By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
It took a second visit to Emiliano’s Mexican Restaurant before I learned who the establishment is named after. Thanks to a meek and informed hostess, she revealed the restaurant pays homage to Mexican Revolution war hero, Emiliano Zapata. Prior to that, nobody seemed to know.
But getting to the bottom of who owns the nearly 15-year-old restaurant that overlooks Admiral Baker Golf Course ended in failure.
The prized property, which offers pretty views of the 18-hole golf course from its enclosed back patio, used to house Eva’s Cocina & Cantina at the turn of the century. I was naturally curious who took over or whether the restaurant was simply re-branded.
According to a terse waiter who received two of my phone calls before I visited, “The owners never come in.” And he wasn’t sure of their names, adding that when emergencies arise he calls a maintenance company.
Another server I quizzed, this time onsite, responded to the ownership question with a strange tone of uncertainty, saying it’s family-owned before scooting away in a blink of an eye.
Emiliano’s apparently runs on autopilot. It’s in the hands of employees who don’t like fielding questions of any kind. Even when I once politely asked if the re-fried beans are vegetarian, the waiter replied “yes” but with a skeptical pause as though I was sent in by the vegan police squad.
The appealing view and colorful décor are the restaurant’s strong points. Ample seating extends throughout a few sections, including the inviting back patio. And a full bar slings a variety of sturdy margaritas, ranging from regular to bird-bath size.
The table chips, too, are noteworthy. They’re thin, light and bubbly, the kind you eat shamelessly by the basketful even if the accompanying red and green salsas lack oomph.
Missing from most of the dishes I tried were perceptible doses of chilies, cumin, oregano, garlic, cilantro and onions — critical players in Mexican cuisine, no matter how Americanized. Only a beef-filled tamal that came on a combo plate carried hints of chilies and spices, similar to the flavors you’d taste in barbacoa-style meat, which the menu also features. In the tamal, the red-tinted beef struck an appealing contrast to the moist, cakey masa encasing it.
The waiter reacted defensively when I asked if the chicken tacos use dark or white meat, or a mix of both. He tentatively replied “white meat” although I’m certain it was both.
The corn tortilla capturing the generous measure of poultry was somewhere between crispy and chewy, exactly the same awkward texture I encountered in a carne asada taco on my other visit. But flavor wise, the diced beef offered more signs of life than the shredded, under-seasoned chicken.
My biggest disappointment was the chile Colorado and bean tostada. Served in a gigantic flour tortilla shell, the abundance of chunky meat sitting beneath a mantle of lettuce, cheese and commendable guacamole tasted like Betty Crocker beef stew.
Chile Colorado, whether made with beef or pork, is normally flavored deeply by trios of ancho, pasillo and guajillo peppers, as well as garlic, bay leaves and Mexican oregano. I struggled to detect any of those ingredients.
From the “Emiliano’s favorites” category, I tried taquitos a la crema and forgot to request the trilogy of sour cream and red and green sauces on the side. As a result, the chicken-filled tubes were practically invisible in their liquid-y admixture of cream and salsas, which nonetheless lent a likable flavor to the otherwise bland taquitos.
Perhaps I made some wrong choices from a menu that includes a lengthy list of Mexican classics like pork chile verde, shrimp in rancheros sauce, carnitas plates, fish tacos and more. But my hunch tells me that if the proprietors are never present, as the waiter claimed over the phone, then the place (like any without owner involvement) runs the risk of missing a soul.
— 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.