Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Lola 55

Lola 55, a downtown San Diego restaurant
I should probably start blogging with a bunch of introduction, but... do I have to? I'd rather jump right into talking about some really delicious food... so I'm gonna do that instead.

Lola 55 is a new taco spot on the outskirts of downtown San Diego, and after visiting three times, I can say it's probably the best "gourmet" taqueria in the city. The experience here is all about infusing the traditional with the modern. As you walk into the stylish, airy space full of concrete and glass, someone behind the counter is pressing masa into tortillas using a wooden press. The tacos include carnitas and carne asada, but also vegan rainbow cauliflower and baby carrot adobada.

Drink at Lola 55
The "Indian Summer."
The drink setup is a bit odd; I ended up ordering food at the counter and then drinks separately at the bar. My cucumber strawberry cocktail, muddled with cilantro, was sweet and refreshing, and my wife's fairly conventional mule thankfully wasn't too overbearing with the ginger.

The masa frita is as good a place as any to start eating. These fried round chips are like a fancy version of Fritos, except with chili powder and a non-lethal level of salt. The two sauces, a sweet mole and an avocado cream, keep things interesting and are even better when combined.

And now the tacos. I overheard the manager saying the menu has been whittled down from fourteen tacos during their soft opening to the current nine, so they've clearly given some thought to the lineup—and it shows. I've tried six of them, and impressively there hasn't been a single dud so far.

The squash blossom relleno is well battered and comes with a good approximation of a beef chorizo that coaxes some admirable meatiness out of its soy base. The almond "cream cheese" has a nice fluffy texture, and though it's not as pungent as the real thing, that also means it doesn't overassert itself. Overall, not a standout, but non-vegans such as myself will still enjoy it.

Spicy baja fish taco at Lola 55
Approach with caution!
The spicy smoked fish is delicious, but beware: It's aptly named. The flaky white fish has the right level of smokiness, and the tacos include a pleasant mix of bitter greens, citrus and even some bacon, but all of that seems secondary once the Carolina Reaper salsa hits. It's probably not going to kill you if you're a fan of spice—the dose makes the poison, after all—but I would peg this salsa at roughly habanero-tier heat. If you're debating whether to get it, maybe you shouldn't. There's so much else to try!

The flavors on the pork belly al pastor—and just those four words together should be making your mouth water—are as good as they sound. It comes with some bits of grilled pineapple, as any good al pastor should. When combined with what looks like a lusciously thick-cut bacon strip, the result is something sweet, savory, tropical and wonderful. My only gripe is that the pork belly has a bit of chew to it, and so it doesn't quite achieve that ideal combination of crispiness and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

The ribeye carne asada is another big winner. I'm a sucker for crispy leeks, and those little straws of crunchy goodness are used perfectly here. A mild heat from the jalapeƱo and a daub of salty mashed potato provide a terrific base for the ribeye, which is cooked about medium and seasoned well. The only slight issue, again, is tenderness: It's not that chewy, but the pieces are quite large, so a long strip can come sliding out all at once if you don't manage to bite all the way through.

Carne asada & al pastor tacos at Lola 55
Ribeye carne asada & pork belly al pastor. A mouse musta taken a bite of the tortilla.

The baja fish is among the best in a city famous for its fish tacos. As with the squash blossom, it's got a nice coating of crisp golden batter. The chorizo-tomato vinaigrette, while not so appealing visually, is a great salty-savory complement. The remoulade, as it's called on the menu, is basically a very garlicky aioli—but there is no universe where I'm going to complain about aioli. Aioli is never not good.

Lola 55's carnitas taco
The smoked carnitas might be the most traditional of the six tacos I tried, and it also might be the best. The key here is the two preparations of pork at play: one is confited for maximum tenderness, while the other is crisped to perfection to create a satisfying texture. The pickled red onion and thinly shaved tomatillo create contrasting colors and add much-needed acidity. A creamy avocado mousse and a generous sprinkle of cilantro round out one of the best carnitas tacos I've had anywhere.

Lastly, I made the impulse decision to get not one but two orders of churros, because we're dessert people and specifically churro people. Best decision I ever made. (Okay, best decision of the night.) We each got four fresh churro pieces that nailed that classic crisp-outside, soft-inside texture. They were also unusually craggy on the outside, which allowed for more crunchy, cinnamon-sugary surface area. The two sauces, a light caramel and a salted milk chocolate, were both delightful. I scraped my chocolate cup clean with my fork.

I've thought about writing a food blog for a while now. I'm not exactly sure why, but it was after eating at Lola 55 that I decided to start. Maybe it's because Lola combines a lot of what I love about food in San Diego: really great Mexican cuisine, tons of small plates to try (tacos are small plates, right? why not?), and thoughtful, creative use of ingredients. Whatever the reason, I'm coming back for more.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

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