By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The name blends into scores of other Mexican eateries on our commercial landscape. But with its looming orange-and-blue signage found in seven busy neighborhoods throughout San Diego County, including Allied Gardens, the drive-up-friendly Los Panchos Taco Shops stand out with dishes that haven’t changed since the business started in Chula Vista in 1974.
Its founder, Francisco “Pancho” Diaz, passed away earlier this month at the age of 89. He left behind a growing mini chain of eateries run by his son and two grandsons.
“Almost right up until he died, my grandfather would regularly pop into all of our locations. And he would go to the National City location daily,” said Luis Diaz Jr., who recently opened a Los Panchos Taco Shop in Mission Valley (6110 Friars Road) with his sibling Carlos. He is now preparing to launch in a renewed operation in Hillcrest (441 Washington St.), located a stone’s throw away from its previous address.
That eighth location will be the biggest in the collection, complete with a full bar and outdoor deck. It’s due to open in September, at the same time Diaz plans to start remodeling the Allied Gardens location, which has been around since the early 2000s.
Currently, high-back booths and interior brick walls bearing the signature orange and blue colors greet dine-in customers as they’re faced with an illuminated menu board stretching the length of the order counter. The food choices are vast. And as of late, guests are given complimentary chips and a cup of fiercely comforting bean-bacon soup once they make their decisions.
A spotlessly clean salsa bar to the right of the cashier offers some ravishing choices — all of them house-made. In addition to the red and green salsas are two creamy sauces, both of which appear innocent but carry delicious, spicy bangs.
One is a yellowish-color fusion of serrano peppers, onions, garlic and oil. Diaz says it takes three hours to cook down. The other is a velvety cilanto-habanero sauce with a sour cream base. Small dabs of either sauce go a long way.
Based on multiple visits to a few locations, including Allied Gardens, the food is reliably fresh and above-board. A basic bean and cheese burrito, for example, offers lush flavor due to small measures of chorizo and rendered carnitas fat lacing the re-fried pinto beans.
“My grandfather was very proud of his beans and picky about the texture,” said Diaz, while noting he had worked for several restaurants in his native Mexico and in the U.S. before founding the business. “He was a natural cook, and he combined ideas from other chefs with doing things his own way.”
Among them was a preference for using Angus ground beef in his rolled tacos, which are made fresh onsite at all locations. They’re easier to eat and easier to roll compared to shredded beef, Diaz noted. Delicate and crispy, they’ve become one of my go-to items. You can order them filled with chicken or fish as well.
My long hiatus with chile rellenos ended here recently. I had given up on the stuffed pepper years ago because I was bored with the bland-tasting and stringy Anaheim chilies most places use. Los Panchos chooses spicier, deep-green pasillo peppers, filling them with pepper jack cheese for extra zing. The egg batter is light and spongy, and the non-spicy tomato sauce on top is thin and luscious.
Also commendable are the carnitas, which I savored in a well-endowed burrito brimming with the slow-roasted, orange-kissed pork. Like the beefy, marinated carne asada customers have come to cherish, it’s available also in tacos, tostadas and plates.
One of the hottest sellers at Allied Gardens is the “bitchin Cali” burrito containing a payload of sauteed shrimp, carne asada, french fries, salsa fresca and guacamole. Spicy chipotle sauce clenches the deal and restores equilibrium if you’re eating the burrito after a night of drinking. (The shop is open until midnight Sunday through Thursday, and until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.)
Other tried-and-true items I’ve ordered include a plump “quesadilla locas” filled with tender pollo asado. It’s available as well with shrimp, carne asada or both.
A hard-shell potato taco “Dona Maria style” was perhaps the mildest tasting dish I’ve had so far. Adorned with cabbage, sour cream and Cotija cheese, a few dribbles of those feisty sauces from the salsa bar significantly perked things up.
Items such as beer-battered fish tacos, the chile verde pork burrito, a few tortas, and various hearty soups are currently blinking on my radar. I’ll try them soon, provided I can resist re-ordering the dishes I’ve come to love at what has become one of my favorite taco shops in San Diego.
Los Panchos Taco Shop
5182 Waring Road (Allied Gardens)
Prices: Soups, $8.75 to $12.95; nachos and loaded fries, $10.95 and $11.95; rolled, mini and hard-shell tacos, $1.75 to $13.90; tortas, $6.95 to $7.95; tostadas and pairs of enchiladas, $3.75 to $8.95; traditional and signature burritos, $4.25 to $8.75; quesadillas, $3.95 to $10.95; combo plates, $9.95 to $10.95; breakfast burritos and plates, $5.95 to $8.45
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.