Although billed as a Mexican restaurant, I was told by the counter person that it’s actually California-style Mexican. This apparently means more shredded cabbage, white cheese and guacamole, and less grease (the Mexican poutine being an exception). The biggest downside of this style of cuisine, from a New Mexican perspective, is the green sauce—it’s tomatillo-based and contains no green chile. Now, I understand the desire to honor one’s roots. But trying to get away with tomatillo green in this town like trying to will yourself back to California by wearing shorts and flip-flops through the winter.
The red chile, meanwhile, is bright, tangy and smokin’ hot. I must have poured gallons of that red into my machaca breakfast burrito. Though slow-cooked until tender, the beef somehow retained its pink color. The chunks were large and went perfectly with egg and potatoes.
The interior layout of Carolina’s reminds me of the neighborhood pizza joint in my hometown outside of Boston. It has an open floor plan with booths along the wall and a Ms. Pac-Man video game. But instead of pictures of Italy, the wall is lined with watercolors of Southwest scenery.
Yvette’s mother is the restaurant's namesake Carolina, while her sister’s father-in-law is Roberto of Roberto’s in San Diego. The famous restaurant chain was the first of its kind in that area. And, by many estimations, it’s the standard of Southern California-style Mexican food.
Thankfully, the boundaries of California-style Mexican cuisine appear to include tamales, because those at Carolina’s were splendid, drenched in that bright red, slightly sweet and acidic enchilada sauce. The guacamole rolled tacos, smothered in more guacamole and white cheese, are probably what a lot of vegetarians are looking for in a Mexican restaurant. And the veggie burrito—full of beans, rice and pico de gallo, but no cheese—is one of the healthier gut bombs in town.
Both the rolled chicken and beef enchiladas were excellent, with a nice Cali presentation. The beef was that same machaca from the burrito, and the chicken pieces were pleasantly toothsome. The way the enchilada sauce interacted with the tortillas was magic.
The tacos are large enough that four are more than the average belly can handle. Each filling (asada, machaca, fish and veggie) comes in a different presentation. Here, the beef was shredded and crispy-edged. The only disappointment was the fish—school lunch-style breaded fish sticks from a bag.
I first went to Carolina’s based on a tip that the chicharrónes were awesome, but they don’t serve chicharrónes. My informant then suggested he meant the adovada, which also does not exist at Carolina’s. Inexplicably, the menu is smaller than at many taco trucks, which is disappointing given the restaurant’s full-size kitchen. When I asked about carne adovada I was told they make it for themselves, but it’s different than how people expect it, so they don’t put it on the menu.
That’s a shame. Because what the cooks do at Carolina’s, they do well. If they’re bold enough to serve Mexican poutine and aren’t going to give us real green chile, the least they can do is show us their adovada.
• Fries with carnitas and enchilada sauce
• Veggie burrito