Review: Antojitos Tenampa in Lemon Grove is Tortilla Crusader’s 2020 Restaurant of the Year

Pambazo. Photo by Jay Keyes.

It is criminal that Antojitos Tenampa is not well-known outside of its neighborhood, but let’s work on changing that. I’ll start by naming it my 2020 “Restaurant of the Year.”

In a time during which we are dependent on take-out restaurants and delivery operations more than ever, this D.F.-inspired quick-service eatery is where some of San Diego’s top Mexican food can be found.

Antojitos Tenampa does many things well, but perhaps best is their Taco de Carnitas, featuring a fresh, handmade corn tortilla stuffed with a mouth-watering mixture of slithery cuerritos (pig skin), neatly-coiled strips of buche (pig gut), and shredded shoulder meat. All of the meat’s lightly-caramelized surfaces glisten with the lard it is simmered with in the kitchen’s giant cazo. Most San Diegan restaurants serving carnitas are taking shortcuts like merely oven-roasting pork shoulder and calling it a day. Comparing the tender, juicy pork from Antojitos Tenampa to the amateur-hour carnitas from everywhere else is like comparing kisses to farts. You can also order the carnitas as part of their Carnitas Platter, but be forewarned that, unlike their tacos, you will get bagged tortillas with their entrées unless you pay a one dollar upcharge.

Carnitas Plate. Photo by Jay Keyes.

It is rare to find a restaurant that is the city’s best at multiple dishes, but Antojitos Tenampa is exactly that: their Barbacoa de Borrego (Mexican lamb barbecue) has established a new standard for San Diego. The owner told me this was his grandfather’s recipe, with one exception: it would be pit-roasted in Mexico, and California laws make that an impossibility, so here it is steamed. The intense flavor of lamb cooked in spices is excellent and is in the same league as the barbacoa at Chula Vista’s Aqui es Texcoco, City Heights’ El Borrego, and the weekend-only La Barbacoa Autentica De Borrego at the Candyland mini-mart on Fairmount. These other operations win on their velvety pull-apart texture, but their barbacoa does not warm the heart like the satisfying stickiness and aromatic grassy essence delivered by the barbacoa from Antojitos Tenampa. The barbacoa here is offered by the plate, in tacos, or in flautas (rolled tacos).

Taco de Barbacoa de Borrego. Photo by Jay Keyes.

The meat in the restaurant’s Taco de Costilla (deboned half-rack of pork ribs in a tortilla) has a similar texture to the barbacoa, but an intense porcine flavor. I’d consider their costilla to be a happy medium between their pork carnitas and their lamb barbecue; perhaps an option for those who can’t decide. I recommend ordering all three. The salsa verde would seem to be the obvious choice for saucing, but I greatly prefer the fiery salsa roja for this taco. Put another way: pouring salsa roja on top of this is an absolute must — not because it covers anything up, but for the biting heat and mellow sweetness it adds.

Taco de Costilla de Puerco. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Another triumph is Antojitos Tenampa’s Tenampa Alambre Especial, a dish that fuses well-seasoned chuletas de puerco (pork chops), chorizo, bacon, and ham with grilled onions and bell peppers, all of it encased in a gooey cocoon of stringy white queso. This is not one of those meals that you’re going to think about as much as you will appreciate it: it’s a heaping portion of excellently-prepared meats ready to be stuffed into tortillas. As with the Carnitas Platter, I suggest you pay the extra buck for the handmade tortillas. If you desire something similar, but smaller, you can order the Taco Alambre consisting of steak, peppers, and onions stir-fried with cheese on a flat-top and deposited into a tortilla.

Tenampa Alambre Especial. Photo by Jay Keyes.

The Pambazo and Torta Chilanga are both worthy lunch sandwiches. I slightly prefer the Torta Chilanga with its mixture of panela and melted mozzarella cheeses, along with milanesa de res (thinly-sliced beef with a citrus-kissed breaded crust, similar to schnitzel), sausage, bacon, beans, mayo, and fresh veggies. This is a beast of a sandwich that wants for nothing and will quickly cure any appetite. I suggest asking for it to be prepared with chipotle sauce so your senses can be beat silly with smoke and chilies in addition to contrasting crunchy, fresh, mushy, and meaty textures. The aforementioned Pambazo is no slouch either, and its blend of greasy chorizo, home-fried seasoned potatoes, tomato, and lettuce on buttery grilled bread will channel a Primanti Brothers sandwich for those Americans fortunate enough to have experienced one.

Torta Chilanga. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Since we’re thinking about meat and potatoes, I’ll also state that Antojitos Tenampa offers a California Taco, a riff on the banal California Burrito found elsewhere in San Diego that combines French fries and steak in a tortilla. Many California Burritos fail because the fries are floppy and/or under-seasoned, but here the starchy fries were made fresh, retain their crunchiness, are slightly greasy as they ought to be, and are well-seasoned. The fries combined with their fresh corn tortilla made me forgive the restaurant for referring to their plancha-prepared bistec as carne asada. This taco is not supposed to be very good, and is clearly a menu item meant to appeal to people who drop in expecting sloppy Berto’s-style taco shop fare; Kudos to the kitchen for making it a shockingly good taco.

California Taco. Photo by Jay Keyes.

San Diego’s Mexican eatery culture is one of the most ruthlessly competitive restaurant scenes in the United States, with options running the gamut from legit to pretenders. Antojitos Tenampa is 100% the real deal. They are serving fantastic food in their community with zero marketing, Instagram influencers, or investor involvement. This is a humble family-run place and is worthy of our immediate attention as we vote with our wallet and stomachs on who gets to survive the extraordinary financial hardships of this pandemic.

Food/Décor/Service: 4.6/3.7/NA

Taco Scores: Taco de Carnitas (98), Taco de Costilla (94), Taco de Barbacoa de Borrego (92), Taco Alambre (91), Taco Campechano (91), California Taco (90), Taco de Longaniza (85), Flauta de Barbacoa de Borrego (80), Taco de Suadero (75)

Jay Recommends: Carnitas, Barbacoa de Borrego, Tenampa Alambre Especial (IMPORTANT! with all platters, ask for the handmade tortillas!)

Antojitos Tenampa7975 Broadway, Lemon Grove, CA 91945; Friday through Sunday from 9:00am-9:00pm; (619) 303-4587; https://antojitostenampa.negocio.site/

Gordita. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Inside the Gordita (Carnitas). Photo by Jay Keyes.
Taco Campechano (Suadero and Chorizo). Photo by Jay Keyes.
Taco de Carnitas. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Longaniza Street Taco. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Suadero Street Taco. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Flautas (Rolled Tacos). Photo by Jay Keyes.
Flauta de Barbacoa de Borrego (Lamb Barbecue Rolled Taco). Photo by Jay Keyes.
Churro Relleno. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Horchata. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Inside Antojitos Tenampa during COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Tortilla Crusader’s 2020 Restaurant of the Year: Antojitos Tenampa in Lemon Grove, CA. Photo by Jay Keyes.

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