Restaurant Review: Carolina’s Does Mexican By Way Of San Diego

That’s New Mexican, Not New Mexican

Ari LeVaux
5 min read
vegetarian burrito
The vegetarian burrito is a handful. (Sergio Salvador
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Poutine is a popular French-Canadian dish that’s renowned as a late-night beer sponge. It consists of a pile of fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. I don’t know if poutine was the inspiration for the french-fry-based dishes available at Carolina’s, a Mexican restaurant in the old Chocolate Café space near Girard and Central, but the resemblance is striking. My introduction to this Mexican poutine was a pile of fries interspersed with yellow cheese, topped with carnitas and smothered in enchilada sauce. Cheesy fries formed a latticed raft that held the crispy brown carnitas and their sauce, allowing me to use a fork to shovel the glorious, greasy amalgam into my mouth.

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.

The best part of the ambience at Carolina’s revealed itself as I struggled to control my burrito with one hand and my 4-month-old in the other. Yvette, the owner, offered to hold him while I ate, and it was clear that she enjoyed every minute of it. If only more restaurants offered free child care.

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.

A warning: I can’t mention the veggie taco without mentioning the word “cumin.” Members of the New Mexico anti-cumin coalition may want to avert their eyes from the following statement. OK, here goes: There’s cumin in the veggie tacos.

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.

Restaurant Review:

The Alibi Recommends:

• Fries with carnitas and enchilada sauce

• Veggie burrito

• Enchiladas
Yvette Montoya

Owner Yvette Montoya Serofani works the register.

Sergio Salvador

smothered fries

Carolina’s smothered fries = Mexican poutine

Sergio Salvador


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