By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It’s considered the Cadillac of tri tip.
We’re talking cuts of USDA choice beef extracted from the bottom sirloin and infused with burgundy and black pepper through some secret process. Once grilled and eaten, consumers fall into states of bliss as that elusive category of taste known as “umami” starts making better sense.
In carnivore circles, the tri tip is called “Cardiff crack” because of its addicting flavor and gentle texture.
The recipe was introduced nearly 20 years ago at Seaside Market in Cardiff, which attracts shoppers far and wide for the stuff — whether eaten onsite or toted away raw to be cooked at home.
It’s now flying off the grill in spades at Crack Taco Shop, located a stone’s throw from the Mission Gorge exit off Interstate 8, in a strip plaza anchored by Chili’s and a Mobile gas station.
The colorfully decorated eatery was launched in May by Ron Abbo, his brother Steve, and Pete Najjar, who co-owns Seaside Market. The idea for it came about when Abbo was at Najjar’s house for a party.
“Pete used the marinated tri tip in tacos and they tasted amazing. We started brainstorming and eventually opened the shop,” Abbo explained.
The celebrated meat is exactly what steered me here. Although a few other orgasmic consumables surfaced, starting with slow roasted pork (al pastor) winking at my companion and I from a vertical spit perched just behind the order counter. Hand-stacked and seasoned in-house, the spiced meat cone is capped by a traditional thick slice of pineapple.
We opted for the luscious pork in a taco, in addition to a chipotle salad topped with “crack”; a “crack” burrito; and a bean and cheese burrito, which I habitually order in taco shops anywhere.
Over at the beverage station we noticed a light blue, somewhat retro-style machine dispensing four flavors of aqua frescas: strawberry-hibiscus, pear-cucumber, pineapple, and mango. Unable to pass those up as well, we journeyed through all of them with our bottomless-refill cups. None were too sugary. And all were highly quenching.
The deeply spiced al pastor is among the best in San Diego. So are the corn tortillas enveloping the meat in conjunction with guacamole and chopped onions.
The gluten-free tortilla dough is pressed and cooked to order, resulting in a cushy texture and wildly fresh masa flavor. Same goes for all of the other tacos such as grilled cactus, Baja shrimp, potato, IPA-battered fish and more.
Regarding the Cardiff crack, it was used generously in our dishes, pairing ideally to guacamole and finely chopped pico de gallo in the burrito — and to romaine lettuce, roasted corn, shredded cheddar and creamy chipotle dressing in the salad.
You may not taste the actual burgundy-black pepper infusion in the meat so much as you will quickly detect a perfected beef flavor. Imagine high-grade carne asada, the kind you always wish for when encountering those chewy pieces that barely taste like anything. This was gristle-free and more luscious in comparison.
Nothing except our bean and cheese burrito needed a spec of salsa, which is saying a lot considering the three house-made versions are pretty dynamic. If dining in, they appear at your table in squeeze bottles. Otherwise, they’re contained in little cups to go.
One is as dark and viscous as mole sauce. But it’s actually a rich, roasted chipotle “salsa brava” that ranks as the hottest in the trio. The red salsa is made of arbol chilies, tomatoes, garlic and onions. It too is kicky and delicious while the greenish-tan “salsa verde” offers a classic tang and less heat.
Vegetarians are in luck with the beans used here. They don’t contain lard, and not even oil for that matter — just pinto beans tenderly braised in water and a few spices. In the case of my bean-and-cheeser, a tad more cheese was used than what I normally get in most other taco shops. Just as well because it compensated for the missing saturated fat in the pintos.
Other menu items include loaded nachos and french fries, various quesadillas, breakfast burritos, and customized bowls comprising mixed greens, rice or beans. Nearly everything comes with the option of “crack” as the main protein. And the shop even sells the crack barbecue sandwich made popular at Seaside Market — an unlikely find in any taco joint.
I get the feeling that Crack Taco Shop won’t stay so unassuming for too much longer as more San Diegans discover its food, particularly the tri tip and al pastor. In addition, Abbo makes no secret that his team hopes to eventually expand to other locations around town.
Crack Taco Shop
4242 Camino Del Rio North
Prices: Salads and bowls, $8.95 to $9.95; tacos and burritos, $2.95 to $12.95; quesadillas, $8.95 to $9.95; nachos and loaded french fries, $7.95 to $11.95
— 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.