As a wee mall rat, my diet consisted of cheese on a stick, giant pretzels and reprehensible excuses for Asian food. But hey, what was an MTV-generation kid who grew up in suburbia supposed to do for a pastime? After-school sports? Dressing up like Courtney Love and taking the bus to Westfield Carlsbad in the name of raising hell and eating junk food was way more my speed.
I'm not sure how the 12-year-old me would have reacted to the polished lunch options at Otay Ranch Town Center. Torching my flannel in the nearest trashcan might've been a real possibility.
Turns out, we all grow up sooner or later. On a recent trip to the mall in Chula Vista 's Eastlake area, I stumbled upon some delicious Mexican fare, and not just by food-court standards.
Judging on looks alone, Los Chilaquiles appears to be yet another corporate, whitewashed excuse for ethnic mall food you'd find in Anywhere, USA. However, once inside the sleek, bordering on sterile dining space, service warms the vibe right up, and reveals that Los Chilaquiles is actually a singular, independently owned business. Touche.
Among tacos and yes, several preparations of chilaquiles, several less-expected dishes caught my eye. The molletes proved a great choice - a sort of open-faced torta and French bread pizza hybrid. A telera bolillo split lengthwise came lathered in refried beans with a stringy, broiled layer of cheese. But what made this simple dish something else was its perfectly rendered chorizo that came crumbled on top: It was hardly greasy, and provided a nice texture with crisped, browned bits. Why don't more Mexican restaurants - or taco shops for that matter - serve this wondrous treat? Everything needed to make it is already in the pantry.
With my dining companion backing me up, we dove into the pretty torta banada en chipotle. It's a take on the torta ahogada, or "drowned sandwich," which hails from Guadalajara. But here, instead of a searing chile de arbol sauce, a chipotle and tomato-based rendition coats the softer roll, whereas a tougher, more crumbly bolillo is used in the original.
Also veering from tradition is the use of shredded beef instead of the customary pork filling. The tender, flavorful braised meat was flecked with even more chipotle and will be considered hot by most gringos' standards. At first, we thought the addition of shredded lettuce and tomato was unnecessary, but it actually worked, and provided pleasant bursts of freshness and texture in the otherwise rich, dense sandwich.
The next time you're shopping at Otay Ranch, don't be off-put by the flashy graphics and seeming "mall food" appearance of Los Chilaquiles; give its interesting menu a go. The restaurant now offers an early bird special from 8 to 10 a.m. daily featuring $6 omelets, as well as happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. with a staggering 40 percent off your bill of $30 or more.
2015 Birch Road, Chula Vista. (619) 397-5282
Also check out these sweet deals:
Daily happy hour at Venga Venga Cantina and Tequila Bar with $5 margaritas from 4 p.m. till closing. The modern restaurant and lounge offers more than 100 tequilas and mescals, plus quirky flavored margs, like passionfruit and prickly pear; $5 bottomless guacamole from 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday; $2 taco Tuesdays; and a bottomless brunch on weekends. 2015 Birch Road, suite 710. richardsandoval.com/vengavengachulavista
Mandarin Beijing where there are 40 unique lunch special options (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) from $5.95 to $6.95. Plump salt and pepper chicken wings are well seasoned and fried just right, with BBQ pork chowmein being another winner. This restaurant is in The Marketplace at Winding Walk, a shopping center neighboring the mall. 2130 Birch Road #101, Chula Vista. Mandarinbeijingcuisine.com
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at email@example.com