Epicurious Eating: Mama Testa
Year of the fish taco
Published Thursday, 08-Oct-2009 in issue 1137
Never underestimate the power of the media. Ever since Cesar Gonzales of Mama Testa hit the airwaves on Food Network’s Throwdown in July, his colorful Hillcrest taqueria has been turning tables faster than you can shake a stick at the gringo-style Mexican food he eschews.
Gonzales presents a rich tapestry of casual cuisine hailing from nearly every state in Mexico. His crunchy Guerrero-style catfish tacos in particular are what prompted the terminally arrogant Bobby Flay of the Food Network into a televised battle for best fish taco. The cook-off was held in Balboa Park amid a full camera crew, which in the end captured a glowing win for Gonzales. After the episode aired initially, “Business was never the same,” he says.
Adding to Mama Testa’s fortuitous publicity wave, the 2009 Frommer’s Travel Guide tossed high honors to the deep-fried fish tacos, while the Mexican government’s latest First Guide points to Mama Testa as being among the most authentic Mexican eateries in San Diego. To the envy of local restaurateurs, Gonzales has struck gold and glamour.
Visiting last week with a friend, it was pure coincidence that we walked in to a repeat airing of Gonzales-versus-Flay on Throwdown. The quaint dining room, distinguished by a riot of primary colors splashed on the walls and chairs, filled quickly in seeming celebration of Mama Testa’s newfound fame. The fish tacos were no doubt flying.
A favorite perk here is the salsa bar loaded with about 10 choices that include tomato-chipotle, tomatillo-Parmesan and a feisty concoction highlighting the deeply alluring morita pepper (our favorite because of the high heat level). The “gravy” options are all vibrant, yet the spirit of discovery doesn’t end there.
From the menu, for instance, the “tacomal” shakes up the local status quo by combining tacos and tamales into single entities. Sold in pairs, the corn tortillas fold in cactus and cotija and Manchego cheeses. They’re “sauced” with warm, pungent pasilla salsa. All combined, you’re afforded an exotic rush of nutty flavor and rich texture that you’ll otherwise need a passport to experience.
Gonzales favorably breaks the mold of everyday rolled tacos as well. The Bandera Guera plate gives you 10 finger-sized flutes of corn tortillas filled with non-mulchy chicken served on a bed of lettuce and topped prettily with queso fresco and sour cream. Forget those coagulated mounds of Jack and cheddar cheeses you’ll find down the street. Gonzales believes they are the bane of Mexican food, so don’t expect to find them here.
Also novel are the steamed tacos – corn tortillas folded into little half moons and brushed with a rusty red enchilada-like sauce. They’re served with pickled onions and filled with a choice of carnitas, mashed potatoes, refried beans and Oaxaca cheese or poblano peppers and Oaxaca. We chose the three vegetarian options, each memorably tasty, but drier in comparison to a previous visit. Hydration was regained only a few steps away at the salsa bar.
Of the now-eminent catfish tacos, I found them decidedly crunchier this time around, despite their description that reads: “Deep fried, but not quite crunchy.” Nonetheless, I wasn’t complaining over the double crunch from the tortilla shell and the copiously battered fish, but another minute in the fryer might have chipped me a tooth.
Aside from the fresh, chunky fish comprising the tacos, they take on extra lure from a crowning of creamy Mexican coleslaw and queso fresco. For only $10.49, you get two of them with black beans and super-downy rice that undergoes a secret cooking method. Gonzales would only reveal that the rice is “fried first, then steamed, then fried again.”
The menu extends to various tacos that come in twosomes, threesomes and foursomes, all containing exciting twists by virtue of their salsas, moles, spices and authentic Mexican curds. In the case of beef or chicken “Mojados” rolled tacos, those are served in their respective meat broths with onions and limes.
The eatery switches from taking food orders at the counter to full wait service starting at 4 p.m. daily. Our waitress, a live wire, was able to keep up with the dinner rush without being impersonal. Gonzales is fast and friendly, too, jumping into the mix as customers these days spill onto the restaurant’s front patio tables. Indeed, Mama Testa is sailing gleefully beyond its 15 minutes of fame.