The newest Mexican eatery to arrive at San Diego State University is actually one of our city’s oldest taco chains.
Lolita’s Mexican Food turned 36 years old in January. Its claim to fame is carne asada, which is made with a proprietary blend of spices that most of the employees don’t even know.
When I asked the founder’s son, Juan Farfan, for the names of one or two of the spices that go into the mix, he shook his head with a grin and denied me an answer. When pressing him further for roughly how many spices are used, he evasively quipped “a handful.”
Farfan’s parents, Joaquin and Delores (“Lolita”), originally opened Lolita’s at 413 Telegraph Canyon Road in Chula Vista. Today, his dad religiously hangs out there while Farfan and some of his siblings help run six other locations around San Diego County.
This outpost is technically on the SDSU campus in a recently built structure with dorms above. Its industrial motif features corrugated cardboard chandeliers and a jumbo eye-catching mural of agave plants.
To the right of the order counter is a spotless salsa bar housing a delightfully spicy red sauce, a tangy green recipe, fresh cut limes, green onion shoots, and thinly sliced radishes that serve as refreshing low-calorie munchies while waiting for your food. There are also a few beer taps up front.
The food menu is the same at all locations, and indeed, Lolita’s carne asada has been a high point in my visits. A friend on this outing, who grew up in San Diego, said it’s the best she ever tasted as we dove into a burrito filled with the covertly spiced beef.
Whatever the well-guarded recipe, the meat is teasingly moist and offers a finer-than-normal mince, which eliminates the risk of chewy gristle. Your teeth sail through it smoothly. And the flavor is beefy — not really like meat that’s been blitzed in spices, but rather judiciously seasoned with what I’m guessing might include cumin and coriander, and maybe light measures of garlic powder.
Salads are relative newcomers at Lolita’s. They’re available veggie-style or crowned with carne asada, carnitas, shrimp and a few other protein choices. We opted for strips of seasoned chicken thighs (pollo asado) and could barely finish it. We were most impressed by the two house dressings requested on the side: creamy cotija cheese vaguely resembling Caesar, and green vinaigrette offering a nutty, herbal flavor.
Mulitas were once a secret menu item at Lolita’s before landing under the category of “street eats.” Commonly served from food carts in Tijuana, a mulita simply involves two corn tortillas sandwiching in a choice of protein, chopped onions, guacamole and fresh cilantro.
We chose adobada, which is deeply marinated pork defined by chili peppers, garlic and cinnamon. Lolita’s does a fine job at making it, and you can savor it in their tacos, burritos and a salad as well.
Rolled tacos are made in-house — a huge step above the factory, frozen ilk that scores of other Mexican eateries use. They’re filled with a choice of beef, chicken or potato. We chose the latter in their “super” version, meaning they sat under a mound of lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream and cheddar and cotija cheeses. Nonetheless, an order of five went down easily because their deep-fried casings are thin and surprisingly non-greasy.
It wasn’t until this visit that I tried a Lolita’s torta. The super-fresh buns are sourced from a local Mexican bakery. They’re of decent size. We chose carnitas, which was superbly juicy and flavorful when I had it in a burrito at the downtown location. This time, the finely shredded pork turned up a little dry and over-salted. But a few daubs of the feisty, red salsa came to the rescue.
All of the recipes are from Farfan’s father, who grew up in a small town outside of Mexico City. There is also a coincidental connection to a much larger taco chain that crosses state lines. Farfan’s late grandfather from his mother’s side, Roberto Robledo, was the founder of Roberto’s Taco Shop. But there are no shared recipes between the two businesses.
Lolita’s food surpasses that of your everyday taco shop because it isn’t oily on the palate, and it feels leaner in your stomach. But that doesn’t mean I’d pass up the place after a festive bar crawl (if getting there before it closes at 10 p.m. daily). Because as most of us know, where there are burritos and tacos and even chimichangas made any which way, there is the prospect for effectively regaining your equilibrium.
Lolita’s Mexican Food
5120 College Ave., Suite #125 (SDSU campus)
Prices: Breakfast items, $5.25 to $8.95; salads, $6.95 to $14.65; burritos, tacos and chimichangas, $2.90 to $9.75; tortas, $6.95 to $9.20; enchiladas and tostadas, $3 to $7.30; combo plates, $8.50 to $11.50
— 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.