location > 1417-A University Avenue, Hillcrest
phone > 619-298-8226
chef > César Gonzalez
THE INTERIOR of Mama Testa, a none-too-large taqueria on a lively Hillcrest stretch of University Avenue, resembles the aftermath of an explosion in a Mexican mad scientist’s laboratory. Like the toy lucha libre figures locked in combat on tabletop condiment trays, incandescent colors wrestle for supremacy: Racy carmine battles cobalt blue all around the room, bumping up against double-lemon yellow in the act of putting a chokehold on Lifesaver green. The wild palette extends to every corner and defies any eye that tries to grab it all at once.
Run by César Gonzalez, a 35-year-old native of Guanajuato who moved to the States at 14, Mama Testa puts the high-test in “testosterone.” (According to two reliable experts in Mexican slang, “Mama Testa” translates quite rudely if pronounced as a verb rather than a name.) The Tijuana radio station on the sound system plays at a bearable level and may be intended primarily to soothe the kitchen staff, which works at double speed during lunch. The décor wouldn’t soothe anybody, although it delights with festive skeleton sculptures grinning from wall niches, other high-quality artworks, strings of bright-colored banners and fiesta colors rioting in a salsa bar stocked with many homemade choices. Everything considered, it seems that cultures unimpeded by Puritan forebears excel at having fun.
A statement of fact: Mama Testa serves better frijoles refritos than any other local restaurant. They’re ridiculously delicious—why should beans taste so good?—and they suit the vast selection of tacos to a T. Tacos are the heart and soul of Mama Testa and the source of fame for Gonzalez, who bested TV celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a fish taco competition first broadcast on the Food Network’s Throwdown on July 15.
“I loved winning,” says Gonzalez, who waits tables, meets and greets, cooks and generally infuses his eatery with a presence as memorable as the house-pickled jalapeños. “It was a huge honor to be cooking next to Bobby Flay, a great chef—and a huge honor to be chosen as better than him!
“Every time the show reruns, it gets nutty here, nutty, nutty,” he adds; the Saturday after a Throwdown rerun probably isn’t a good time to drop by Mama Testa. Otherwise, any time is ideal to enjoy blanditos, guisados and duros (Tijuana-style soft tacos) or tacos filled with superbly savory stews or crunchy tacos, such as catfish-stuffed mouthfuls that are lightly deep-fried, Guerrero style. The selection encompasses the cooking styles of every state in Mexico, and the choices are wonderfully varied, including mojados de carne—rolled shredded-beef tacos plunged in a bowl of piquant beef broth and topped with minced onion, cilantro and mild cheese. The steamed tacos include a version filled with mashed potatoes, which doesn’t sound nearly as good as the one with succulent carnitas. Then again, the tacos parrales feature a filling of Oaxaca cheese and Mama T’s magnificent beans.
The familiar soft tacos, arranged on paired small corn tortillas, feature toppings like excellent homemade chorizo sausage and meat seasoned al pastor and topped with bits of grilled pineapple. Franco soft tacos dress beef tongue with sultry, red tomatillo salsa. Among the guisados, there are soft tortillas filled with la tuya tinga, a delicious stew of pork and chorizo. Depending on the dish, a taco meal garnished with rice and beans costs from $6.49 to $10.49. It’s money well spent.
Mama Testa (mamatestataqueria.com) serves lunch and dinner daily at 1417-A University Avenue. Telephone 619-298-8226.
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro
location > 4651 Park Boulevard, Normal Heights
phone > 619-546-7900
A YOUNG GUEST lit a cigarette on the sidewalk after dinner at Muzita Bistro, took a drag and observed, as smoke curled into the night hovering over Park Boulevard, “This is a good first-date place.”
Much of the clientele at this one-of-a-kind Ethiopian-Eritrean eatery, which collates its roots under the slogan “Authentic Abyssinian Cuisine,” would agree with her. One recent Friday, Muzita buzzed with a mostly younger crowd digging into dishes such as azifa fitfit (a vegan lentil dish with a toasted flax-seed vinaigrette, $9), kantisha kilwa (spicy stewed mushrooms and zucchini, $13) and zigini beggie (braised lamb leg, $16) with immense enthusiasm. And dig in they did, since Abyssinian table etiquette specifies dining with the hands, perhaps scooping up a hotly spiced stew like tsebhi dorho (braised chicken topped with a soft-boiled egg) with a ball of rice or a strip of injera. This flat, spongy bread, which some places unroll over the table like an edible cloth, is essential to the cuisine. Foods also can be eaten just with the fingers, an interesting experience when dealing with a hot, soupy stew. (Silverware is available upon request.)
San Diego has hosted Ethiopian restaurants fitfully over the past 25 years, but the Muzita menu will be a novelty to most. Preparation names and descriptions can seem indecipherable, but servers gladly give explanations, and the menu’s “What’s in the Dish” section details the seasonings, some quite spicy.
Among appetizers, the sambusa pastries have a familiar name, since this staple snack of Indian cuisine is popular in much of Africa. Served crisp and hot, an order includes three ($12), filled variously with spiced chicken, collard greens and stewed vegetables. Try a spicy lentil spread served with crisp injera ($8) or the spicy cornmeal-coated fried calamari with brined peppers and preserved lemon ($13).
Big plates covered with conical straw domes that look like Chinese coolie hats turn out to be portable buffets of all the dishes the table has ordered, arranged in a circular pattern around a salad of lettuce and tomatoes, separated by rolls of injera and mounds of rice. This is communal dining, to say the least, and diving in with the fingers and little strips of bread requires a fearlessness not characteristic of all San Diegans. Nonetheless, a trio of diners largely enjoyed a meal of mildly spiced chicken that tasted a bit like chicken mole ($16), braised leg of lamb with stewed tomatoes and onions (zigini beggie, $16) and prawn kilwa ($16; kilwa specifies hot spicing), along with vegetable side dishes.
Desserts ($7 to $9) seem essential after such a repast and include tiramisu, crème brûlée and a chocolate pot de crème swirled with so much whipped cream that you have to dig down deep to hit the exceptionally rich custard jackpot. It’s worth the effort——and you get to use a spoon.
Muzita Bistro (muzita.com) serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday at 4651 Park Boulevard. Reservations are advised; telephone 619-546-7900.