Mama Testa Taqueria
A Taste of Old Mexico in Hillcrest
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 Webster and the dictionary aren’t always 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 crickets) to nopales and huitlacloche (cactus and corn fungus) to beef and chicken—and everything 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 a Mexican road trip. Mama Testa owner Cesar Gonzalez was appalled by what passed for Mexican food in San Diego when he arrived from Guanajato several years ago. He vowed to open a restaurant that would showcase the diversity of the Mexican kitchen. He decided to use the taco since it’s so closely identified with Mexico. Few foods lend themselves to as much diversity without losing identity as the taco, so Cesar set out to learn as much as he could about tacos. In the process, he gathered recipes from every state in Mexico. The research eventually translated into the tacos-only menu of Mama Testa: 26 different varieties, to be exact. Who knew?
Mercifully, the escamoles and chapulines didn’t make the menu because, well, Americans just don’t do bugs. And it’s hard to find a consistent source for huitlacloche here in San Diego. But the nopales survived the cut and ended up in the tacomal, an unusual cross between a taco and a tamal (singular of tamale). It’s not exactly everyone’s idea of a taco, but vegetarians love it. There are four main categories of tacos on the menu: blanditos, or soft tacos; guisados, luscious stewy concoctions; duros, or crunchy tacos; and Cesta, steamed tacos.
Mama Testa also has stellar versions of two tacos less commonly found in San Diego. Good Mexican-style chorizo is hard to find, so the chorizo for the atasco (chorizo) taco is made in-house. The perfect blend of pork and spices is used to produce a product that is flavorful, maintains its texture and is remarkably grease-free. Cochinita pibil is the signature dish from the Yucatan. It’s also the prime ingredient in the Yucateco tacos. Pieces of pork are rubbed with an achiote-based spice mix and wrapped in banana leaves to marinate for a few days. The meat is slow-roasted until succulent and tender. The tacos are served with a habanero salsa and softly pickled onions that are traditional in the Yucatan. For something a little more mainstream, the asi yasado are soft tacos filled with grilled chicken and served with a sprinkle of diced white onion, chopped cilantro and a bright, clean-tasting salsa verde. All the meat used at Mama Testa is organic and/or free-range.
Mojados de carne has to be the most unusual dish on the menu. It is also one of the best. Fried and folded it is not. Instead, the tortillas are rolled around shredded beef, briefly deep-fried (okay, so there is a little frying involved here), then cut into quarters and floated in a bold, beefy consommé with a pleasant chile hit. Chopped onions and cilantro are served on the side along with lime wedges, all of which can be used to season the soup “al gusto” (as you like it). Not that San Diego has many cold days, but Mojados de carne is a deeply satisfying dish on a cold day, and not too bad for a hot one either.
The various combinations of cheese, chiles and cactus provide vegetarians with satisfying selections, as do the tacos made from some wondrously tasty mashed potatoes. Ten salsas are made daily and all orders come with hot, thin and crispy tortilla chips. Parking can be a challenge, but don’t give up. Mama Testa Taqueria is the perfect place to relax, meet friends, have a beer, eat a few tacos, watch a soccer match, telenovela or even Don Francisco and Sabado Gigante, all the while reflecting on the fact that “folded and fried” barely scratches the surface of a taco.
Mama Testa Taqueria
1417 University Avenue
San Diego, CA 92103
(619) 298-TACO (8226)