Epicurious Eating: Don Tommy’s Mexican Food
Mysterious doughboy from Texas
Published Thursday, 19-Nov-2009 in issue 1143
The last time Don Alvarez saw Tommy, he was driving down Voltaire Street and briefly waved while passing by the window of his former namesake taco shop. “That was about four years ago,” he says. “After that he just dropped off and disappeared.”
A year prior, Alvarez had purchased the four-table eatery from Tommy, an avid surfer from Texas who established a veritable cult following for his starkly fresh homemade flour tortillas. In the transaction, Tommy sold Alvarez the secret dough recipe for an additional $3,000. Had Alvarez not snagged the offer, we’d be talking about your average, everyday taco shop not worth making a trip for.
In an effort to maintain his predecessor’s clientele – mostly surfers back then – Alvarez added his first name to the eatery. Although if you are Yelping it, the shop is listed on the web site under its original name, Tommy’s Tex-Mex.
A large menu board features all of the usual suspects that give you a partial taste of Mexico – tamales, chili rellenos, quesadillas, rolled tacos, soft tacos, burritos and French fries smothered in carne asada or grilled chicken. The magic occurs, however, when biting into anything involving flour tortillas.
It was love at first bite when a friend shared with me a hefty vegetarian burrito that he ordered to go. Warm air bubbles and tan pockmarks told us this wasn’t some ordinary tortilla, which was thick, yet light in the mouth; soft in the middle but with an exterior yielding a slim crisp. Until returning a week later to try more, I thought about it daily with sentiments that I’d be more apt to reserve for oven-fresh artisan bread.
Alvarez doesn’t know whether Tommy (only half Mexican) obtained the dough recipe from a family member in Texas or if he invented it when opening the taco shop more than a decade ago. But he chalks it up as “authentic” with a “twist” that remains confidential.
Having revisited twice, the spicy chicken burrito ranks as my favorite. The filling is comprised of grilled breast meat, pico de gallo, decent guacamole and fat rings of semi-brined jalapenos, all wrapped in Tommy’s floury love.
A carne asada burrito was also above average in taste and texture. The beef originates from Tommy’s Quality Meats (no relation to the former owner). It’s a San Diego-based family business that relies on certifications from the slaughterhouses that the meat complies with federal safety standards. (These days, a little education on meat processing can save you a trip to the doctor.)
Less remarkable was a bean and cheese burrito. Bring on the cumin and garlic! To compensate, I turned to Alvarez’s red salsa, which provides a big bang thanks to Asian chilies and fresh garlic in the recipe. A cilantro salsa, the deep-green color of wheatgrass, is thinner and less spicy, but titillating nonetheless. It came in handy for the chalupa I tried – a crispy corn tortilla topped with lettuce, guacamole and roasted carnitas that also needed a dose of garlic and spices in the cooking process.
A companion that I toted along in my most recent visit quickly approved of his homemade chili relleno, encased in airy batter that didn’t turn soggy in its bath of mild red sauce. He accompanied it with a beef tamale, expressing happiness over the shredded meat infused with sweetness from sautéed bell peppers. The masa encasing it was ultra fresh and helium-light.
Alvarez cooks with 100 percent vegetable oil and claims that everything is homemade. The food is noticeably distinguishable by clean flavors that stay true to themselves. In other words, the beef doesn’t taste like pork; the chicken doesn’t taste like fish, etc.
As for the luscious flour tortillas, we’re forever grateful to Tommy (wherever you are) for raising the bar on tacos and burritos. All others in comparison will never taste the same.