When Las Cuatro Milpas opened at 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, the line was out the door. When we got to the front a half-hour later, the line was past the neighboring building. As we left an hour later, the line—that universal badge of ethnic food excellence—was halfway down the block.
And yet, as passionate as many are about the place (1857 Logan Ave. in Barrio Logan), there's occasionally a strange undercurrent of "buts" about the restaurant: but its menu is so short; but its not real Mexican food; but—as a friend of mine said when I invited him to join me for lunch—"it's got a shit-ton of lard." They are all, in their own ways, shorthand for "it's not authentic" or "it's too old-school." But that raises the question: What is authentic? Is it a goal in and of itself? Is old-school good or bad?
When it comes to the taquitos—hardly a genuine Mexican classic, and yet one star of the show at Las Cuatro Milpas—the but-ers are right. The place offers some of the best rolled tacos on the planet. While Mission Hills' El Indio claims to have invented the taquito in 1940 (Los Angeles' Cielito Lindo disputes the point), Las Cuatro Milpas might stake a claim, as well; surely nobody does it better. Made with tortillas crafted in the back of the restaurant, filled with shredded chicken and pork, garnished with old-school shredded iceberg lettuce and sour cream, ripe for a quick dip in the incendiary crushed chile pepper and lard-based sauce, these taquitos are Southern California Mexican at its best and most classic. Lard and authenticity be damned.
And then there's the menudo, available only on Saturdays. Las Cuatro Milpas serves the blanco version of this tripe soup—native to Sinaloa and Sonora—rather than the more familiar, chile-infused brew known as menudo colorado. A legendary hangover cure, this time-and labor-intensive food of love is all about family and community; its very texture envelops you and soothes. It's old and it knows better.
But perhaps the great glory of Las Cuatro Milpas is the chorizo stew. This dish of pinto beans and chorizo in a thick and spicy broth garnished with a dollop of rice plays almost like a chili. Served with brilliantly doughy and fatty flour tortillas, the depth of flavor is astonishing. The profile—layers of beans, meaty goodness and hints of spice—is complex and utterly focused. Ladled at the cafeteria-style counter from a pot that seems to have been simmering since the Depression-era days when the restaurant first opened, the stew whispers of a passion that ought to end any questions of authenticity.
If this isn't authentic, what is? Authentic San Diego Mexican food. You know it's authentic—and you know that old-school is good indeed—when the longest line you've seen in months is a line you want to stand in.