Gems on The Boulevard series: El Borrego

The building is on the south side of the street and I bet those lights make it look pretty cool at night

The building is on the south side of the street and I bet those lights make it look pretty cool at night

I thought I’d do a series on great food finds along El Cajon Boulevard and what better place to start than the delightfully friendly folks at El Borrego!?!  One of my friends, who I’ll call Ellen, introduced me to this little gem in City Heights.  I wonder what cave I’d been living in never to have been here.  This is how it went.

First of all, there’s something really lovely about eating with food people.  I don’t mean food snobs (though for reasons I’ll explain, I usually like them, too).  I mean people who love to experience a great meal. And talk about that meal while experiencing it. And reminisce about it after its gone.  Lingering over a long meal with friends is one of life’s simple pleasures, and this day was no different.  I’ll mention that the good people at El Borrego apparently keep somewhat odd hours, so we decided to head over for a late lunch on a Saturday.  In today’s world, there’s something to be said for a place that doesn’t have or need a website.

El Cajon Boulevard is developing a reputation as a culturally diverse, artsy bike boulevard that fosters creative, independent types.  There is some healthy disagreement about whether it no longer needs to be a high-speed thoroughfare since I-8 now gets people from east to west, but because it’s such a long street its character isn’t easily shoved into one typecast role.  These great pictures help tell part of the story, and the local Business Improvement Association helps nudge The Boulevard towards being a lifeline for interesting adventure while making a cool place for small businesses to thrive.

With all this as backdrop, when Ellen recommended we dive in to a little spot out around 43rd Street I was open for some new fun and some good food.  So let’s start with this

There's really no way to capture this in a way that does it justice, just have some

There’s really no way to capture this in a way that does it justice, just have some

Horchata (pronounced or-CHA-ta) has a storied history.  I “discovered” it when I lived in Tucson and had friends whose parents made it at home.  For those unfamiliar, it’s a sweet milk that–at least in the southwest–is made with rice and vanilla and cinnamon.  Here’s a cool site I stumbled upon with a few recipes.  This horchata at El Borrego was good, and made fresh, not overly sweet like the one you get in that big machine at some places, but not the reason we came.  So let’s get on to that.  First up was the menu

This is really kind of self explanatory

This is really kind of self explanatory

And then there were these

This is not my best camera work, but the huitlacoche ones on the right were really good

This is not my best camera work, but the huitlacoche ones on the right were really good

The one that really stood out was the huitlacoche quesadilla, which had oaxacan cheese, a fresh tortilla and huitlacoche.  Huitla-what?  Yeah, read a nice description here.  I wouldn’t advise googling photos before your meal, but would strongly advise having one.  Very nutritious and the huitlacoche gives the quesadilla a nice earthy quality.  Plus, it’s fun to eat the stuff and then talk about it.  Ellen and I met Ellen’s friend, who we’ll call Blanca, which was great because she was fluent in Spanish and herself a lover of food.  Actually, I’m not sure her being bilingual mattered all that much yet somehow it seems to have added to my experience.  We also ordered this

Lamb mixiote just opened and garnished with limes for color (or that's what Blanca said)

Lamb mixiote just opened and garnished with limes for color (or that’s what Blanca said)

The lamb mixiote almost doesn’t need description.  That photo should give you some insight.  But imagine a piece of lamb wrapped up in a banana leaf and left to marinate and cook in its own juices for hours, then served steaming inside some tin foil.  Holy Jeezus.  This was one of those food experiences that really defies what you expect in a casual quick lunch.  That the meat was tender was no great surprise, I expect if you simmered shoe leather long enough it’d soften up a bit.  But you combine meat barely clinging to the bone with the rich flavor their method of stewing it in guajillo left in the lamb and, well, I’m ready to go back.  Here’s a basic explanation of what a mixiote is.  Ellen, Blanca and I had plowed our way through quite a bit of food and still hadn’t made a dent in the delicious mound of barbacoa Blanca ordered.

*this is where I would have inserted a photo had I remembered to take one while indulging in the lamb above*

I’m running out of adjectives, which is why I’m not an actual food writer I guess, but the experience of the meal was something an open mind (and a healthy appetite) made possible.  This was one of those places that you find and half don’t want to tell people about, for fear it will get over run or they’ll compromise the quality.  They didn’t have great beer, which reminds me I should start carrying a card with great beer sales reps information so that I never have to eat somewhere with ordinary beer again, but that’s a different issue.  As with most good restaurants, the pleasant and welcoming demeanor of the people who helped us also added to the experience and I’d almost have been happy supporting them if the food had been just okay.  But it was good, so I didn’t have to cross that bridge.  Because our city is growing from within, El Cajon Boulevard is going to get more dense with people in the coming years.  And while that will mean a bit more traffic it should also mean more food diversity and more interesting cultural exchanges like this one.  Grab your friends, pile in the car, and take a spin down to El Borrego, if you like food you’ll be glad you did.  Thanks for reading.

Art by Jim Bliesner that Ellen took me to see on the side of a building after our food. She helped put it up the night before

Art by Jim Bliesner that Ellen took me to see on the side of a building after our food. She helped put it up the night before

This is a piece of art that my friend Ellen helped put up on the side of a building at midnight the night before.  The artist, Jim Bliesner, has a very interesting story and is, I am told, one of the most genuinely decent people around.

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