Chain restaurants suck. Bad Mexican food sucks. And bad chain Mexican food not only sucks; it bites. This is why: Bad chain Mexican food obliterates everything subtle, distinctive and authentic about regional Mexican cuisine and transmogrifies it into a dumbed-down, homogenized, Monsanto-approved cartoon featuring some guy in an oversized sombrero sleeping in the non-existent shade of a Saguaro cactus.
All of which is a superb reason to go to El Borrego (4280 El Cajon Blvd. in City Heights). It's everything that El Torito, Chevy's and the like are not. It's regional, it's authentic, it's distinctive and it's decidedly different than the next taco shop down the street. It's also this: tasty.
"Barbacoa" is a mainland Mexican method of meat cookery that traces its origins to the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean. Primal cuts are slow-steamed in an earthen pit over coals, covered in maguey leaves. The meat for barbacoa can be beef, pork, goat or lamb. At El Borrego (which translates as "the sheep"), the specialty is, naturally, the lamb version. It's good—quite good, in fact, though perhaps not at the level of Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista. One happy byproduct of the barbacoa method is a delicious meaty broth. It's outstanding and, in fact, better than Aqui es Texcoco's—likely because El Borrego uses less salt in seasoning its lamb.
But where El Borrego really shines is the non-barbacoa dishes, particularly those native to the Hidalgo region of Central Mexico, north of Mexico City. Unlike the cornhusk-wrapped tamales with which Americans tend to be familiar, the tamales of Hidalgo are wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. El Borrego offers different tamales depending on the day, but the ethereal texture and poblano earthiness of the tamales de rajas con crema are delectable.
Another set of standouts are the quesadillas. As with the tamales, the offerings vary from day to day. If either the squash blossom or huitlacoche quesadillas are available, order them. If both are available, order both. Huitlacoche, euphemistically described as "corn truffle" (or, in snark, "corn smut"), is a black fungus that attacks ears of corn, rendering them strangely disfigured and improbably, luxuriously delicious. The flavor is somewhere between an earthy and soulful button mushroom and a heady, creamy morsel of fruit.
And the squash-blossom quesadillas may be even better still. The contrasts in textures between the toothsome squash blossoms, gooey queso oaxaca cheese and the griddle-fried tortilla make the dish. The bright vegetal flavors and the warm cheesy goodness doesn't hurt. They are nothing short of addicting.
El Borrego is not a chain. It's not likely to be one, no matter how much its owners might like to achieve that success. The simple, sad and wonderful fact is this: El Borrego is far, far too good to be a chain. So you'll just have to go to the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and 43rd Street and go one door east. El Borrego—and Hidalgo—await.