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PETE TITTL: Sancho's Tacos still going strong downtown

Sancho's Tacos downtown has both an idiosyncratic presence and a great menu that absolutely grows on you to the point that ordering can be painful, forcing you to choose from so many different great options.

We wrote about the place two years ago when it opened on the east side of the building on 18th Street that houses the Silver Fox, which is still going strong as a dive bar based on the lively noises we hear when we stop in at Sancho's.

We've also visited their other restaurants down south, especially the one in San Clemente, which has a long line on Tuesday nights when some tacos are knocked down to $2.50 each after 4 p.m. (Bakersfield's restaurant offers a similar discount for five of the tacos, but it hasn't caught on here yet.) Other locations are in Oceanside, Laguna Niguel, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

Our experience at Sancho's is that everything is a step above ordinary, whether it's the Angus tri-tip beef, the excellent shrimp (sauteed with garlic butter or deep fried) or the refried beans.

Our neighbors Lawrence and Penny have visited so often they are known as regulars, the crew shouting out their names as they entered the way Norm was greeted on the old TV show "Cheers." Sadly, when we went with them on our recent visit, no one knew them as it looked like the whole crew had been turned over. I'm sure they'll be visiting often enough to get known in the future.

Lawrence's favorites are the surf and turf burrito ($12.25), which combines sauteed shrimp and the Angus tri-tip, and the breakfast burritos ($9.95), made with skillet potatoes, eggs, cheddar and jack cheeses, and a choice of meat (bacon, sausage, chorizo or chicken breast strips).

"They do something to the tortillas here," he noted as we worked through our orders of tacos and the off-menu "special" chips ($4.50), which are made with flour tortillas and are quite spectacular.

We have been partial to the shrimp and carnitas tacos in the past, and the bean and cheese burrito ($6.50) is a must-order if you love that sort of thing. What we ordered was the flounder pounder (grilled fish, $2.50), the "federales" (carnitas, $2.50), the "yard bird" (chicken, $2.50) and the "O.G." ($2.50, tri-tip) as well as a bottle of Pacifico ($5), since they do now have beer and White Claw beverages but no wine.

One thing we really love about Sancho's is the eccentric decorations, most of them provided by an artist who goes by KoolHandLuke (koolhandluke.com). There are takes on Salvador Dali, a Big Boy character outside near the door with a sombrero on, a take on the "keep on truckin'" art of the 1960s, and the walls of the unisex bathroom off the small dining room detail all the locations of the small restaurant chain.

This is so far from the boring corporate forced ambience that we see in too many restaurants. Lawrence said he'd love to hire the guy to decorate his classroom. Something tells me he'd have to get permission from the monkey statue situated near the door here.

Everything was so great. I'd never tried the grilled fish before but, like everything else here, the freshness is evident from first bite to last. You can watch the small kitchen crew working on things (I swear the dining room and kitchen are smaller than most two-car garages).

The fish has cabbage and cilantro on top and three sauces: verde, their house "Chubbie" sauce and a crema. I prefer their creamy cilantro salsa, but all of them are made here and now some are also sold in jars to take home. And the beef is more tender and flavorful than what so many places serve. The "slow-cooked" carnitas is stringy and has a beautifully pronounced pork taste.

You can get the fish or shrimp deep-fried with a beer batter on them, but nothing beats the simply grilled fish or the butter-garlic sauteed shrimp. When you're done, you feel like they should be charging more, especially on a Tuesday night.

The veggie tacos are made from grilled-to-order artichoke hearts and mushrooms with spinach as a garnish, and those are also available at breakfast in a burrito with egg whites.

About the only item I have yet to sample is the quesadilla, but it's so hard to get past the nachos, burritos and tacos. The fresh-made churros (four for $4.25, eight for $6.75) are a must-order if you need dessert.

Even though the crew is new, they do work to keep people fed quickly and happy. Lawrence was really wondering what happened to Andre. He told me that the man who created the chain, founder Donnie Lancaster, was a Bakersfield native who succeeded down south then opened one in his old hometown. On the bathroom wall, the painting about Bakersfield said the recipes for these tacos were created in our fair city.

If you haven't been yet, you have to check it out.

Sancho's Tacos can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

Pete Tittl's Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter: @pftittl.