Elena’s Taco Shop has been known for most of its short life as the place with the french fry nachos, at least in my family. They’re actually called carne asada fries, but I know nachos when I see them.
All the elements are there: beef, cheese, guacamole and pico de gallo, all piled on a heaping helping of french fries that taste very much like Ore-Ida Zesties.
The first time I ordered them, I asked if the fries were fresh made and was told yes. When I got the order I could tell the fries were frozen, and the nice kid behind the counter was puzzled when I complained. It turned out he didn’t know I meant freshly cut, and he had every right to be confused: That’s not what I asked. (This has happened since with onion rings, so I’ve learned to be very specific: Did you cut the potato/onion right here, in this kitchen?)
Anyway, they’re delicious, and I’d happily eat them, topped with one of Elena’s freshly made salsas that range from mild to very, very hot, any time I crave a good order of carbs.
The little shop on Summer Avenue, east of the taquerias and taco trucks that line the street farther west, doesn’t label itself a Mexican restaurant. It’s billed as Southern California style, and friends familiar with the taco shops around San Diego tell me that Elena’s is on target.
The fish taco, the first item on Elena’s menu, is an iconic Southern California food, that much is certain. The story, widely published, is that Ralph Rubio, on spring break in San Felipe, Mexico, tried to persuade a taco vendor named Carlos to open a stand in San Diego. Carlos had no interest, but gave Rubio his fish taco recipe, and the college student went home and some years later opened a stand that today is a multimillion-dollar business. Rubio went back to find Carlos and give him money, but he’d moved on, perhaps to Ensenada, a city that also claims to be the epicenter of the fish taco.
Elena’s fish tacos come fried or grilled; the former is the traditional way to serve them. They’re topped with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo (a mix of onion, tomato, peppers and cilantro), drizzled with a thin creamy sauce and served with lime. The fish, both times I visited, was tilapia. Each taco was served in just one tortilla, instead of two, as tacos in soft corn tortillas typically come. But the tortillas, which are made in-house, were sturdy and the tacos didn’t fall apart.
At Elena’s you order at the counter, then load up tiny cups of salsa from the salsa bar to take to your table. Be warned that I can’t vouch for the salsa labels. Some time ago (the shop has been open about a year) I visited and felt that a “medium” salsa was much hotter than midlevel. On a recent visit, another customer pointed out that the sign warning of a heat level intense enough to cause hallucinations marked the wrong salsa. Sorry, I didn’t taste to test it. (Mainly because I wasn’t sure if it was hyperbole or true, as there are peppers hot enough to cause hallucinations, and I’m old enough to know better.)
Besides, you want the salsa verde, anyway. It’s fresh, spicy and perfect for the fish tacos and the very good torta, which is probably the best thing on the menu. The large bun is oblong, about 10 inches long and about 4 inches wide, soft but with a slight crunch to the crust. We ordered beef, or carne asada. The carne asada at Elena’s is very tasty, cut slightly too large to be called shaved, but small enough to allow for a large ratio of browned outsides to tender interior. The beef was generous on the sandwich, and the avocado, jalapeño pepper, grilled onion and pico de gallo provided huge flavor.
But the burritos ...
Most of us have a list of prices we think we should pay for a certain thing. Even if we’re not aware, for instance, that we think $6 is the fair price for a burrito, we’ll realize when we see one that costs almost $10.
“What comes with it?” I asked, only to be told that nothing comes with it, that everything comes inside of it.
Well, that’s not the same, and while the two burritos we ordered were good — and enormous — $9.49 seems out of line with the other prices. It’s certainly excessive for the Summer Avenue taqueria crowd, accustomed to spending around $6 or $7 and getting a side of rice and beans, along with chips and salsa too.
(But when they say everything comes in it, they mean it; the California burrito even contains french fries.)
I’ll stick to the torta, the fish tacos and the french fry nachos at Elena’s, but I’ll get my burritos farther west on Summer.
Elena’s Taco Shop
Address: 6105 Summer, Suite 101
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Reviewer’s Choice: Elena’s carne asada fries ($5.99); fish taco ($2.49); torta ($7.49).
Good: One star
Very Good:Two stars