$1 REAL tacos on.... Catalina Island?? Whaaaaaaaaaat?
This a public service announcement from Mr. Taster, for all Catalina-bound Chowhounds.
As most of us know, chow-worthy info on Catalina is pretty thin on the ground. In a place where Dreyers is the Official Ice Cream of Avalon and it feels like there's a margarita mill on every corner, this is a real find.
But before I begin on the food, please indulge me this one item.
Don't pay $15 a day to park at the Catalina Express terminal. The Long Beach Passport A and D shuttles, which stop directly in front of the Catalina Express terminals, run along Ocean Avenue and whisk you away to areas of Long Beach with ample free parking. (I parked near Bonito and Ocean.) There is street sweeping Tuesday mornings on the west side, and Wednesdays on the east, and there's a Passport bus stop right around the corner on Ocean. If you're really frugal and feel like skipping the $1.25 bus fare, you can even walk a few minutes down Ocean to Atlantic, and get on the bus there for a totally free ride to the terminal. (All rides east of Atlantic are charged the full fare).
I did my due Chow-ligence before my trip and discovered, not surprisingly, that the chow situation is relatively bleak. The only chow-worthy common denominator I was able to suss out based on prior threads was the Buffalo Nickel restaurant, which is sort of hidden away on a mysterious restricted road just to the left of "the mole" (the area where Catalina Express drops you off.) You're not allowed to walk past a certain point ("Dooon't doooo it" chided the local Avalonian behind the thick glass in the Catalina Express booth. "It's too far! And besides, you'll get a ticket!") Apparently there's a danger of falling rocks, and only people with metal shelled cars are allowed to drive down that road. That means no pedestrians, and no golf carts. You call the restaurant, and they send a courtesy shuttle to pick you up, where you take an extremely short, surreal ride past a Von's warehouse along an incredibly dark road.
Our meal at the Buffalo Nickel was quite ordinary. $15 for a 10oz NY strip steak (think shoe leather with grill marks), some uninspired steamed veggies, and french fries. I had the pork chop special with mashed potatoes, which turned out to be breaded and fried chops covered in country gravy. I essentially got a plate of shockingly white food. A few veggies to color up the plate. Cream of potato soup, microwaved. Cold in the middle. Watery iceberg salad. At $13 it was not a great meal, but it was find and did the trick. Sustenance only.
We simply couldn't bring ourselves to part with our money at the tourist traps, so I spent a lot of time cooking meals in our little cottage. But after yesterday's rain canceled our walk to the Wrigley botanical gardens, we were at the golf course and noticed some festive lights and sounds coming from a little makeshift tent in the restaurant across the way. "The Sand Trap", it was called. A banner suspiciously colored in rastafarian tones proclaimed Happy Hour-- 4 to 7, $1 tacos! $2 draft beer! $4 margaritas! We peeked inside. We found a whole bunch of happy locals. High school kids whose baseball game was rained out. Local latinos huddled over the bar, chatting in Spanish. And mama was manning the taco bar.
You place your order at the bar. The bartender (the son of the taco mama, and the owner of the restaurant- residents of Avalon for 31 years) hands you a raffle ticket inscribed with the number of tacos you've ordered. You pay him or open a tab. You bring your raffle ticket back to mama, and she has freshly steamed corn tortillas (small, about 4"... the right size!) alongside four containers of different kinds of taco fillings. Chorizo, ground beef, carnitas, and a sort of carne deshebrada. Next to her is a condiment bar which begins with the cilantro and diced onions, and quickly (but briefly) makes its way into the gringo territory of orange cheese and iceberg lettuce. She also has three kinds of salsa, a verde, pico de gallo, and a pureed roasted hot salsa. Oddly, no limes. I had to ask the bartender for some, and the ones I received had already been sliced down the middle, ready to be anchored on the side of a plastic margarita cup.
I won't say these were the best tacos I've ever had. The chorizo was really quite good and decently spiced. The carnitas were too dry. The carne was moist and flavorful. Ground beef was nondescript. The margaritas were strong, and the $2 beer was Bud Light. But I can say that these were the perfect tacos to be eating as we took shelter from the rain, in this strange alternate reality of Avalon where it was really comforting to be among local people laughing, chatting, enjoying each other's company, under a makeshift tent. It was a rare bit of authenticity among this strange tourist-heavy world.
Incidentally, The Sand Trap does have a full Mexican menu for other times of the day, where tacos de al pastor y lengua (among others) are listed for $2.75. Didn't have a chance to try those, but I'll definitely give it a shot the next time we're in town.
Buffalo Nickel Restaurant
Pebbly Beach Rd, Avalon, CA 90704
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Forgot to mention, they do offer hard shells for the tacos, if you're into that. Mama had them under wraps, so I didn't see if they were of the homemade variety, or were strictly Old El Paso from off the shelf at Von's. (Granadafan... maybe you can check out the hard shells when you're there next month?)
Here's a link to their website and happy hour special.
Please note that despite what the website says, the happy hours definitely extended to 7pm. Perhaps the 5pm listing on the website reflects summer season hours? Also, don't be thrown off by the Rastafarian motif. Not really sure what that's about.
FWIW, The Sandtrap has been a favorite of mine for breakfast since my teen years when I camped at the old Bird Park every summer.. Nothing fancy, but it's not too crowded (at least it didn't used to be) and the food beats most of the other breakfasts I've had in Avalon.