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Feb 27, 2007 06:31 PM

Mama Testa Report SD

I was down in SD for a doctors appointment today so I swung by MT's for the first time. It was a hard decision as I am in the area only so often and because of this lunch is usually reserved for a Super Cocina or Izakaya Sakura pilgrimage.

The restaurant has a nice atmosphere - Mexican decorations (D of D figures etc) and vibrant colors. I like that although you order at the counter -there is table service and real plates and silverware are used.

I had the feeling that the man taking my order at the front was the owner, so I asked if his name was Caesar and indeed it was him. I had read about tacos al vapor/cazuela but had never had them before so I ordered these (4 for $5.49) for an extra dollar I was offered beans and rice as well as a drink - being famished I accepted.

I was also handed some chips and nice grilled cebolittas - something that was my favorite part of eating at 'Baja Fresh' in my high school afternoons until they stopped serving them.

As many people have reported - the salsa bar here is the best in San Diego. All that I sampled were excellent (nice touch w/the little molacajetes). I had eagerly anticipated the tahini and dried morita based escalera which DiningDiva has long reccomended. This and the tomatillo-parmasan 'El Cazo' were my favorites - both complex. It was only with great restraint I managed not to beg Caesar for the recipes. You guys will have to sample them for yourself.

An additional plus of this restaurant is refillable Aguas frescas station beside the sodas. I hadnt had horchata in probably a year at least so it was a real treat with extra ice. I forgot how much I enjoyed this drink, which went well with my meal -which Caesar brought to my table.

He placed a basket on the table which encased the steamed tacos under a veil of a cloth and tin foil. As soon as I lifted this off - a huge cloud of steam arose. The tacos were nicely sweated and lightly doused with an arbol based salsa I believe. The sweating causes the tortillas to adhere together - encasing the taco filling. The accompaning garnish was a molacajete of pickled onions which I found to be a perfect sharp contrast adornment to these tender yielding little guys.

The beans were ok as was the rice. But for some reason I love the lima beans in the mexican rice, other than that pretty basic.

First taco was the rajas and oax cheese - perfect partners.
Second taco- beans and oax. - least favorite
Third taco- mashed potato - Really good belive it or not - super comforting
Forth - the shredded pork - Favorite

I found the arbol to interfere a bit with the mashed potato and carnitas - which i would have prefered to enjoy sans sauce. It did work well against the Oaxacan cheese tacos I found however. But again it was only a slight anointment of the arbol.

Bought myself a shirt and struck up a conversation with Caesar, telling him that I admired his restaurant and its uniqueness in its mission to introduce the true cuisine of Mexico beyond the carne asada fries.

I also enjoyed talking about his hometown of Guanajato -of which I had read about the mummies.
Filled me in on the double-entendres of the menu as well as the original fish taco being from Guerrero rather than baja (sorry Ralph Rubio).
Great individual -as I was leaving he said anytime I want to talk about Mexican history let him know.


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  1. thanks for a great update and post! We LOVE their salsas as well and the parmesan one, although it sounds a little odd on the surface, is wonderfully complex and satisfying. We really like the mashed potato tacos too. Next time you're there, get the beef taquitos in spicy beef broth and churros. The beef broth is perfect for the cold weather. I'm no churro expert, but their churros are made to order and perfect!

    Will have to check the double entendres next time!

    2 Replies
    1. re: daantaat

      I have to check out the churros esp if made to order!
      the rice pudding seemed interesting as well.

      1. re: kare_raisu

        skip the rice pudding. it was surprisingly very disappointing, given that everything else we've eaten is excellent. the rice pudding had been sitting around for a while. you could tell b/c the water had separated from the rest of the rice pudding. plus, the pudding itself was hard, cold and didn't have much flavor. totally different than what I would have expected from a rice pudding, let alone a place that does tacos and salsas really well.

    2. Nice report, Kare. As luck would have it, I tried it today as well (tonight actually). The owner was really nice and I think he's making a valiant effort, but I get the sense they're catering to American tastes a bit. I got the De Alemán plate, which is 3 al pastor street tacos. They looked right -- just like TJ streat tacos, as he described them -- but they were really lacking the the fat that makes Mexican street tacos so good. Also, the meat was way overcooked. I thought the salsa selection was extensive but ironically the only one that really jumped out was the parmesan one.

      I have a hunch that this roach coach people have been talking about on Linda Vista Rd. will be more to my liking. My buddy from Hermosillo has always claimed that the roach coaches have the best Mexican street food, and this has definitely been my experience. The best street tacos I've had north of the border are at the roach coaches outside the junkyards in Chula Vista. I'll read up on some of your suggestions for Mama Testa and give it another shot though.

      14 Replies
      1. re: mangiatore

        Mama Testa does make an effort to offer more healthfully prepared food, so it's not surprising you found it insufficiently fatty. Though that's what I like about their al pastor, usually pastor is way too greasy for my liking.

        If you're after something more decadent, try his fish tacos. They are very good. Another item I like a lot is La Tuya Tinga.

        1. re: mangiatore

          Yes, Mama Testa's is somewhat Americanized. It has to be or else it would not survive being located in Hillcrest, and next door to Baja Betty's.

          Tacos al pastor is not one of their better tacos. A lot of people like it, I don't care for it. BTW, meat in Mexico will always be well done to very well done. The grilled chicken tacos, tacos pibil, tacos empapados (hard shell mashed potato tacos), tuya tinga, chorizo, cheese and rajas and mojada tacos are all done very well. If you must eat beef, try the bisteck instead of the al pastor. I'm not fond of their version of carnitas. I think there are better carnitas tacos elsewhere (like El Cuervo for instance).

          The marinade for the pibil is house made and the pork is wrapped in banana leaves and left to marinate for up to 3 days. Pibil is a signature dish from the Yucatan and you don't find it an awful lot here in San Diego. While the plate may appear American in presentation, the flavor of the meat and the pickled onions is dead on, very much as it would taste in the Yucatan. The chorizo is also housemade. Chorizo tacos are some of my favorites and I always have to order one or two when I'm in Mexico. The chorizo tacos on the menu as "Atasco" are very, very close in taste and texture to many taco vendors in Mexico. Cesar's chorizo is way better than any commerical product NOB. Potatoes are a common filling for tacos and the mashed potatoes here are really, really good. Please take my word on this one as there is not a potato on the face of the earth that does not have my name on it; they are my favorite food.

          For someone going to Mama Testa's for the first time, the best thing to try first are the Tacos Mojados, which is a highly seasoned broth filled with segments of taquito. It comes accompanied by the ubiquitous plate of mince white onion, cilantro and lime wedges that you add to taste. There are only 7 Master Chefs in Mexico, one of them has ties to San Diego. He has said that the beef broth for the tacos mojados is excellent with good depth of flavor and very much a Mexican soup. I'm not a Master Chef, but I agree with his description.

          1. re: DiningDiva

            I noticed on the menu DD that the chorizo is in-house made - have to try it next time.

            In addition to the Mojados, I would like to give the catfish and tacomal versions a shot.

            I agree with you on the carnitas - which was in one of the 'sweated' tacos I ordered. Hard to get the full on crisp carnitas experience, still not bad for what it was.

            1. re: DiningDiva

              Went tonight and had the Mojados. Really enjoyed them. No plate of onion and cliantro, alas, but the lime juice added a nice touch.

              1. re: Josh

                No onions and cilantro? Was Cesar there? I've never been served the Mojados without it. I have had less than succesful experiences there when he's not around, including stale/rancid chips.

                1. re: DiningDiva

                  No, he wasn't there. Those would have been nice accompaniments to cut the rich broth. Still was enjoyable, though.

            2. re: mangiatore

              I'll have to try the pastor here and compare. What did you think of the Esclara salsa mangiatore?

              My experience with al pastor has been that whenever it is off-trompe cut - the meat is much less greasier than the common griddled adobada passed as al pastor.

              I have to agree with you on liking it a tad bit greasy -a little pork fat works wonders against an earthy corn tortilla.

              1. re: kare_raisu

                Which one is the escalera? Is that the one with papaya, etc.? If so, I thought it was pretty good. For me, the others were a little bland. A few were heavy on the tomatillo and light on the spice, which I found a little boring.

                It sounds like I really screwed up with my order. I'll go back in the next few days and try something else. I really liked the grilled scallions, btw.

                1. re: kare_raisu

                  For a good version of El Pastor try Tacos El Panson on El Cajon blvd. They actually call it puerco adobado, but it is made on a trompa and has excellent flavor. Each mini-taco is $1.50, and makes for a few wonderful bites of flavorful pork and garnish. Their chipotle and tomatillo salsas are also very good.

                  My wife liked their Horchata; it is made from scratch in-house.

                  1. re: Joseph

                    El Cajon Blvd. is a long street ;-), do you remember the cross street?

                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        4433 El Cajon Blvd, on the south side of the street between 44th and 45th.

                        Ed, thanks for linking to Kirk's review. I had forgotten about that.

                      2. re: Joseph

                        Yeah, I remember you mentioning this. It's on my radar, trust me!

                  2. Wow, you guys get up early! Mama Testa, uh huh! What's not to like? I don't hear many mention my particular favorite..Muchos Machos...two soft tacos filled with sliced pasilla chiles and crema and I get a side of those fab mashed potatoes instead of rice and beans. This type of food simply is not available anywhere else in San Diego. I've taken friends from Mexico there and they love it. The salsa escalera is definitely my favorite but you have to eat chips with it because every dish is so perfectly seasoned that you need not add anything else. If I fill up on chips I can't finish my food. But a sample is great before eating and the grilled onions are muy authentico. Palatable horchata, not always the case when it's made from mix. Chilango has the best homemade horchata I've ever tasted but that's another story, isn't it. Cesar always has time to talk about Mexico and Mama Testa's food. I like their Tshirts too!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: P Macias

                      "The salsa escalera is definitely my favorite but you have to eat chips with it because every dish is so perfectly seasoned that you need not add anything else"

                      I felt exactly the same way Pat.

                      I dont think I have ever experienced homemade horchata before...sounds good.
                      Any idea on how the escalera is made? I have some dried chiles Morita and tahini at home - I was thinking of experimenting. I'd imagine if you thined this sauce out with some broth -it would be a nice simple mole.

                      Is the "El Cazo" salsa with the tomatillos and parmasan a creation of caesar's or have you guys experienced something similar in Mexico?

                      I was reading of a Zapotec salsa in DK's My Mexico which incorporated dried shrimp and ground pepitas. What depth!

                    2. Seeing this tread reminded me that I had written a reivew of sorts on Mama Testa's for a project that didn't come to fruition with me. I pulled up my original piece, tweaked and rewrote parts of it and posted it on my blog. Here's the link


                      1. Today I had the Mividitas - the Guerrean catfish 'duro' tacos. Two generous portions of fried catfish with a tender bite and moist interior, sandwiched in a fried tortilla and topped with a refreshing coleslaw and nice salty cotija. Perfect for the hot day. Refried black beans were top notch, better than MT's regular pinto refritos. (One slight - price $9.99 is a lot though, but hey I am being served, and its real tableware)

                        Brought a dining companion - whom I recomended (a la my ch buddies) the Mojados de Carne - beef taquitos in broth. This was one word: delicious - although I would have enjoyed it more had it been chilly out.
                        I found myself comparing this dish to my fondness for Tempura Udon. While I do like crispiness, I find it more satisfying when the fried batter -or in this case fried taquitos- are enveloped in the broth - thereby enriching it and softening the texture of the fried item.

                        The rice here is pretty spot on, nothing to rave about- I can make better 'Mexican' rice at home, but I think this a perfect benchmark.

                        Caesar Gonzalez. I love talking to this guy. I got a "Chiles 101" mini lecture today - found out chile Morita is a smoked Jalapeno that has been air dried, whereas a Chipotle is exactly the same but sun-dried. He reccomended me to check out Ricardo Munoz Zurita, a famous DF chef who visted Testa's and was literally spooning out salsa from the molacajtes with his fingers. Apparently he teaches a class at Macy's in MV.

                        La Luna - Arbol and Sesame is out of this world
                        Escalara- is their tahini in this one? its creamy consistency would lead me to believe so but CG wont tell me.
                        El Valiente - kicked my ass

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: kare_raisu

                          I think of the beef taquitos in spicy broth as the Mexican answer to pho, udon, Sichuan hot pot, jook, beef tendon noodle soup and kimchi tofu soup when the weather gets cold!

                          I agree with the rice--nothing out of this world but decent for what it is. I think their tacos and salsas more than make up for it.

                          Will have to check out the Macy's cooking class!

                          1. re: kare_raisu

                            No, I don't believe salsa escalera has tahini.......but I could be wrong.

                            Ricardo is a friend of mine and absolutely the BEST. He's one of only 7 Master Chefs in all of Mexico and is intimately invovled with trying to get the Mexican corn kitchen declared a UNESCO heritage cusine by the UN. I'll introduce you next time he's in town. He owns Cafe Azul y Oro in D.F. , site of the most incredible hot chocolate you can possibly imagine. He's also an all round great guy and true champion of Mexican cuisine.