San Diego's Best No-Frills Burrito Joint

San Diego's Best No-Frills Burrito Joint

By Kevin Brass


Because burritos give life.

By Kevin Brass

If you live anywhere near San Diego, or you’ve visited San Diego, or you vaguely know someone from San Diego, you probably know Roberto’s. The chain of taco stands is an essential part of the kwan of the city, kinda like Sea World, the zoo and pictures of dogs surfing. Locals rave about the crunchy tacos and the thick red hot sauce served in plastic squirt bottles with an almost religious reverence, like maybe there is something holy about cheap Mexican food.

Roberto’s is the taco shop other taco shops aspire to be. The signature entrée is the carne asada burrito, which drips runny avocado and onions and spices wrapped in a steamy fresh tortilla. In San Diego, the Roberto’s carne asada burrito is a staple of the diet of anyone under the age of 35. It’s the vegan killer. There’s no rice or beans or sour cream or any of that shit in this burrito — simply solid meat in the embrace of warm Mother Tortilla.

At most Roberto’s outlets, there is an authentic SoCal vibe, mixing white-bread suburbia with a Tijuana street corner. You order at the counter, they call your number, you pick up your food. Maybe there are a few concrete tables, if you want to stick around. No frills. It’s a taco stand, not a McDonald’s with tacos.

Founded in 1964 in the border town of San Ysidro, Roberto’s is the inspiration for the dozens of ’berto-named imitators that blanket the southwest: Filiberto’s, Alberto’s, Royberto’s, Hamberto’s, Jilberto’s, Rolberto’s and countless other crappy Roberto’s wannabes. There are more than 70, at last count, says Reynaldo Robledo, one of the 13 children of founder Roberto Robledo, who died in 1999.

Every city must have a place where people go at 3 a.m.

Perhaps it speaks to Roberto’s corporate Zen that Robledo and his family display no ill will to the other ’bertos. Many were started by cousins and uncles and friends of the family from his father’s village of San Juan del Salado, in the state of San Luis Potosi, who got their start at Roberto’s, he says. “There is enough business for everybody,” Robledo says. There are now 78 Roberto’s shops in California and Nevada. Perhaps not surprisingly, Roberto’s has proven to be really popular in Las Vegas, a town that appreciates a cheap meal at 2 a.m., says Robledo.

Robledo says the biggest seller these days is carne asada fries, a mound of fries, cheese, pico de gallo, beans and spoonfuls of meat — a concoction that doesn’t make any sense unless you’re really, really buzzed. That is undoubtedly part of Roberto’s culinary charm. Every city must have a place where people go at 3 a.m., and in San Diego it’s Roberto’s. The nearest cultural reference is most likely the deep emotional connection Los Angelenos feel toward In-N-Out, the mediocre hamburger chain with a mythic following, in large part due to its connection to many late-night adventures.

Roberto’s cuisine is best described as California-Mexican, which is very different from any other form of Mexican food, including actual Mexican food. Roberto’s offers a “California” burrito with french fries — which is, of course, an abomination. No self-respecting Mexican restaurant would put french fries in a burrito, unless it really had some sort of karmic connection to its customers.

True Roberto’s connoisseurs prefer the rolled taco with guacamole, a solid trio of crunchy taco goodness topped with guacamole and tomatoes and cheese. Purists stick to the quesadilla, made with massive fresh tortillas and cooked to that exact right moment when the cheese turns into a runny mass of artery blockage. There is genius in that runny cheese and guacamole — a level of mushy goodness that all Michelin chefs should aspire to achieve.