A Return to Las Cuatro Milpas- Barrio Logan, San Diego
It’s been 25 years since I had tacos at Las Cuatro Milpas. As if you needed to be told, the Barrio Logan taqueria is well known in San Diego for traditional, abuela-style Mexican food. Nati and Petra Estudillo opened the family-run restaurant in 1933, right where it stands today.
For me, and many others, the front door of the restaurant is a time-warp portal. Walk through the front door and you’ll step back in time. Nothing had changed from 25 years ago when I entered the famous doorway recently. And I mean that in a good way; especially when it comes to the food.
Las Cuatro Milpas is an establishment where, whenever they are open, there is a stream of people lining up for tacos, tamales, and chorizo with beans. In the stream are people from all walks of life- locals, cops, firemen, Naval officers, men and women in suits, foodies- patiently waiting to satisfy their appetites for delicious, authentic Mexican food not found anywhere else.
It was 10:00 a.m. when I became part of the line yesterday. The wait wasn’t too long at that time of day. Coming in the doorway the view was unchanged from when I was here last, 25 years ago: an open kitchen just ten feet away where serious women are working steaming pots and fryers on the big stove, while quickly filling customer orders. I breathed deep at the sight and the fragrance of the cooking immediately filled my head.
Getting a tray, one of the ladies took my order (one pork tamal and two pork tacos), and I slid down the counter with it toward the cashier to pay. With a soft drink (no beer of any kind is sold*) my early lunch came to $6.35. I found a place at one of the long folding tables where I could enjoy my meal and casually watch the action of this well-oiled food factory.
Succulent and savory are words that came to mind when I took a hefty bite of the pork tamal. The masa surrounding the seasoned minced meat was moist. And with a spoonful of home-made chili sauce (tangy, spicy, oily, with medium heat) on the tamal, it was divine.
The two tacos were next to devour. Inside the deep fried crispy tortilla shell was the familiar succulent meat and shredded lettuce, dusted lovingly with cotija cheese, and garnished with diced onions and cilantro I had added earlier. Splashes of chili sauce completed these delectable treasures, and they were gone in minutes. So good!
While enjoying this wonderful food I was able to observe the women working hard in the in-house tortilleria at the rear of the restaurant. This is where Las Cuatro Milpas makes all the tortillas and masa used in their dishes and they sell out front. Up on one of the walls is a shelf with flickering votive candles and statues of Saints watching over the women making old-fashioned tortillas by hand.
Barrio Logan is one of San Diego’s oldest communities, and the oldest Mexican-American neighborhood. In 1910 there was an influx of refugees from the Mexican Revolution who came to this part of San Diego, and their descendants, like the Estudillo sisters, are still here.
Eighty-two years ago when Las Cuatro Milpas opened, Barrio Logan was still growing with new homes, tuna canneries, bayside businesses, factories, the railroad; and the taqueria was there to feed the residents and workers. Every taco and tamal made today by the Estudillo sisters are living treasures passed down by their grandparents, Nati and Petra, whose portraits still hang on the wall watching over the family and cherished customers.
Luiz Hara, The London Foodie, opened my eyes to the authentic, traditional taquerias here in San Diego, and Las Cuatro Milpas is on the list. I won’t let so much time elapse before returning to it, especially since I live close by.