French fries stuffed into carne asada burritos or topped with carne asada and cheese is a bit of a secret handshake to those who know California Mexican food.
It’s Mexican restaurant code for “San Diego or Southern California Mexican.”
Or, in California parlance, it’s part of the Cal-Mex lexicon where American and Mexican ingredients are blurred and merged into its own kind of food.
San Diego Mexican food no longer is a specific-to-California thing. Carne asada fries and french fry burritos can be eaten from Tacoma to Texas.
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One new spot to add to the Cal-Mex list is Don Alberto California Style Mexican Food, which opened two weeks ago on South Tacoma Way in Lakewood. The restaurant operates in the space that formerly held Tacos Guaymas and Las Cazuelas.
“We have many customers that know this restaurant as Bertos from the famous Al-bertos,” said Carmen Salas, who manages the restaurant with husband Jesus, whose brother-in-law, Gerardo Betancourt, who owns the place.
The “Bertos” part of the name is shorthand for their specific style of California Mexican food.
She added, “When (diners) see Albertos, Robertos, Eribertos, they know it’s from San Diego or Los Angeles, and they usually order a carne asada burrito, three rolled tacos with guacamole and a cheese quesadilla.”
The family previously worked for more than 20 years at three of the famous “Bertos” restaurants, said Salas.
“We are all family, but everything started in San Diego in the 1980s and that later extended to many neighboring states,” she said.
How french fries became an integral ingredient in this style of Cal-Mex cuisine is a bit of a mystery, as food lore surrounding merged cuisines usually is. When carne asada fries started to migrate here, I messaged San Diego food writer Michael Gardiner for background.
“You mean San Diego poutine?” he responded. According to San Diego legend, he said, a fry cook dumped fries on carne asada on accident. He added cheese and the dish was born, as the story goes (and we all know how stories go).
He added. “For those of us who grew up here eating ‘Mexican’ food, the blurring of the boundaries is particularly powerful.”
And that’s how you wind up with San Diego poutine. And french fries stuffed into carne asada burritos.
Here’s a first look at Don Alberto. It’s this paper’s policy to avoid criticism of a restaurant’s food and service in its first month.
Dining room: Just as you’d expect at an order-at-the-counter casual taqueria. Tile floor, well-spaced tables and serviceable seating. High chairs are stashed in the corner. The restaurant also has a drive-thru. The food is inexpensive. As in nothing is over nine bucks.
Salsa bar: Find pickled jalapenos and carrots, lime wedges and four styles of salsa (including two verde) from the help-yourself bar.
Menu: Cal-Mex favorites such as carne asada California burritos, loaded fries and fish tacos but also classic fast taqueria fare such as chicken chimichanga plates ($8.64), chile rellenos ($8.29), enchilada plates ($7.85), carnitas plates ($8.64), chile verde plate ($8.64), carne asada plates ($8.64) and fajitas plates ($8.64).
Twelve kinds of burritos ($4.49 to $7.99), breakfast burritos served all day ($5.99), six kinds of torta sandwiches ($6.99), seven kinds of tacos ($2.70 to $3.75) and tostadas ($2.95 to $6.35).
On a first visit: Start with the Cal-Mex dishes you’d find in San Diego.
A french fry stuffed California Burrito sounds like a food dare, but this version was so tasty, I urge you to suspend your skepticism and try it. The best taquerias — specifically Taqueria El Grande in East Tacoma — grill their burritos after stuffing them, and that’s what the cooks at Don Alberto do. The burrito comes with any meat, but you’re doing Cal-Mex wrong unless you get the carne asada, which was chopped grilled steak carrying a tasty marinade and glued together with an oozy flow of cheese, grilled onions and hot french fries ($6.99).
San Diego poutine was listed as Super Fries here. This built-for-two dish is basically nachos, but with fries instead of chips. It was loaded with that same marinated grilled carne asada, a slap of refried beans, guacamole (that was more of a sauce than the chunky stuff), sour cream, pico de gallo and shredded cheese atop a massive pile of fries ($8.89).
Fish tacos were just as I expected from that Southern California dish — battered-and-fried tilapia fillets with pico de gallo and a tangy sour cream sauce on oversized grilled corn tortillas, with rice and beans ($8.29).
Diners will know the rolled tacos locally as taquitos ($3.75). Chicken or beef are rolled up cigar style in corn tortillas, fried, and served topped with guacamole and cheese.
Street tacos were listed as mini tacos, but they were anything but mini ($7.50). Served with big piles of fresh-chopped onion and cilantro on doubled-up grilled corn tortillas and a choice of meat in a generous portion.
More Cal-Mex: Check out french fry burritos and carne asada fries at Memo’s, with locations in Tacoma and Lakewood and Aceituno’s, with locations in Orting and Spanaway.
Don Alberto California Style Mexican Food
Where: 10105 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood
Contact: 253-503-7236 or goo.gl/nKUwCq