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La Especial del Norte Review (SD) [incl. notes, & q's of encinitas, leucadia]

I finally made it to this old Encinitas roadhouse for an early lunch warming caldo.

When you enter you grab a menu and seat yourself. There are some booths up front and a larger dining room in the back. As you pass the hallway you can see for yourself the huge stockpots and steam rising there from.

They have a pretty extensive menu with quite a few rarely seen authentic dishes but I stuck with the caldo page. A chowhound, rworange I belive recommended the eggplant soup -- which stuck out in my mind because of the inclusion of chile relleno 'puffs' which I love and seemed intriguing. So I ordered this with corn tortillas.

Chips and a nice salsa were brought promptly out. The waitresses were really pleasant kind people. While I was waiting I stood up to read the media posted on the wall praising the restaurant.

It is truly a unique place, I have never heard of a Mexican restaurant specializing in caldos.

I took note especially of the Saveur write up, pretty impressive.

WHile I was reading I overheard the lady up front talking to some potential customers about the restaurant. She mentioned how one of the cooks has been there for 29 years. Talk about dedication.

I used this tidbit of information to begin a conversation with her. I found out she is the Salazar's (owner's) daughter Lorena. Really nice and I could tell she enjoyed to talk - which was good for me as I had a ton of questions.

After a brief conversation, my waitress motioned me to my table as my soup was ready.

By this time the place was filling up at a rapid pace, along with a steady stream of to go orders.

The caldo was a deep red from a chile-tomato base, speckled with bits of cilantro and onion. Huge chunks of soft eggplant bobbed to the top as well as the heavenly eggy relleno pieces. Alongside were yellow stone ground tortillas- excellent.

The soup was steaming hot and I loved the contrasting textures, spongy relleno pieces, tender yet al dente eggplant pieces, and crisp mince onion. This soup is a winner.

What also struck me as noteworthy about this place is the prices. My huge bowl of soup cost only $6.50 and I left stuffed.

All of ths soups are in the $5-6 range except the seafood ($9)/

I wish I lived closer to this place as I would be in here at least once a week. I love me the soups.


cgfan: As I walked by El Torito Market the unmistakable scent of Mexican cuisine's highest revered dish nearly tempted me from my destination. Man do their carnitas smell good! And birria de chivo everday! I'd OD on the stuff.

Living in Berlin for a year as an exchange student left me with quite an affinity to the popular ethnic cuisine of that country - not Mexican as in America- but Turkish. The Beach grass cafe may be SD's only turkish restaurant besides the farmer markets kebap guy.
Has anyone dined here?

I also walked into Kelani's which was jammin. I never really have tried or have been allured by Hawaiian plate lunches but the stuff here looked really good.
Any comments?

Does the Hare Krishna Temple have a vegetarian restaurant? I once ate at one in DC and thought it was delicious.

Anyone try Ogata or Sakura Bana?

I foolishly walked all the way up Encintas Blvd trying to reach Bety's but I gave up about 3/4 mi away at the garden place. Next time I guess.

Pannikin has mexican hot chocolate and I like the egg steamers.

Non-food note -- check out Lou's record store.

PS Where Amici was, now is a Peruvian restaurant that looks popular and pretty chic, I want to try it out.

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  1. The Beach Grass Cafe is Turkish ? I can't find any Turkish dishes on the menu:


    1. Will have to check La Especial del Norte out--thanks for the heads up!

      I'm not sure that the The Beach Grass Cafe is Turkish. Went there last week and it was a decidedly "American" menu--salads, sandwiches, pizzas. I thought the food was decent, good sized portions. I had the fish and chips. 3 giant pieces of battered whitefish and handcut fries. Batter was tasty, although I thought it was a bit on the salty side. Tasted my dining companion's pizza which was tasty, although I thought the crust needed more flavor (I'm splitting hairs here).

      I went to Sakura Bana a few years ago. My thoughts were that their sushi rice needed better flavoring and less "sogginess." I remember the fish being ok, not gross. I think Edo Sushi and Sushi Ota have better sushi rice.

      I believe the Hare Krishna temple does have a restaraunt or days that they "feed the public." Do a search on the board for "vegetarian" and some older posts should come up.

      1 Reply
      1. re: daantaat

        Thanks for the report kare raisu! Going to have to give La Especial Norte a whirl soon! Ogata and Sakura, always passing them by, there is however a Vietnamese place called Kim's in the same center as Sakura, supposed to be very good. I will go one day. The former Amici comes with high praises form some friends, need to try this soon as well. Bety's is up by El Camino and Encinitas blvd. Behind the ford dealership and Trader Joes.

      2. Oh sorry i dont know how i got the name mixed up. The restaurant is just south of La Especial, something similar though.

        1. Found it:
          Birdhouse Grill Turkish Cuisine

          (760) 944-2882

          250 N Coast Hwy 101
          Encinitas, CA 92024

          5 Replies
          1. re: kare_raisu

            I'm not really replying to this comment, but I've lost the add button so all I can do is reply to others comments and not the OP.

            Good to hear La Especial is holding up. Did they ever bring back the plastic alligator?

            I probably mentioned this to you but they make a great mole, but they have two ... one is white meat the other is made with chicken legs and is one of the best mole dishes I've had.

            One of the things I don't think I ever mentioned on the board because I had it just as I left that area ... La Especial has a great mocajete. I haven't had many, but this is still the best I've ever had.

            1. re: rworange

              hey hey my friend! I was hoping you would respond! They have this huge food porn picture of the mole on the menu. It was inticing --next time.

              You are right -- the daughter said that there is a sweet and then a spicy mole. Some lady actually came up to me and asked me what she should order, I recommended the mole as I had your post about it in my mind.

              There was also a food porn pic of the mocajete, the daughter reccomended to order this with some friends as I was dining as a loner.

            2. re: kare_raisu

              Birdhouse Grill is just south of Juanitas on 101, a couple of blocks south of La Especial.

              On the weekend they have belly dancers! Fun.

              1. re: Leucadian

                How would your rate them Leucadian? worthwhile?

                1. re: kare_raisu

                  It was OK. I was on my way to Juanitas, but the line was long, and I saw 'Turkish' in the window next door, so I went in. Pretty small (although I think they had expanded from what must have been tiny), maybe 6 tables seating 20+. Definitely a family business; one of the tables near me was the owner and some guests.

                  I thought the dish I had was uninspiring, but I don't know the first thing about Turkish food. I don't even remember what it was. But maybe it was the 20 year old belly dancer that made me not pay so much attention to the food. I left in a good mood, thinking that was a very pleasant surprise.

                  I do recall that the menu was mostly American-style dishes, with only a few (aroud 5, I think) items that were identified as Turkish. I had baklava for dessert, and learned that Turks use a sugar syrup; Greeks use honey. It was quite large and had nice crunch.

                  I'll have to try it again when I'm less susceptible to distractions.

            3. Wow kare_raisu, when you cover an area, you really cover it. Were you on foot all the way?

              La Especial Norte is a pretty special place for me. I like the fact that they still prepare their soups by hand, resulting in the more rustic and varied cuts in the vegetables that gives it a more interesting texture and eating experience that's just more honest. I also like it that they close down every year for 6 weeks for Posada. Very unconventional for any restaurant around here to be down for so long, but it's a tradition with them and I respect that. (Even though it means some anxious waiting for me for them to reopen in the New Year... Separation indeed makes the heart grow fonder...)

              I also often make a weekend routine out of their menudo. I can't call myself an expert on menudo, but I do like theirs very much. (I just found out last night that Karina's nearby has menudo everyday, though I haven't had theirs yet...)

              As to El Torito Market, you'll definitely have to check it out. I really do enjoy their carnitas when compared to anywhere else in the area that I've been able to try. And it's great at times to be able to order it by the pound...

              Kealani's is OK, but I like sliced cabbage in my Kalua Pig and they serve their's straight.

              Across the street from Kealani's is a wonderful taco stand called Raul's. Everything is very fresh there and wonderfully prepared to order - expect a non-taco stand-like wait for your meals to arrive. So small is their space that they do not have sufficient overnight storage for fresh items, so they obtain much of their ingredients fresh each day. When they run out, they close. Gotta love places like that!

              As to the Pannikin they roast on the premises in their Leucadia branch, and have duplicated Cafe Moto's Indo Noir very well. That's the only bean that I buy from them when I am not roasting my own green beans at home. This blend is unusual in that it makes both a wonderful espresso as well as a good French Press.

              I wouldn't go to Sakura Bana, especially when Kaito is just a short drive away. Their sushi is very "typical", which is to say not very good at all. There are so few sushi bars that really try to make ingredient quality a focus of theirs. I think this is a natural consequence when there is so much demand for rolls. If one focused on their nigiri zushi only a scant few will be left who really can do it well.

              Ogata is an inexpensive Japanese family restaurant, popular amongst a lot of locals for it's low price. So it cannot be compared with other operations - it is what it is. And they do adjust the tastes there to suit more gaijin tastes. (The owners are both wonderful traditional chefs in their own right in both Japanese and French cuisine, but those talents are purposely not on display at their shop in favor of meeting the palates and price point of their target customer...)

              8 Replies
              1. re: cgfan

                yep, walked.

                Does ogata have any yoshoku dishes?

                1. re: kare_raisu

                  Great post, I'm a big fan of La Especial de Norte, but that is the first time I have heard LEDN and promptly in the same sentence. However, always worth the wait.


                  1. re: stevuchan

                    Thank you.
                    When you have worked at restaurant yourself -both in the kitchen and out - during the rushes, definitely gives you patience when you go out and are being served and cooked for.

                    It is really unfortunate that many of the young kids today can't even boil water. There is so much work involved in the preparation of glorious food, that these people wouldnt have the slightest idea. Nor have an appreciation for the worker --from the farmer, to the back-aching picker, to the cook, to the server.

                    Even if the service was not as quick as it was, I would gladly wait for something containing the amount of quality and love composed in Especial's caldos.

                  2. re: kare_raisu

                    None that I can recall. I don't know of many yoshoku places in S.D. other than the new Curry House branch that just opened up next to Nijiya Market. Also Tajima carries a few yoshoku items as well.

                    1. re: cgfan

                      If you are interested in yoshoku cuisine cgfan, I can recomend Ebisu Bon Marche in Fountain Valley. They have curry, hayashi raisu, om raisu english beef stew etc and a to die for bakery to boot. The owner of the restaurant I work at's brother is the Ebisu Grocery portion manager.

                      The curry house looks pretty sleek -- I was tempted to eat there on sunday on my Nijiya run. Have you dined there yet? I like Japanese pastas a lot (although I havent had the ketcup napolitan yet). ;)

                      1. re: kare_raisu

                        I believe I've seen Ebisu Bon Marche, if the one you're talking about is the one in Yaohan Plaza on Brookhurst. I'll have to check it out next time since I make a somewhat regular run to the Yaohan and Marukai stores in O.C. for their much larger selections. The last time I was in Yaohan's food court I tried out Santouka Ramen for their tonkotsu, though not anywhere near as good to me as ShinSenGumi or Daikokuya...)

                        Since I make Japanese style pasta quite often at home I haven't yet ordered it at Curry House. I do enjoy their curries, though, especially with plenty of the curry oil that they leave on the table. I only wish they served it with the particular Fukujinzuke that I prefer, the one made-up with 7 different vegetables and comes in the small red/mustard/green colored cans. Theirs is a lot simpler preparation, perhaps made up only of daikon.

                        (An important note to all CH'ers unfamiliar with Japanese style curries: Japanese curries are quite different from the Indian curries. It emphasizes somewhat sweeter flavors [usually via the incorporation of a bit of shredded apple] while suppressing the heat, and is quite a bit thicker and also less fragrant. And while in the Indian restaurants they may feature many different styles of curries, each with their own distinct taste, the major differences you are likely to see with Japanese curries, for any given restaurant or maker of pre-packaged roux, is only in their heat and source of protein.)

                        My friend ordered the ika-mentaiko, and though I didn't try it, it looked like they kept the mentaiko raw, whereas when I make it I like to cook some of the mentaiko to the point where it just begins turning opaque, giving the mentaiko a texture somewhat akin to grated cheese...

                        Missing from their menu was a natto spaghetti, not that I've seen it at other Curry Houses either, but I'd still like to try a "restaurant" version...

                      2. re: cgfan

                        what do you mean cgfan when you are refering to the cabbage as 'straight' with the kaluha pig?

                        Have the owners prepared off menu dishes for you upon the realization of your appreciation of cuisine?

                        What can you reccomend from Raul's? I saw the mother and son through the window.

                        1. re: kare_raisu

                          Unless they've changed, Kealani's serves their kalua pig without shredded cabbage. I prefer my kalua pig with the cabbage as I think it helps to cut the heavy "meatiness" of the pork while extending the savory flavors by carrying the fat, and adding a pleasant moisture and light sweetness to the dish. Island Boy Grill (Sorrento Mesa, R.I.P.) used shredded cabbage in their kalua pig. (The cabbage is cooked-in, along with the shredded pork...)

                          As for Raul's Shack one of their big sellers are their rolled tacos. They taste so fresh and are perfectly fried. As to their other dishes I would simply recommend your usual taco-stand picks. I never have been disappointed with their food. (BTW Raul's Shack was featured as part of Huell Howser's 1-hour focus on Encinitas as part of his "Road Trip" series on PBS... An earlier program of his also featured Juanita's Taco Shop as well...)

                          Note that this is not the type of taco shop that would feature ingredients such as birria, lengua, cabeza, sesos, buche, etc. Though they only offer the typical SoCal taco-shop offerings, simply stated, it's done better, and done fresher.

                  3. Does anyone know the dressing for the cabbage salad? Its really nice.

                    1. Norte- Try the tlalpeno soup. It is chicken soup with avo and chipotle , muy bueno.
                      Kealanis- try the kalbi ribs

                      1. Well, I know this thread is a year or so old, but I must say that La Especial Norte has become our favorite "go to" restaurant here on the north coast of San Diego. We always start with a soup, my current favorite is the chicken with rice. I mean come on, soup with chunks of avocado floating in it, heaven.

                        Tonight I had the stewed chicken in mole sauce, not to be confused with the mole poblano which another member talks about on this thread. The mole was delicious, the chicken so tender, the spice level just perfect for me.

                        My sweetie had the molcajete. Spicy, sizzling hot right out of the oven dish. The cactus was delicious as were the beef and chicken and the chunks of cheese that slowly melted into the spicy stew-like broth.


                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Enorah

                          wow....i remember this :) Thanks for ressurecting it Enorah! Great to hear that they are still up to par.

                        2. Wow almost exactly 2 years later back at Especial del Norte.

                          I went there for lunch today in the mood for menudo [especially on the rec of cgfan] but its only available Sunday. So, I settled for Caldo Tlalpeno. Both the salsas they brought out were terribly ketchup remeniscent - even the spicy one I requested hoping it would be better. No Aguas, things are starting to look bad. As far as the soup goes it was pretty meh..

                          Some thoughts:
                          > Broth was good but not quite 'there' even with some salt shakes.
                          >They didnt bring out any limones or onion and cilantro.
                          >Tortillas were sad and the soup was just above lukewarm.
                          > Carrots and onions were slightly undercooked and too large
                          > Chicken and rice (wtf) was sparse
                          > Garbanzos from a can
                          > oddly generous with avocado

                          Sorry to report this but it was a waste of 8 bucks for me - and I regret not going to El Borrego to try the thursday Pozole verde. Pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/98128783...

                          17 Replies
                          1. re: kare_raisu

                            kare_raisu: Well after a hiatus of several months, last Sunday I got a hankering to restart my regular visits for menudo at LEN... And yes, for LEN, it's on Sundays only...

                            When my bowl of menudo arrived I was surprised to see (smell) that suddenly much has changed. First off the broth's aroma had a bit of "funk" to it, something that I was not accustomed to experiencing with LEN's menudo - it's always had a "clean" aroma to it. Also the soup itself was very lightly seasoned, again not what I was used to in their menudo, and the towel tripe itself was very inconsistently cut, sending off all sorts of warning bells that something may have recently (or at least in the last couple of months) changed in their kitchen.

                            I also found a few "other random bits" (sorry but I don't have the necessary lingo to describe the exact kind of tripe I was also finding in my bowl...) that wasn't the towel tripe that I'm normally accustomed to seeing in their bowl.

                            For the first time in all of my visits there for menudo I left perplexed and, yes, disappointed.

                            Where has my trusty 'ol menudo gone?

                            Anyone have any intel on any changes in their kitchen?

                            Any leads on a good bowl of menudo in the coastal North County area?

                            1. re: cgfan

                              Sorry to hear about the change for the worse in the menudo cgfan. Considering the tlalpeno I wouldn't doubt it. In a kind of twisted way, I became more cognizant of the yellow cheese blanketing dishes being expedited and the clientele eating with me - just as my heart began to sink in dissapointment with the soup. Yep - the fact that I was only eating with 'my people' - gringos seeped forward from my subconscience. I don't think any self respecting central mexican would come back after tasting this and I wouldn't blame him.

                              Though Josh will probably hate me for saying this - I think LEN has become a K Sandwiches model- admirable for introducing unique cuisine but falling victim to more and more conceding to clientele tastes. Like the banh mi's at K taste to me like banh mi 'lite' this soup tasted like mexican, 'lite.'

                              I know I can count on Super cocina and Menuderia Don Vicente for a 'clean' aroma and taste but a lot is lost in their soups as well. Menudo means mix or an 'assortment' and herein lies the beauty you have different textures of 4 different stomach chambers offering you new sensations with every bite. I have never encountered my favorite (and most expensive) book tripe in a bowl north of the border - I have to go to vietpho cafes to get my fix.

                              If you find a great bowl - please, please let me know - Menudo is my favorite dish in the world and I am willing to hike if you tell me you like it.

                              1. re: kare_raisu

                                In the same area you can find Bety's and I find the caldo there quite good along with everything else they serve. I have also had the chicken soup at Raul's mentioned above and it is quite good.

                                1. re: pantani

                                  Wow, this is quite a dissertation on a place we are lucky to have in our backyard (practically). When anyone in our house is down with a cold, the rule is a quart of chicken soup from La Especial Norte. Knocks it right out and you're back on your feet!!

                                  1. re: pantani

                                    I second Bety's their Mole de Olla is pretty good... I think they even use Xoconostles in the broth.

                                2. re: cgfan

                                  Maybe they are just in a bit of a rut? Having a bad few weeks?

                                  I must say we ate there a couple of weeks ago, and it seemed a bit off to us as well. :(

                                  Bety's has been our favorite Mexican joint these days.

                                  1. re: Enorah

                                    Just an update since my disappointing bowl of menudo on my last visit. I've since given them a second try, and was at least happy to see that the last time was probably just a fluke, The old bowl of menudo that I've been used to from LEN was back.


                                    ...a big but here... (no, not in that way!)

                                    LEN's menudo no longer does anything for me. I've been permanantly spoiled by the incomparable offering at Las Brisas Tacqueria. (Can't thank kare_raisu enough for that recommendation!)

                                    It's actually an identical experience to what happened when I had Morita-san's sushi for the first time (Tomiko at the time, now at Kaito Sushi). Right then and there I knew that these guys (Las Brisas) were following a whole different program and aesthetic. Though it's tempting to try to compare the two bowls they really shouldn't - it's on a whole different level.

                                    And similar to what Kaito Sushi has done for me I now realize how little I actually knew about menudo, though it's always been one of my favorite soups. (...and how I once thought I really knew sushi, until I got to experience Morita-san's sushi...)

                                    So similar to how I've been spoiled by tasting Morita-san's sushi, I'm afraid that I'll be forever craving for Las Brisas' menudo. My personal dilemma is that Las Brisas is all the way out there in Fallbrook, whereas Kaito Sushi is literally the closest sushi bar to me!

                                    Oh well, at least gas prices have gone down quite a bit!

                                    KR, I guess I have you to blame! :-)

                                    1. re: cgfan

                                      haha! :^) Interesting comparison cgfan! Maybe it can be a monthly leisurely sunday drive event and habit to the avocado capital of the world!

                                      I actually bought a mexican cooking magazine called "Escuela de Sabores: Pancita" in Los Angeles the day before yesterday. It gives you about 5 different Menudo recipes from around the Mexican republic. Its step-by-step guide by two chefs. Since I know you are interested in studying the craft of food - i will see if I can scan it for you. And make some translation noted There is even a page with pictures of the different stomachs and descriptions.

                                      You may be interested in a pork tripe soupe from Okinawa called Nakami - I had ths in Hawaii.

                                      I just had another style of menudo this morning that made me crumble!!!! Stay tuned for my report.

                                      Soon you'll see me hooked to an IV of Menudo - forget monster energy drink!

                                      1. re: kare_raisu

                                        >>I just had another style of menudo this morning that made me crumble!!!! Stay tuned for my report.

                                        Please do!

                                  2. re: cgfan

                                    "Any leads on a good bowl of menudo in the coastal North County area?"

                                    Not Coastal - but Inland!

                                    I just had a bowl of Menudo this morning at Las Brisas in Fallbrook and it was out-freaking-standing. Clearly its one of the top 3 I have ever had. Soulful, tender, robust, and rich - it went down incredibly with a modelo. Go here now cgfan if you are willing to travel for something that will take your breath away and make you feel like you experiencing menudo all over again.

                                    1. re: kare_raisu

                                      Wow, sounds fantastic! Will promise to check it out.

                                      The only listing I could find is a Taqueria on Main - would that be the one?

                                      1. re: kare_raisu

                                        re. Las Brisas: Wow! Their menudo is a true work of culinary folk art!

                                        Thanks to your intel I just had my very best bowl of menudo at Las Brisas. What I enjoyed most about this bowl was the boldness of its textures, delivered by confidently sized chunks of tender tripe. (A timid bowl this is not, with angular islands of tripas and bone poking out of a sea of red.)

                                        Upon ordering one is also given the option of "with or without bone". I was pleased to see that this option resulted in generous amounts of perfectly tender tendon still attached to the bone. So tender was the tendon that it was easily scraped off the bone with a spoon. Despite a good inch or so of thickness, It met with the most subtle resistance to the bite.

                                        Finally a bowl that delivers all the rustic cred of menudo's roots, sans even the slightest hint of "funk" that can accompany less successful attempts.

                                        Though a bit far for me, I'll definitely be back!


                                        1. re: cgfan


                                          No way did I think you would make it all the way up to Fallbrook so soon but you did!! And I am so happy . You know when you are surrounded by agricultural workers near masked by the steam and aroma of beautiful menudo - youve found the right place to do that Sunday ritual! Fantastic pictures.

                                          I dont think they can be beat!

                                          Sabrosisima! http://www.flickr.com/photos/98128783...

                                          You rock cgfan! :^)

                                          1. re: kare_raisu

                                            Awesome pic, kare_raisu!

                                            It reminds me of the Jigoku (Hell) Onsen at Beppu!


                                        2. re: kare_raisu


                                          La Especial Norte
                                          664 N Coast Highway 101, Encinitas, CA 92024

                                          Las Brisas Taqueria
                                          1005 S Main Ave Ste A, Fallbrook, CA 92028