash-up of goodness.

While I waited for the order to come, I got a Saint Archer Tropical IPA ($7). Not bad. Then this guy named Andrew arrived and handed this wild taco to me. I looked at it, and kind of on auto, just to show I could handle the hot stuff, I said, “And could you bring some nice hot salsa?”

He looked at me. “Sir, we actually put a lot of thought into our tacos. You might want to taste it before you decide we have fallen short.”

Uh, wow. This was new. This was someone who took his cooking seriously. I was impressed.

For starters, there was the visual. The rainbow cauliflower taco was chock full of things like charred cauliflower, avocado mousse, almonds, golden raisins, a dark morita dulce (sweet!) salsa - (there’s your salsa!) - and, coming in like a spaceship, a sailing leaf of, uh, eggplant bacon: a shaving of eggplant that had been baked with flavorings like smoked paprika and maple syrup, although, dang it, I never got to ask Andrew if that was what he actually added to the sliver. Whatever, don’t let the words “cauliflower” and “eggplant” put you off. This thing was full of rad flavors. I was so impressed. I could have chomped on it forever.

Instead, though, I went for the other vegan-type taco, the squash blossom relleno. It had beet soyrizo, almond “cream cheese,” poblano salsa, potato chicharron. Cost $3.95. You get the green blob of poblano, the golden squash, the red-brown beet soyrizo. Oh man. I made a mess of that bad boy.

Squash Blossom taco. Collision of flavors.

And the other thing that got me thinking: there, in that week of racially charged flying tortillas, was Andrew - Andrew Bent - an anglo chef who was giving the tortilla respect, and giving us gringos the fruits of his explorations of Oaxaca. “I spent a lot of time exploring. The tastes there are incredible. Even tomatoes: you bite down into one and you get this shock of flavor. We can’t do it up here. It’s something to do with earth, climate. So much of what Oaxaca has to offer is about herbs, spices. That’s what I’m trying to inject here.”

This guy, who was acting as server, was, turns out, a distinguished chef in his own right. He worked at Chez Panisse up in Berkeley, among other places. But after all that glory, why tacos? “Tacos haven’t received the recognition they deserve. Every chef aims at making great plates. My aim is to treat the taco like a great plate. The tortilla is the plate. And you don’t need chips and salsa. That’s an anglo thing. And definitely, you don’t need to drown your taco in hot sauce. I put all the sauces on the taco. That’s why I always say ‘Have you tried it first?’” He was like a missionary. “People are getting it now. And they come in with different friends, 3-5 times a week sometimes. They’re like tour guides. They do all our explaining for us.”

The two things he said he was fanatical about: “I will not drop quality, and I will not raise prices.”

He said he pays $3.69lb for pork shoulder. “I could pay $1 per lb and get away with okay carnitas tacos. But that’s not going to happen. It’s about price/quality discipline. We waste nothing here.”

I had to ask him about the name, Lola 55. “Lola” was clear enough: that’s the name of the 90-something mom of his partner in this venture, Frank Vizcarra. The “55” was a little more vague. Frank’s age? The greatest business year in US history, 1955? Steve Jobs’s birth year?

Whatever, I’m sure glad I got off the 235 at the wrong stop.

  • The Place: Lola 55, 1290 F Street, East Village, 619-542-9155
  • Hours: Sunday, 12pm-8:30pm; closed Monday; Tuesday-Thursday, 12-8:30pm; Friday, Saturday, 12-9pm
  • Prices: Chicken taco with chicharrones, coconut rice, and peanut macha salsa, $3.75; Baja-style fish taco, $4.50; pork belly al pastor, $4.50; steak taco, $5.25; rainbow cauliflower taco, $3.95; squash blossom relleno, $3.95; smoked carnitas, $4.25; pozole verde soup, $5.75; Mindful Mushroom taco, $5.25;
  • Buses: 5, 12, 901, 225, 235
  • Nearest Bus Stops: 14th and F (225, 235); 11th and F (5, 12, 901)
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Crew Lead Kennedy brings the first tacos. Surprisingly filling.
Crew Lead Kennedy brings the first tacos. Surprisingly filling.

Last week’s tortilla-throwing incident came just as I was discovering a new dimension in San Diego’s tortilla/taco world.

Place

Lola 55

1290 F Street, San Diego

It was an accidental discovery. I got off the 235 rapid bus after an hour-long ride (and then some) from Escondido. Wrong stop. And, dang. I found myself in East Village, around 14th street, short of City College. Like, right where F and 14th cross. But hey hey! Suddenly, I was looking at a brand-new taco place, at least, new to me. Not a little joint, but the whole corner. And not the usual tiny counter and giant menu set-up, but a way-big, spacious space with a whole cluster of comfy, bright sofas where you could drink cocktails. Yes, they had cocktails and a whole bar setup, along with a wrap-around outside patio. The sign was even uber-cool and mysterious: “Lola 55. Tacos. Cocktails.”

Rainbow cauliflower taco. Cauliflower “bacon” on top.

And the surprises kept coming. Right to what was on the menu, and how they served it up. I knew it the moment I schlepped up to the counter, and checked the menu. It had a mere eight tacos to choose from. And half of them were kind of standard choices like chicken taco with chicharrones, coconut rice, and peanut macha salsa; or Baja-style fish taco, with, they promised, “local fish.” But it did come with what looked like sophisticated extras: a remoulade, chorizo-tomato vinaigrette, baby mizuna (Japanese mustard greens, turns out), pickled Serrano, and purple basil. The al pastor taco was there too, with achiote (red spice from - can you believe? - the Lipstick Tree). We’re talking pork belly, mesquite pineapple, baby mizuna, avocado mousse, and crema.

So yes, even these mainstream flavors promised an exotic take. But for me, the most amazing thing were the prices. Chicken was $3.75. Baja-style fish tacos were $4.50. Al pastor, also $4.50; and a steak taco, $5.25. It all seemed so cheap for such a rico-suave place.

Gentle giant: Gareth spends a lot of time explaining the tacos.

But I decided to boldly go where no animal had been sacrificed. I asked for a rainbow cauliflower taco ($3.95), expecting, yes, a flavor-starved mash-up of goodness.

While I waited for the order to come, I got a Saint Archer Tropical IPA ($7). Not bad. Then this guy named Andrew arrived and handed this wild taco to me. I looked at it, and kind of on auto, just to show I could handle the hot stuff, I said, “And could you bring some nice hot salsa?”

He looked at me. “Sir, we actually put a lot of thought into our tacos. You might want to taste it before you decide we have fallen short.”

Uh, wow. This was new. This was someone who took his cooking seriously. I was impressed.

For starters, there was the visual. The rainbow cauliflower taco was chock full of things like charred cauliflower, avocado mousse, almonds, golden raisins, a dark morita dulce (sweet!) salsa - (there’s your salsa!) - and, coming in like a spaceship, a sailing leaf of, uh, eggplant bacon: a shaving of eggplant that had been baked with flavorings like smoked paprika and maple syrup, although, dang it, I never got to ask Andrew if that was what he actually added to the sliver. Whatever, don’t let the words “cauliflower” and “eggplant” put you off. This thing was full of rad flavors. I was so impressed. I could have chomped on it forever.

Instead, though, I went for the other vegan-type taco, the squash blossom relleno. It had beet soyrizo, almond “cream cheese,” poblano salsa, potato chicharron. Cost $3.95. You get the green blob of poblano, the golden squash, the red-brown beet soyrizo. Oh man. I made a mess of that bad boy.

Squash Blossom taco. Collision of flavors.

And the other thing that got me thinking: there, in that week of racially charged flying tortillas, was Andrew - Andrew Bent - an anglo chef who was giving the tortilla respect, and giving us gringos the fruits of his explorations of Oaxaca. “I spent a lot of time exploring. The tastes there are incredible. Even tomatoes: you bite down into one and you get this shock of flavor. We can’t do it up here. It’s something to do with earth, climate. So much of what Oaxaca has to offer is about herbs, spices. That’s what I’m trying to inject here.”

This guy, who was acting as server, was, turns out, a distinguished chef in his own right. He worked at Chez Panisse up in Berkeley, among other places. But after all that glory, why tacos? “Tacos haven’t received the recognition they deserve. Every chef aims at making great plates. My aim is to treat the taco like a great plate. The tortilla is the plate. And you don’t need chips and salsa. That’s an anglo thing. And definitely, you don’t need to drown your taco in hot sauce. I put all the sauces on the taco. That’s why I always say ‘Have you tried it first?’” He was like a missionary. “People are getting it now. And they come in with different friends, 3-5 times a week sometimes. They’re like tour guides. They do all our explaining for us.”

The two things he said he was fanatical about: “I will not drop quality, and I will not raise prices.”

He said he pays $3.69lb for pork shoulder. “I could pay $1 per lb and get away with okay carnitas tacos. But that’s not going to happen. It’s about price/quality discipline. We waste nothing here.”

I had to ask him about the name, Lola 55. “Lola” was clear enough: that’s the name of the 90-something mom of his partner in this venture, Frank Vizcarra. The “55” was a little more vague. Frank’s age? The greatest business year in US history, 1955? Steve Jobs’s birth year?

Whatever, I’m sure glad I got off the 235 at the wrong stop.

  • The Place: Lola 55, 1290 F Street, East Village, 619-542-9155
  • Hours: Sunday, 12pm-8:30pm; closed Monday; Tuesday-Thursday, 12-8:30pm; Friday, Saturday, 12-9pm
  • Prices: Chicken taco with chicharrones, coconut rice, and peanut macha salsa, $3.75; Baja-style fish taco, $4.50; pork belly al pastor, $4.50; steak taco, $5.25; rainbow cauliflower taco, $3.95; squash blossom relleno, $3.95; smoked carnitas, $4.25; pozole verde soup, $5.75; Mindful Mushroom taco, $5.25;
  • Buses: 5, 12, 901, 225, 235
  • Nearest Bus Stops: 14th and F (225, 235); 11th and F (5, 12, 901)
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