At El Indio Mexican Restaurant in San Diego’s Mission Hills District it is all about the Taquitos. And the Taquitos, in turn, are all about the tortillas.
Both go to the heart and the history of El Indio. Ralph Pesquira, Jr. founded El Indio as a tortilla shop in 1940 making the tortillas by hand. When supply could not keep up with demand he built a tortilla machine in his basement and the shop became a factory. When workers from a nearby factory started asking for prepared food items, Pesquira took his tortillas, filled them with beef and deep fried them. Thus, it is claimed, the taquito was born. It is, of course, a disputed claim (Cielito Lindo on Olvera Street in Los Angeles is also said to have been the source of the first taquito, but there’s more than enough credit to go around).
El Indio, of course, offers more than taquitos. The quesadillas are good, the enchiladas are very good, and the Sonoran-style soft tacos – I had the carnitas taco (pork cooked slowly to absolute tenderness) – are excellent.
But the taquitos are what put El Indio on the map and it is the quality of the tortillas that make those taquitos special. It is also – truth be told – in part the fact that El Indio does not deep fry those taquitos to death. As a result, it is not just “fried” flavors from the fat, but also the deep notes of the tortillas (and the meat) themselves that shines through. If the best tortilla you’ve had was purchased at a supermarket (whether called “taco shells” or picked off of an immense stack at the end of a long aisle that looks like it might turn over once a decade) it may not immediately make sense why one would want to taste the tortilla. But that would be like comparing Wonder Bread to the artisanal stuff. Good tortillas freshly made have a deep, warming quality that spreads across the tongue and speaks of food made with care. It may be the perfect flavor-delivery device.
Many a famous restaurant – whether high end or otherwise – fails to live up to its billing. More than a few of the places Guy Fieri visits on his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” leave one wondering whether there was just airtime to fill. But where a shop’s reputation is grounded in a superb ingredient like El Indio’s tortillas that is unlikely to be the case. And at El Indio it is not.