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Surprise on Juan Street

Posted: March 16th, 2018 | Featured, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

A friend who dines out frequently because he doesn’t cook clued me in on the weekday lunch buffet at Old Town Tequila Factory Restaurant and Cantina. It’s something I would have normally dismissed out my general disdain for buffets had he not spoken favorably of the value and quality.

Turns out it was one of the nicest meals I’ve had in Old Town in a long time.

The repast embodies a half dozen food stations that are run cleanly and orderly by attentive wait staff. You’ll find everything from self-serve agua frescas and a decent salad bar to soup, myriad hot entrees and desserts. There is even an area where you can make Belgian waffles. The only thing not included in the $10.99 price tag is the booze, including Factory’s oak-barrel Herradura Tequila. But the bar is open for business and waiters provide full service if you want to imbibe.

Assorted beverages include horchata and house-made lemonades (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The restaurant is located about halfway up sloping Juan Street, across the street from Heritage State Park. It shares hillside space with Best Western Plus Hacienda Hotel.

Diners enter through a side courtyard graced by an antiquated three-tiered water foundation trickling for a good cause; all of the coins it fetches are donated to the San Diego Humane Society.

A few spacious rooms inside encompass a colorful cantina, liquor cabinets showing off pretty bottles of tequila, ample seating and doors leading to a spacious terrace enclosed by glass panels. The tranquil, picturesque atmosphere feels radically removed from the more touristy kitchens of San Diego Avenue only a hundred feet below. And the food, in my opinion, is a refreshing cut above.

Pozole soup loaded with hominy and big, tender chunks of chicken tasted no less soulful than what a Mexican matriarch would conjure up at home for her children and grandkids. The flavors of cumin, lime, garlic and cilantro readily sprung forth from the soothing broth.

The salad bar featured two large bowls of lettuces, one brimming with crisp, neatly chopped romaine and the other with baby spinach and raw, red onions. Among copious fixings was a bowl labeled “chef’s special,” which contained a spirited combination of seasoned cucumbers and orange sections.

There was only one salad dressing available: an earthy green pepita-Caesar that rivaled most other restaurant dressings with its tangy, toasted essence. I gave my greens their final, winning touch by sprinkling them with some whole pepita seeds and finely grated Parmesan.

My friend raved about scads of delicious spare ribs at the hot food station the day he visited. Those weren’t in the offing on this particular afternoon, but the lineup was not lacking in meaty sustenance. A few beef and chicken preparations were up for grabs, including picadillo ground beef cooked down to a fine consistency with peppers, onions and spices. I used it for making a crispy taco from a stockpile of fresh, delicate shells parked nearby.

A ground beef taco with beans, rice, pollo asada and roasted jalapenos (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The beef machaca looked stringy, so I skipped over it in lieu of chicken machaca, which also appeared thready. But boy was it moist and delicious. It needed no garnishments; the plain, clear juice it sat in sufficed. Conversely, the grilled pollo asada (cubed, mildly seasoned chicken) was dry until hitting it with salsa and sour cream.

In a couple additional sojourns to the buffet I scooped into creamy refried beans; fluffy “fiesta” rice; ultra-tender Mexican potatoes strewn with sweet peppers and onions; chunky plantains in a light caramel sauce; and a chef’s special that resembled Texas-style carne guisada, which is slow-cooked beef served in a dark gravy of chili powder, cumin, and garlic.

By the time I decided to try a cheese enchilada, the chafing dish was nearly depleted. I took one anyhow, knowing that a runner was in the kitchen getting more. I should have waited because what I got was a parched corn tortilla tube filled with solidified cheese and draped in crusty sauce.

A cheese enchilada, Mexican potatoes and chicken machaca (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The floor staff never missed a beat in swapping my spent plates and forks for new ones, even when I stepped away for mere moments to fill a glass with milky horchata from the beverage station or snag a house-baked cookie and room-temperature churro from the dessert station.

Is this the best buffet known to man? No. But for a casual restaurant that sits off Old Town’s beaten track and often caters to tourists starved of Mexican border-town culture, it’s pretty impressive for the price and held in a clean, attractive setting to boot.

Old Town Tequila Factory also offers lunch from a regular menu. In addition, it presents nightly dinner service, daily breakfast and a bottomless Champagne brunch buffet ($24.99 for adults; $10.99 for children 12 years and under). A waiter told me the latter is “bigger and better” than the weekday lunch buffet due in part to the inclusions of omelets, fresh ceviche and shrimp fajitas.

— 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. Reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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