This story is second in a series. Zach will be posting a new story on Mexican food in San Diego every Thursday until he leaves Southern California for the San Francisco Bay, where he will continue to write and edit for The Eaten Path.
As a new San Diegan, I asked a few people I knew for restaurant recommendations, and more than one person responded in the exact same way: “Anywhere that ends in -berto’s.”
If you’ve even casually passed through San Diego, you probably know what they’re talking about. Taco shops throughout the city have a tendency to share the same suffix – El Roberto’s, Ramberto’s, Hamberto’s, etc. – and a very similar on-the-border menu. If you’ve tried a few, however, you’re probably aware that the quality is not as consistent as the nomenclature. There are plenty of ‘Bertos that are delicious, but there are an equal amount on the other side of the bell curve, leaving my benefactors’ advice little more than fallacious. Frijoles y Arroz by any other name would smell as sweet, not the other way around.
The true ‘Berto’s, of course, is Roberto’s, a chain of Mexican fast food meccas that has earned an immeasurable amount of imitators. Even the outliers of San Diego taco shop names, like Santana’s, owe their success to a food culture that Roberto’s has been defining for half a century, since the original ‘Berto’s found enough customers in 1970 to go forth and multiply into the San Diego taco gene pool. If there is a catch-all term for San Diego Mexican fast food, then the suffix -berto’s is the perfect morpheme for the job. It may even work a bit farther north.
That little taco shop in downtown seventies San Diego wasn’t the original either. The first Roberto was just a poor child in Mexico with one hell of a heartwarming story ahead of him. One American dream later, Roberto Robledo and his wife Dolores found profit in delivering tortillas and made a fortune with the burrito – the first of which, a ten cent burrito called the Poor Man, changed the culture of San Diego forever. Then Roberto’s came out with the carne asada burrito and the rest is California history.
Today’s San Diego is still carne asada crazy. Every college kid in the county has run to a ‘Berto’s in the middle of a drunken night for a California burrito. Every group of teenagers has pooled their cash together for one giant order of carne asada fries. Every surfer boy has enjoyed a carne asada tostada from a ‘Berto’s with extra guacamole and every passerby has stopped for the rolled tacos special at least once. This is Roberto Robledo’s legacy. His taco shops established what taqueria menus will serve in San Diego for decades, and few people know that it all started with a Poor Man.
Unfortunately, you can’t taste the history. With over sixty in the country, even the real Roberto’s Taco Shops fluctuate in quality. Mr. Robledo himself, before dying in 1999, asked one of his relatives to remove the name Roberto’s from his business because it did not meet the old man’s standards. Over a decade later, the carne asada is no longer grilled to order, and the Roberto’s Taco Shops of San Diego have fallen into the sea of its own imitators, into the generic culture of San Diego Mexican fast food – not that I’m complaining. There will always be a place in the world for 24-hour drive-thrus that sell carne asada burritos.
That’s when the ‘Berto’s are great, at three in the morning after you’ve tried to drink all of a San Diego bar’s beer selection. When you’re sober in the sunlight, this city has much better Mexican food to offer. If you’re just visiting SD and you want to sample the city’s best, don’t listen to advice like, “Anywhere that ends in -berto’s.” If you want to experience some San Diego history, sure, go ahead, but remember: There are many ‘Berto’s, but there is only one Roberto Robledo.
Zach’s San Diego Countdown
Week 1 – Super Cocina
Week 2 – Los ‘Bertos
Week 3 – El Tio Alberto
Week 4 – Ranas Mexico City Cuisine
Week 5 – La Fachada
Week 6 – Aqui es Texcoco
Week 7 – La Playa Taco Shop
Week 8 – Las Cuatros Milpas
Week 9 – Tacos El Paisa
Week 10 – Tacos Yaqui
Week 11 – Tacos El Gordo
Week 12 – Mariscos El Pescador
Week 13 – Rudy’s Taco Shop