“Un taco lo hace cualquiera pero un buen taco hace que El Califa sea toda una experiencia.”
Aguacate: The avocados are buttery and delicious, served in two parts, with the scoopable meat sliding out of the shell with little-to-no effort. Contrary to avocados found in most parts of the U.S., the 70-grade flesh is always well above average and never disappoints.
Cebollas: I’m not a big onion fan. The product itself is popular, as grilled onions can find a home with most dishes on the menu, but the aroma is a bit intense and overwhelming to the product it accessorizes. For me, it’s a 30-grade product. For others, it’s 50/60.
Nopales: Cactus is an acquired taste, but thinly sliced with a creamy texture, the nopales at El Califa add to the overall experience of many dishes, particularly ones with a tortilla/cheese base, which is all of them. Easy solid-average grade that plays up beyond its raw grade when played in the right sequence.
Rajas: Poblano pepper strips that lack kick [read: heat] but offer solid-average flavor. Because of the traditional/standard salsas provided on every table, ordering additional pepper accompaniment is often superfluous, and the value suffers as a result. 50 flavor; 20/30 heat; 20/30 utility.
Queso Fundido: A glorious cheese appetizer, much like a traditional Southwestern queso (Velveeta, Rotel, love) only more dense and stringy because of the cheese choice (usually Monterey Jack). The overall weight of the dish makes it a less-than-ideal starter, although the taste is a plus tool even if eating a condensed bowl of heavy cheese is a bit indulgent.
Chicharron de Queso:The (rare) elite tool; a true 80. The chicharron de queso at El Califa stands above its contemporaries in the entradas section of the menu, with superstar utility and execution. The fried pork skin with cheese fused into its molecular chain is one of the world’s greatest appetizers, with a crisp and delicious taste, pounding the flavor zone thanks to its perfectly fined tuned mechanics and delivery. 80-grade piggy, cheesy awesomeness.
Consomme de pollo: Basic skillset to serve a basic purpose. Little-to-no projection, but offers specific value for those wanting to either start their meal with a little chicken broth or for tourists who might be dealing with a few gastro-intestinal issues and welcome the soothing comfort provided by the simple soup. An overall 25/30-grade dish but can fill a specialist’s role when called upon. LOOGY.
Jugo de Carne: Similar to the Consommé de Pollo in most ways, except, of course, for the beef element of the dish, which gives it a slightly longer reach. As an aside: the fine wait staff of El Califa are known to wear shirts advertising some of their more popular dishes, with the Jugo de Carne shirt featured prominently in the wardrobe. The shirt itself is 70-grade as it features a (presumed) naked woman in a bathtub filled with beef broth as a copper-piping system above the tub carries the beef broth from the beef broth reservoir (not featured on shirt; implied) to the tub housing the (presumably) naked woman. It’s unusual to see a waiter wearing a shirt where a (presumably) naked woman is enjoying a soothing bath filled with beef broth, but it does add to the overall enjoyment of the meal. Like the chicken soup, the jugo de carne serves a specific purpose without having much overall value, although with slightly more utility because it’s beef and because of the woman in the tub. ROOGY.
Mixta: I’ve never eaten the salad. Actually, I’ve never seen anyone order or eat the salad. Seems like a non-prospect to me.
Berros: See above.
Bistec/Queso: The steak tacos are served quickly, like everything else on the menu, arriving mere minutes after first-contact and served open-faced on a corn tortilla bed with globs of semi-melted Oaxacan cheese as the blanket. The steak itself isn’t of high-quality; rather, the meat is probably 45/50 grade as it’s a bit chewy and tough, but the soft corn tortilla and cheese give the grade enough of a boost to reach the solid-average-to-plus level. The salsa provided on the table only adds to the fun, as you have multiple ones to choose from (depending on your own personal heat index), as well as chunks of lime and cilantro, which have been known to tease the grade up even further. At 46 pesos a pop, the tacos are a little pricey given the individual grade of the meat itself but justified when you factor in the accouterments associated with the dish. It’s a major league regular taco but not a first-division menu item.
Costilla/Queso: Rib meat tacos are served on the same foundation as all the other tacos on the menu (open-faced taco on corn tortilla with or without semi-melted globs of cheese on top of the second layer, usually a protein), and they cost the same as the bistec/queso tacos. I have to say that the rib meat grades out even lower than the standard bistec, probably in the 40/45 range. It can flash higher, but it features a slightly tangy aftertaste—one that suggests the rib meat might feature some other strange forms of meat as well. With the standard construction and accessories, the taco plays up, but it only projects to be average and normally falls just short of the mark. It’s better than an organizational taco, as it has enough taste to reach the highest level but still lacks the skills to stick around for very long.
Chuleta/Queso: My wife Arden’s exact quote, when asked her opinion of the chuleta/queso taco: “It’s a thin pork chop on a corn tortilla with a ton of tasty cheese on top. What’s not to like?” Exactly. It’s a true plus dish, with the wide and flat slice of pork proving to be quite soft and not overly chewy and the tortilla and cheese proving to be the same as with any other taco. It can start on most first-division menus, but it’s not the best taco on the field at El Califa.
GAONA’S/Queso: 70-grade. The construction paper-thin filet cut of beef that forms the second layer of the taco is the finest individual tool in the taco section, with firm (not chewy) yet moist mechanics and near-brilliant execution. In combination with the standard accessories, the most expensive taco on the menu is also its finest, with all the tools grading out above average. It’s a five-tool taco and a first-division starter at a championship–level taqueria.
Pechuga/Queso: The chicken breast taco is good, but it often gets labeled as great by some, and frankly, it’s not great. It has some tools, but I wouldn’t call it overly toolsy, as the chicken is solid-average but completely maxed out and physically mature with no room for additional growth. The meat itself plays well with the other tools on the plate and shows lots of hustle and the good face, which allows it to function at the highest level but not dominate. It’s a second-division regular that would struggle to find playing time on a better team [taqueria], but the makeup component keeps the pechuga/queso on most menus.
Quesadilla: The quesadilla finds itself in the taco section of El Califa’s menu and therefore finds itself in the taco section of this scouting report despite being a quesadilla and not a traditional taco. However, based on the aforementioned structure of the tacos on the menu, the quesadilla is really just an open-faced cheese taco minus the second-layer of protein in between the corn tortilla and the beautiful temptress that is the semi-melted Oaxacan cheese. It’s your standard 50-grade player, without any plus tools but possessing solid tastes and textures across the board. Most teams—or, in this case, taquerias—would welcome a 50 player on the roster, despite not bringing any special skills to the table.
Pastor: A near-elite menu selection, the succulent spit-grilled pork is dripping with taste, talent, and #want. Sliced straight from the hanging hunk of plus-plus flesh onto the corn tortilla, the dish is served with fresh cilantro, onions, and pineapple shavings, arriving to your table already well-above major league average. Take a spoonful from one the salsas (rojo, verde, tamrindo, asada, or especial) and elevate the dish to the brink of elite status. The only thing keeping this dish from perfection is a t-shirt featuring copper piping, a bathtub, the product in question, and a (presumably) naked individual gleefully bathing in said product.
Pastor/Pollo: Never tried it. When you have the best player in the game playing the same position, you don’t experiment with the lineup in order to get Pastor/Pollo the at-bats. I’m sure the chicken is good, but it’s not a chiseled hunk of spit-grilled pork glistening in the glow of my own excitement, so it doesn’t really matter, does it? Let’s call it a 50-grade dish based on the developmental staff and organization as a whole and move forward.
Pastor/Arrachera: See above; replace chicken with skirt steak.
“Queso Oaxaca derretido sobre una tostada hecha en casa y sin grasa.”
Crater de Queso, et al: The healthiest option on the menu (fat-free) and one that I haven’t even thought about trying. The same will be true of the other crateres on the menu. I consider these items replacement level players.
Boing: Yes, you can get Boing at El Califa, although you can’t get the jumbo-sized box that basically gives you a gallon of Boing to swig from. I’ve had my fair share of Boing, but I’ve never done so in a restaurant because I’m not a little kid. It would be like ordering a Juicy Juice juice-box as a fully-grown (and functioning) adult at your neighborhood burger joint. It’s just not the right setting for an adult to consume Boing. Non-prospect.
Coca Cola: It’s crisp and tasty, made with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Yes, I’ve heard the arguments that suggest the products taste the same; I’ve read the same articles that you have. I’ve also heard arguments that RoboCop isn’t a plus-plus film. Both arguments fall flat, in my opinion. Coke found in Mexico is quite refreshing—a 60 beverage. If you consider the sweeteners the same and therefore the beverages the same, well, you aren’t my friend.
Coca Cola Light: I’ve never had the product at El Califa, but I enjoy the name and I wanted to mention it. 55/60 product renaming.
Orange Crush: The old-school product comes to the table in its old-school 70s bottle, bright and toxic looking, with an off-putting power plant refuse hue radiating from the glass. The Crush itself tastes fine, although it isn’t very palatably congruent with food choices on the menu, which crushes its projection and makes it a fringe-prospect at best. Nostalgia allows the product to stick around, as everyone loves brightly colored synthetic orange drinks from their youth, but it’s not a real player in this game.
Sol Bote (can): 50; nothing special. It stays cold, but it doesn’t show any impressive tools and it lacks projection.
Modelo Especial: 55; very drinkable beer that holds a chill despite not holding an above-average taste. Its drinkability and chill-factor make it a solid-average offering, which can play up a little bit thanks its ability to properly sequence.
Negra Modelo: 50/60; the taste is rarely an issue, as the tools are there for above-average production. The inability to maintain a proper chill raises some red flags with the makeup component, dragging the overall grade down and limiting the ceiling. If you order one, you have to focus your attention on its immediate consumption in order to avoid chill disintegration, which severely limits the amount of focus you can apply to the rest of your meal.
Victoria: 55/60; throws strikes and rarely gets exploited, but the beer lacks the raw stuff to miss bats and dominate the opposition. A command/control beer that holds a mean chill and shows plus-plus drinkability, it isn’t going to blow you away with taste, and you have to drink a case to feel any intoxicative effect, which can get expensive.
Bohemia Obscura: 50/65. This is a sleeper prospect with serious tools, but those tools rarely show up in game action. Lots of flavor and therefore lots of potential, not to mention a cool name and a cool design aesthetic that all show plus potential. The chill and the availability, however, limit the actualization of the total package, making it a player to dream on but not a player to depend on.
Tecate Bote (can): I actually like the taste of a chilled Tecate; with its subtle hints of aluminum and lime, Tecate can almost grade north of 40. Seriously, I’m not a big fan, although it can hold a chill and has some drinkability. It really suffers without a lime wedge and a frosty chill, much like five o’clock hitters suffer without soft-tossed beach balls thrown over the heart of the plate. It just doesn’t play very well in game action but will suffice if your options are limited.