By By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It isn’t an insult to term what you’ve eaten at Sombrero “San Diego-style Mexican food.” In fact, the family that founded the 17-location chain wouldn’t care if you shouted it from a rooftop because they’ve actually incorporated those exact words into the company logo.
The taco shop sprang onto Lake Murray Boulevard the first week of September in a spanking-clean structure boasting that “new building” smell. There’s indoor seating, a drive-through window, and ample space in front that will soon become an outdoor patio.
Its arrival to La Mesa — the first Sombrero restaurant here, even though the city is home to its corporate headquarters — is a godsend for local residents who devotedly drove to El Cajon or Spring Valley or San Diego to get their fixes on such items as Angus carne asada or Sombrero’s “special” burritos ladled with a silky brownish-orange sauce you’ll also find covering the enchiladas.
“The sauce was my grandmother’s recipe from a long time ago,” said Javier Correa Jr., the company’s vice president whose father, Javier Correa Sr., began growing the business in 1984 after opening Sombrero in South Park.
That location still remains, although it was his parents who technically started the chain in the College Area during the late 1960s. They expanded to only a few locations before dissolving them in the 1970s.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Sombrero’s bean and cheese burritos, a basic item but one that’s constructed with super-fresh tortillas supplied regularly to all locations by a local maker. Better yet, the refried beans are so consistently creamy that you’d swear they contain lard. But not so.
“We don’t use lard in anything,” Correa Jr. emphasized.
Rolled tacos (available in shredded beef only) are top sellers — fluted beauties sporting thin, delicate casings that gently shatter with each bite. They come in orders of four, although you can up the quantity for just over $1 apiece.
The jumbo “special” wet burrito and the carnitas “dinner plate” are rare examples in which quantity doesn’t comprise quality.
If you threw a blanket over the giant wet burrito, it could pass as a newborn baby. Filled with your choice of beef or chicken — and available also in junior size — the thing furnished me with three meals. I chose a packing of shredded beef, which is tenderly stewed in tomatoes and onions. Also inside were beans, rice and crispy lettuce. Combined with the special sauce (Mexican gravy) on top, it’s one heck of a burrito that truly outshines so many others in our region.
The carnitas combo plate is a steal for $12.25. It yielded a mound of moist and fluffy pork that clearly tasted slow-roasted. Some of the meat was shredded, some of it chunky. Correa Jr. noted there’s enough pork in the order to fill two burritos. The plate also came with rice, refried beans and tortillas.
But it’s the California burrito — or its less weighty option of a California taco — that best epitomizes the company’s San Diego-style Mexican food. Here, this gringo meat-and-potatoes construct brings together flash-grilled carne asada with requisite french fries, cheese and pico de gallo. Unless I’m adequately intoxicated, I’ve never been a fan of the creation. But it will forever rank as a wild seller at Sombrero and at all other taco shops dotting our landscape.
Correa acknowledges his menu fully aligns to everyday north-of-the-border grub. “But we do it in a polished manner,” he noted while pointing to Sombrero’s hand-folded crunchy tacos, as well as the slowly stewed chile verde pork, and assorted chili peppers used for making four types of salsa.
Other meal choices include breakfast burritos, numerous tortas, large and small tostadas, nachos and loaded fries — exactly the kind of food most of us start maniacally craving whenever we leave San Diego County for any length of time.
5550 Lake Murray Blvd.
Prices: Salads and bowls, $6.95 to $7.35; tacos and burritos, $3.60 to $8.95; tostadas and tortas, $4.35 to $7.49; combo plates, $8.25 and $10.25; dinner plates, $12.25 and $12.75, nachos and loaded french fries, $7.15 to $9.90
— 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.