Some of my favorite childhood memories involve time spent under the wing of my wiser, worldlier older cousin, who, in addition to knowing more about almost everything, also had a car—a puttering diesel station wagon that, at the time, seemed like freedom on wheels. Back then, when fuel was still cheap and responsibilities few, she would swoop me up and drive me to her taco-shop hangout, Don Carlos in La Jolla, where she and her friends would loiter long past my curfew. But the block of hours between school and then was our time, and it was on one of those afternoons that she introduced me to the wonderment of the rolled potato taco.
This was in my early teens, amid the first of many subsequent flirtations with vegetarianism, which were always more casual affairs than committed relationships. I missed so many of my favorite foodstuffs during this period of abstinence and felt nothing so keenly as the loss of my beloved beef rolled tacos, those crispy cylinders of salty late-night munchie bliss. What had once been a staple food of my adolescence was now off the table and I wondered what in the vegetarian realm could possibly replace those cheap and tasty bites.
Whereas the meaty filling of a beef rolled taco can sometimes be tough and stringy, the interior of a potato rolled taco is always soft and moist, a spicy mashed-potato filling that contrasts irresistibly with its crackly fried corn-tortilla shell.
At first, I would have them as my cousin did, covered from stem to stern with a blanket of fresh guacamole, but I soon discovered that I liked the tacos better plain, with just a few shreds of melted cheese on top so that they'd retain maximum crispness. But we'd both always ask for as many containers of Don Carlos' homemade hot sauce as we could get away with. We'd order paper packets of the tacos to-go, five each, and drive to the beach, where we'd recline the car seats and munch away, passing a soda between us as I listened, wide-eyed, to her stories about boys and betrayals between friends. It was my own serialized soap opera, and I anticipated each installment as much as I did those tacos.
Though I've long been back in the meat-eating fold, I never did return to beef rolled tacos; the potato variety's been all I've ever wanted since, and most have come from Don Carlos. I spent much of the early '90s in the taco shop making more discoveries—other San Diego specialties like fish tacos, carne asada fries and California burritos.
Don Carlos has changed owners since those days, and the once brief and basic menu is now a long list of new items—from vegan and vegetarian burritos filled with mushrooms, tofu or soy chorizo to a folded-in-half and fried version of potato taco. The tamales are worth checking out, as the roster of sweet and savory varieties rotates daily. My favorites are the spicy jalapeño with cheese and the sweet pineapple-raisin.
Like certain things that seem so grand when you're a kid but fade in the light of experience and adulthood, Don Carlos has ceased to be a regular haunt since I've found new and different Mexican spots with more compelling menu items. But it will always be a treasured part of my food history, a place where, to this day, the sense memory evoked with the first crunch of a rolled potato taco takes me right back, and I'm 15 again, riding shotgun in my cousin's car.