If you don't eat meat, I apologize, but you should probably stop reading here. I'll be at a veggie-friendly place very soon, I promise. For the rest of you, if the name of the restaurant, El Borrego (“The Sheep”), doesn't clue you in, this is a story about the lovely and delicious things that can be done with lamb and how happy your mouth will be upon receiving its first bite.
Word about El Borrego first trickled down through the foodie grapevine in the spring of 2006, shortly after the restaurant's inception. But for some reason or another, I never made it in until recently. And oh, how I mourn a whole year of meals not eaten there—the lunches and dinners that could have been enjoyed had I not been so slow on the uptake—or, in this case, intake. But now this unique restaurant is inscribed in ink on my list of special spots.
El Borrego's concise menu showcases barbacoa, Mexican barbeque, which is traditionally slow-cooked in a large coal-lined pit dug into the ground. The meat is wrapped in leaves from a maguey plant, a kind of agave, and then the pit is covered with earth. Few restaurants can have this type of set-up (although I've fantasized about doing this project at home). El Borrego approximates the process by wrapping meat in maguey and cooking it in a vaproera, or steamer.
While a lot of local places do barbacoa with beef or goat meat, El Borrego specializes in the authentic version made with lamb and other dishes that stand out from the norm. The barbacoa here can be ordered in half-pound measures for sharing or a there's a combo plate for a very hungry person that includes good black beans and rice. Each order comes with warm homemade tortillas plus lime wedges, chopped onions, cilantro and two salsas—an incendiary red version and a tangy salsa verde. The maguey leaves don't impart that much flavor but are essential in the cooking process to keep the meat moist and tender. Lamb, unlike chicken, has natural flavor that needs only a little salt or condiments to make it sublime. Even a friend who's not a fan of lamb was won over by El Borrego's.
Another don't-miss dish is the mixiote, a scrumptious package of lamb seasoned with chili pepper and a spice mix and steamed in the parchment-thin outer layer of the maguey leaf until the meat barely stays on your fork and tastes smoky and rich. I like to bundle it in a tortilla with a spoonful of cactus salad for tart, crunchy contrast.
As the barbacoa steams, the juices drip down into the bottom of the cooking vessel, creating an intensely concentrated lamb broth that could rival chicken soup for its curative powers. El Borrego's soup includes garbanzo beans, rice and shreds of meat. Panchita, a sort-of Mexican haggis made with lamb innards, is served on weekends and is supposedly restorative, but I've yet dared to try it.
On a recent visit, we did try an assortment of tiny quesadillas, the flavors of which vary daily. On this visit, they were filled with roasted chilies and corn, chicharones and huitlacoche, an earthy mushroom-like fungus that grows on corn cobs.
As for mezcal, the other tasty product gleaned from maguey, it isn't served here, unfortunately, and neither is beer. But the homemade aguas frescas, including a just-sweet-enough cinnamon-spiced horchata and a tangy tamarindo, are really refreshing.
Rodnia, who runs the place with her mom and brother, is just about the friendliest restaurant owner around. She explained the menu and the origin of the food with enthusiasm and talked of her family's hopes of opening other El Borrego in San Diego. Rodnia keeps the restaurant, which is painted in warm, sunny tones, sparkling clean and festive with folk-art accents and seasonal decorations. A Day of the Dead-themed transformation is in the works for November.
If you're not a meat lover, then you're sort of out of luck here. But I think it's a beautiful thing when a restaurant focuses on single ingredient—in this case lamb prepared nearly nose to tail—and rocks the hell out of it.
El Borrego, 4280 El Cajon Blvd., in City Heights is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.