Webster's New World Dictionary defines a taco as a Mexican dish consisting of a fried, folded tortilla filled with chopped meat and shredded lettuce...........which only goes to prove that even the dictionary doesn't always get it right. Tacos, the ubiquitous street food of Mexico, aren't always fried, rarely have lettuce and can be filled with everything from escamoles and chapulines (ants and grasshoppers) to nopales and huitlacoche (cactus and corn fungus) to beef and chicken and everything else in between. If it walks, swims, flies or simply just grows, it's fair game for a taco.
To get a better understanding of the sheer scope and variety of tacos, a visit to Mama Testa Taqueria in Hillcrest is the next best thing to doing hands-on research in Mexico. Mama Testa owner, Cesar Gonzalez, was appalled by what passed for Mexican food in San Diego when he arrived from Guanajato several years ago. Then and there he vowed to open a restaurant that would showcase the diversity of the Mexican kitchen. His decision to use the taco as the vehicle was inspired since tacos are so closely identified with Mexico. Few foods lend themselves to as much diversity without loosing identity as does the taco. With his mother as the chief research assistant, Cesar set out to learn as much as he could about tacos, gather recipes from every state in the Republic of Mexico along the way. That research eventually translated into the menu for Mama Testa. A taco only menu, a menu with 26 different varieties of tacos to be exact. Who knew?
Mercifully, the escamoles and chapulines didn't make the menu cut because, well, Americans just don't do bugs. And it's hard to find a consistent source for huitlacoche here in San Diego. But the nopales survived and are featured in the Tacomal, an odd cross between a taco and a tamal (the singular of tamale). Not exactly everyone's idea of a taco, but a worthy vegetarian choice. There are four main Menu categories from which to make a choice. Blanditos, or soft tacos. Guisados, luscious, stewy concoctions full of satisfying flavor. Duros, or crunchy tacos. And finally, Cesta for the steamed tacos.
There are stellar versions of tacos less commonly found in San Diego - Conchinita Pibil, or not especially well done in San Diego - Chorizo. The chorizo for the Atasco taco is made in-house from the ideal blend of pork and spices. It is served as nice meaty crumbles and is remarkably grease-free. Conchinita Pibil is one of the signature dishes of the Yucatan. It is also the prime ingredient for the Yucateco tacos. Pieces of pork are covered with an achioted based spice rub, wrapped in banana leaves to marinate for a few days and then slow roasted until the meat is succulent and tender. The tacos are served with a floral habanero salsa and the softly pickled onions traditional to the Yucatan. For something more mainstream, the Asi Yasado soft tacos are filled with grilled chicken and served with a sprinkle of white onion, chopped cilantro and a bright, clean tasting salsa verde. All the meat used at Mama Testa is organic and/or free range. And for the record, vegetable is used, not lard.
The most unusual dish on the menu is also one of the best, Mojados de Carne. It belies the fried and folded dictionary definition. Instead the tortillas are rolled around shredded beef, briefly deep fried (okay, so there is a little frying involved here) and cut into bite-sized lengths. Those pieces arrive floating in a bold, beefy consume with a pleasantly piquant chile kick. Minced onions, cilantro come on the side along with lime wedges, all of which can be added to taste. Not that San Diego has that many cold days, but Mojados de Carne is a deeply satisfying such on a cold day, and it's not too bad on a hot one either.
Vegetarians are not forgotten. Various combinations of cheese, chiles, cactus and wondrously tasty mashed potatoes are available. In face, I find it nearly impossible to resist the sirens call of tacos Empapados, mashed potatoes served in a crunchy shell. If you ask nicely, it is sometime possible to substitute those yummy mashers for the usual beans and rice that accompany many of the dishes.
Other menu favorites include the Tinga Tuya a guisado of pork and chorizo; bistec; the fish taco made with catfish filet and the aforementioned cheese and rajas (chile strips) tacos. Most plates do come with black beans and fluffy Mexican rice. Both are somewhat forgettable, though I do like the rice because each grain is separate and it doesn't overwhelmingly taste of chile powder and cumin.
Ten salsas are made from scratch daily from a variety of chiles and ingredients not typically used in salsas north of the border such as morita chiles and sesame seeds. All orders come with hot, thin and crispy tortilla chips and as many trips to the self-serve salsa bar as you can manage. The salsas are usually labeled; be sure to try the bright orange Escalera. For an interesting twist check out the salsa made with Parmesan cheese, it's delicious. Not all salsas are searingly hot, nor are they meant to be. They are a condiment meant to enhance the flavor of the food on which it is used, not hide it! A word of caution, not every salsa in this salsa bars will work with every taco on the menu so try them first on a chip to determine if you like the salsa or not. But then, that's really just another excuse to try the best salsa bar in town.
As with most of Hillcrest, parking can be a challenge. Resist the temptation to give up and just keep driving. Unlike many taquerias that are cramped and charmless, Mama Testa is decorated in the bright gem-tone colors of Mexico and good quality folk art with an underlying Lucha Libre theme. It's the perfect place to relax, meet friends, have a beer, eat a few tacos or kick back and watch a soccer match, telenovela or even Don Francisco on Sabado Gigante; all the while reflecting on the fact that "folded and fried" barely scratches the surface of a taco.