6866 El Cajon Blvd.
If there is a quintessential taco shop item in San Diego, it is undoubtedly the carne asada burrito-which is strange considering how many taco shops make it incorrectly. The name "carne asada" refers to beef cooked on an asador, an open-flame grill that gives the meat a smoky flavor. Combined with marinade, the method results in one of the most delicious foods anywhere. I have been to only two places in San Diego that prepare carne asada in this way while retaining low taco-shop prices. One of them is the exemplary El Asadero, located a few blocks from San Diego State University.
A combination butcher shop and eatery, El Asadero was founded five years ago by Guadalupe Madrigar, who used to own the Chula Vista Mexican seafood restaurant Playa Azul. El Asadero is run by Guadalupe and her son, who employ a number of family members, including Guadalupe's mother, who makes all the tortillas. The result of this family venture is authenticity unmatched by most.
"We originated from Guadalajara, so it's pretty much everything is from Guadalajara and Colima mixed in together," explains Guadalupe's son, David Mendoza. "Everything is pretty much the most authentic I've ever seen," he said. "Everything is made from scratch, and we make it all ourselves, and we have our own little way of making it. Like the way I make the salt for the seasoning-I mix it up together, and then I just tell everybody, I'll tell my sister mix it up a little, and then I'll tell the other cook, my cousin, to mix it up a little, and just throw that good vibe in there."
The menu at El Asadero is small, limited to tacos, burritos, quesadillas and combination plates comprising pollo asado, carne asada, carnitas, pastor and barbacoa-the last, a rarely seen item in taco shops, resembles pot roast with an tasty array of herbs and spices. "The barbacoa is a tough one," said David. "I tried to learn it myself for a little while, but there's so many spices and little things mixed in there. The way my mom does it, she'll take a plate, [and] she just puts little bits of all kinds of seasonings. At the end, it'll just be a whole bowl of seasonings. It's very sensitive to how much you put in there, you know, and I've never learned how to make it."
In addition to the regular menu, there's a daily special worth checking out (the time I tried it, it was a nice beef stew with potatoes), and on Saturday and Sunday, El Asadero sets up an outdoor barbecue and cooks up fresh pollo asado to order-some of the best chicken you'll eat anywhere, smoky and beautifully spiced from the marinade, served with grandma's handmade tortillas and beans.
It's pretty much impossible to make the wrong choice at El Asadero. The hardest part is limiting your choices, since the prices make it easy to order far too much food. Tacos are a buck. Burritos are around three bucks. Throw in a drink from the cooler, and you'll eat like a king for $6.
One of the nice touches about El Asadero is how condiments are handled. Typically at tacos shops, your food is served wrapped up, and you then unwrap it to apply your sriracha-derived taco-shop hot sauce, before trying to wrap the mess back up again. El Asadero takes a different approach. Your burritos or tacos are handed to you on a plate, unwrapped, and you are directed to a salsa bar stocked with four kinds of homemade salsa, salsa fresca, onions and cilantro, and lime wedges-as well as a tray off to the side of fresh jalapeños charred on the asador and salted (in case you were wondering, they rock the house). The salsas are terrific, particularly the habañero spiked "xxx-hot" variety.
Presently, El Asadero isn't the prettiest place to eat. There's one long table in the back where equipment is stored, and a few tables out in front on the sidewalk of El Cajon Boulevard. However, they finally have permits from the city-an arduous process, according to David-to renovate the place. Future plans include a proper dining room and moving the butcher counters to the back, which, when combined with the excellent food, should ensure many years of success for this gem.