In 1956, Jesus "Chuey" Garcia opened the Barrio Logan restaurant that would bear his name for the next half-century. Judging from the popularity of Chuey's, another 50 years in business seems likely.
Located near the foot of the Coronado Bay Bridge at the corner of Main Street and Cesar Chavez Parkway, in a giant building with a façade modeled after a Mayan pyramid, Chuey's serves a distinctly California style of Mexican food. This isn't some gourmet nouveau Mexican cuisine, nor is it necessarily authentic. What Chuey's lacks in these niceties it makes up for in abundant portions, low prices and flavorful food that draws a strangely diverse crowd.
Navy guys, bikers, '80s refugees, local politicians, attorneys and families are just some of the types you'll see. On Thursday and Friday nights, Chuey's features live music that prompts diners to leave their plates to boogie on the giant dance floor.
While typical dishes like tacos, burritos, tamales and enchiladas are served in all the expected combinations, Chuey's also features head-scratchers like beef liver Ranchero-style and chicken fried steak with Ranchero sauce. Not really feeling like going that far into the gringo side, we ordered the "Build Your Own Quesadilla" appetizer with pepper jack cheese, red bell pepper and mushroom; the beef tamale combo; and the chile verde-cubes of pork in a sauce described on the menu as "very hot, spicy and wild."
I'm pretty skeptical about claims of heat on ethnic restaurant menus-they usually seem aimed squarely at people who cringe at anything stronger than black pepper-but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chuey's means it. This stuff was hot, hot, hot-to the point of being painful. Still, the pork was tender, the rice and beans exemplary.
The beef tamales were also good. Unlike most restaurant tamales, these had a good corn masa to meat ratio, with a generous amount of tender, spiced beef on the inside. These were some of the better restaurant tamales I've had.
The quesadilla was kind of lame, however, and is not something I'd order again. Greasy with undercooked vegetables inside, it was an inauspicious beginning to our meal.
Chuey's is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices are low, with most entrées and combos priced around $8 to $12. Huge portions make sharing a viable option for couples. One caveat: the service can be slow and inattentive, so patience is a necessity.