By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Throughout all of my serial relationships with San Diego taco shops over the years, neither cabeza or pancakes ever entered into the love affairs — if only because they were never an option.
However, I recently encountered the uncommon offerings at Picante Taqueria Mexican Grill, a little mom-and-pop joint located in a rear section of the Village Square shopping plaza on Mission Gorge Road.
Visiting on a whim with the intention of trying my usual rolled tacos from a place I’d never been, the menu suggested I abandon my routine preferences. I actually ended up doing so twice, having returned for a second tryst a few days later.
“What is cabeza?” I asked the young, friendly order taker on my first visit when seeing it listed as a protein option for tacos and burritos. In his limited English — and just as I had suspected — he pointed to his head while saying “beef.”
I faintly recalled learning of cabeza years ago after noticing it on a few menus in Tijuana and Ensenada. Depending who’s cooking it, the roasted beef head can yield everything from the cheeks and tongue, to the eyes, ears and lips. With my taste for adventure running rather strong, I deliberately didn’t ask the staff at Picante Taqueria which parts are used. I instead asked for a sample.
Given graciously to me in a little plastic cup, the meat appeared like traditional shredded beef, perhaps a tad darker in color. If there were eyeballs or ear lobes lurking within, they were incognito in their mulched form.
The flavor immediately struck me as deeper and richer than beef extracted from the neck down. So after polishing off the sample, I opted for the cabeza in a mini taco, which accompanied two others filled separately with pollo asada and carnitas.
Because of cabeza’s high oil content, the meat is less prone to turning dry and crusty once it cools to room temperature. I saved the cabeza taco for last in my lineup and it offered a remarkably juicy mouthfeel, much like biting into a succulent roast beef minutes after it leaves the oven.
When I asked the grill cook if he sells a lot of the head meat, he gestured ambivalently, as if to say, “not really.”
The carnitas was equally moist. I’m guessing it may have been spared the “crisping” many places give it on the flat grill right before serving it. Conversely, the small cubes of pollo asado were dry and overcooked, although flavored impressively with cumin, achiote and citrus.
For all of the mini and regular tacos, as well as the mulitas (quesadilla-like sandwiches), the shop uses corn tortillas that are made in-house throughout the day. Their pillow-fresh texture is unmistakable.
On my second visit, a breakfast burrito initially called. But I ended up with a payload of carbs, opting instead for two medium-size pancakes with butter and syrup, and a bean-and-cheese burrito filled with a thick mash of lard-laden pinto beans — exactly how I prefer them.
From what I could see, a specific area of the grill was reserved for cooking the hotcakes, which explained their unclouded flavor. Nary a hint of grease from meat or fried potatoes crept into them. Though not the fluffiest or most dramatic-looking in town, they cured a hankering for something I never expected to see available in a small, unassuming taco shop.
Full breakfast options are available as well, ranging from huevos rancheros and huevos con nopales to American-style plates of bacon, eggs and potatoes.
In addition, there’s also a menu of healthy options such as salads, a veggie burrito using vegetarian-style black beans, and bowls comprising rice, beans and a various proteins. But for this regular consumer of inexpensive Mexican food, it’s unlikely I’ll return with a calorie meter in hand. The full-fat stuff I tried here is generally too tasty to pass up.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.