Epicurious Eating: Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop
Wrestling for tacos
Published Thursday, 21-Jan-2010 in issue 1152
Lucha libre, the Spanish term for “free wrestling,” showcases the high-flying moves of masked fighters who emerged famously from the rings beginning almost a century ago. Lucha Libre the gourmet taco shop at the foot of Washington Street in Mission Hills, memorializes the Latin sport in kitschy glamour, but fails to deliver many smack downs from its kitchen.
A black awning bearing the eatery’s name in Gothic font gives the impression of an Ocean Beach tattoo parlor. Inside are zebra-print seat cushions, a sparkly gold “champion’s booth,” a couple of disco balls and numerous framed headshots of masked wrestlers matted against funky colors. A vintage boob tube boxed in wood serves as the trash can. Not since my last visit to Lips have I eaten amid so much camp.
The big rave here is the untraditional tacos, particularly the queso taco served open face with marinated beef, avocado slices and a pinkish, non-descript sauce. Between the two-ply corn tortilla and the toppings is a thin lining of crispy grilled cheese similar to that of which bubbles over and hardens along a crock of French onion soup – but not as luminous tasting when plain ole Jack cheese is involved. It was oily and chewy and pretty much ruined the taco.
Something was also amiss about the beef we encountered in both the queso taco and an obnoxiously humongous California burrito stuffed additionally with French fries. (There’s your novel twist.) It wasn’t that the meat tasted rancid or sour, but the word “dusty” came to mind.
Another “gourmet” taco called the Tag Out, is filled with cubed chicken, fries, cheese, sliced avocado and pale poblano sauce. The scheme was more palatable in comparison and pleasantly creamy, allowing us to better appreciate its uniqueness.
The salsa bar features seven different choices that defy the norm. Most are thick, such as the creamy cilantro sauce. Another containing mango and peppers is as chunky as fruit salad. It scored as the spiciest and most interesting. As for the table chips, they were painfully salty.
Lucha Libre is probably the only taco shop where you’ll find hot dogs. In what is supposedly Tijuana-style, the all-beef frank is wrapped in bacon (sadly AWOL on ours) and topped with ketchup, mustard, mayo and grilled onions. Sounds a little frightening on paper, but it actually became the favorite in our lineup. There’s also a TJ corn salad that left us wondering if the kernels were canned or freezer burned. And what the heck was that pasty sauce sitting on top? Liquidated cheese? Seasoned cream? We couldn’t tell.
We concluded our samplings with a traditional bean and cheese burrito, a letdown mainly because of the riot of strange and atypical flavor combinations that preceded it. We liked the firm, non-watery texture of the refried bean mash, but if only it shouted of cumin and garlic.
Service and janitorial upkeep were scant. A hollow-eyed Gen Y’er was working the order counter while seemingly half asleep, barely looking up at us when taking our cash and then faintly whispering out from his perch when the order was ready. Several empty tables sat un-bussed, the salsa bar needed a wiping and the outer rim of the trash can sported mysterious gunk. All this as midday customers kept flocking in.
Consumer traffic is known to double in the evening hours, especially on weekends when bar crawlers come knocking to quash their late-night cravings. If you can plan your booze intake ahead, the eatery actually takes reservations!
Count me in the minority for generally disliking this place, but when gaudiness upends service, cleanliness and food quality, I’d rather eat a Happy Meal in Ronald’s Playland, amid a theme that feels brighter and less aggressive.