“As you read this, the fires in wine country continue to burn. They’ll burn for a while yet. If you don’t live in Northern California, I’d guess you are hearing less and less about them on the news.” – Ron Washam, HMW – HoseMaster of Wine.
Sometimes the best way to work through a tragedy is to immerse yourself in a familiar routine. Personally, I need comfort food. So, today I am going to talk about one of my favorite restaurants and probably the best deal on the planet: Las Cuatros Milpas. For me, and many others, the front door of this restaurant is a time-warp portal. I walk through and step back in time. Whenever I am in San Diego, this is always one of my “go to” stops.
Petra and Natividad Estudillo opened shop in 1933 precisely where it stands today. They began cooking abuela style Mexican food for Barrio Logan (an inner-city ghetto formed around 1910 by refugees of the Mexican Revolution) but couldn’t possibly have known their small Mexican restaurant would become a San Diego institution into the 21st century. Although Petra and Nati passed away a number of years ago, their granddaughters (or is it great-granddaughters?) are still in the ‘hood running the business.
Whenever they are open, there is always a stream of people stretching down the block. The cue includes people from all walks of life – locals, cops, firemen, military personnel, suits, and foodies – all patiently waiting to satisfy their appetites for delicious Mexican food.
On the wall next to portraits of Petra and Nati are photos of most of San Diego’s last 5 or 10 police chiefs who have fallen under the spell of Las Cuatros Milpas.
The wait at mid-day is usually a good thirty minutes but it’s worth it. We once saw a full wedding party go through the line, end up with a huge tub of tamales, and happily waltz out.
I first visited Las Cuatros Milpas in the early 70’s. At that time, there was a small counter tended by Nati and a soda machine. In the back were large picnic tables and the tortilla cooks.
Today they have added dining areas on both sides of their original (only slightly updated) space.
Behind the service counter, three or four women prepare the food in a steady rhythm of stirring chorizo con huevos, beans and rice, frying tacos, and serving warm flour tortillas.
You won’t find a flour tortilla like those at Las Cuatros Milpas anywhere else. The flour tortillas – two come with each order – are made by hand throughout the day with real lard and leave a little flour on your fingers. To tell the truth, these tortillas, fresh-off-the-griddle, are wonders and it’s sad to realize how many people in this world think that tortillas taste like the stuff sold in supermarkets. If hot tortillas are still available, we always buy a dozen extra to go. When our kids were young and we made the mistake of letting them “guard” the tortillas, at least half had disappeared before we even got home.
After getting a tray, one of the ladies takes your order and you move down the counter toward one of the granddaughters who rings you up. If you don’t move your tray quickly enough, they will help you.
Karel and I always order a couple of carne (it is always pork – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) tacos ($1.75 each – they were 50¢ each when I first started going there) and a grande order of chorizo con huevos ($5.00 now – $1.50 in earlier days) with an extra bowl so we can share. You can add lemon, cilantro, and onion when you get to the end of the line and pick up a plastic cup of fiery homemade salsa. With two soft drinks, our lunch comes to $11.00 plus tax.
We find a place at one of the long tables to enjoy our incredible lunch.
The chorizo con huevos is probably the best I’ve ever tasted. It comes in a bowl with rice and beans. The bits of scrambled egg are like little nuggets of gold. It also comes with a plastic basket of the flour tortillas.
The tacos and the rolled tacos (my son’s favorite) are filled with highly seasoned pork, lightly fried in front of you and topped with lettuce and cotija cheese (sour cream is added to the rolled tacos) – simple but delicious. Add some onions, a squeeze of lemon, a dollop of the fresh salsa, take a bite and try to ignore the juice that is running toward your elbow. These tacos will change your life.
The entire menu is on a small cafeteria board above the serving line. There are tacos, rolled tacos, burritos, beans, rice, chorizo con huevos, and tamales. That’s it!
While enjoying this manna from the gods, we watch the tortilla ladies at the rear of the restaurant. This is where Las Cuatros Milpas makes all the tortillas, tamales and masa used in their dishes that they sell out front. Up on one of the walls is a shelf with flickering votive candles and statues of Saints watching over their work. Once, when my daughter was about five years old, she wandered back to get a closer look. One of the ladies gave her a ball of dough to flatten. She was able to mash it into a 1/2” thick paddy that the lady fried for her. The grin on her face on the way back to our table said it all!
Las Cuatros Milpas is simply the best Mexican eatery in all of San Diego and is, hands down, the most authentic Mexican restaurant that I have ever tasted in my last fifty years of eating Mexican food all over the southwest.
Geez – I’m really hungry now!