It might be Lodi outside. But inside Taco Del Mar, you'd almost swear you're in Baja California.
The coastal vibe is very strong with seaside decor, surfing photographs and giant fish and surfboards hanging on the walls. A dried palm-shaded palapa offers a tropical touch for those taking a window seat. Music ranges from modern Mexican to reggae hits.
You'll find this kind of sunny charm in any of the over 200 Taco Del Mar restaurants, which dot the U.S. and Canada. Brothers James and John Schmidt opened the first Taco Del Mar in 1992 on Pier 57 in Seattle's waterfront district and their winning restaurant concept has since grown exponentially. Rony Singh opened the Lodi restaurant in the Lowe's shopping center last month, which is the 201st franchise in the chain.
Singh, 34, was formerly a financial advisor with Franklin Templeton and E*Trade, before he got into the restaurant business. He currently also owns Quizno's in the Safeway shopping center.
"Everything is very healthy here," said Singh, adding that there is no lard in any of their products.
The refried beans are prepared from red and pinto beans. The rice is steamed daily with tomatoes, onions and seasonings. The salsa (made with tomatoes, cilantro, onions, chilies and salt) is chopped fresh daily and the guacamole is also prepared on the premises.
The menu is straightforward, offering your usual mix of tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and their signature Mission District-style burritos (big, heavy burritos for big, heavy appetites). All are available with a choice of meats, ranging from shredded beef and pork molé to breaded shrimp or braised chicken. For those who would prefer to go sans meat, you can make your order vegetarian or vegan.
One of their most popular dishes is their fish tacos ($4.19 for two, $5.79 for three), made with a breaded and lightly baked fish filet (think fish tenders made with Alaskan cod), cabbage, diced tomatoes and their creamy sauce on a choice of a flour or corn tortilla. Or their Wet Burrito combo meal ($7.99), a super burrito (which includes rice, beans, meat, cheese, and salsa), served enchilada-style, with chips, salsa and a small drink.
Speaking of drinks, you won't find a cool cerveza or margarita on the premises. But they offer juices, as well as soft drinks, iced tea and water.
We stopped in for a late lunch and queued up at the counter, where we watched our food being prepared before our eyes. I ordered a Super Baja Bowl ($6.99), a tortilla-less super burrito with chips and a small drink. My colleague ordered the No. 4 combination ($6.89), a half-sized jumbo burrito (she opted for braised chicken) and a taco (she picked the breaded and lightly baked shrimp), served with chips, salsa and a small drink.
Then we lugged our plastic trays, heaving with our entrées, to a booth in the rear of the restaurant - the perfect spot to take in all of the colorful decor that surrounded us.
My burrito bowl was a work of art, layered with tasty braised chicken, beans (I opted for refried, but you can also choose black or pinto), fluffy rice, white and yellow shreds of cheddar, pico de gallo and topped with pools of sour cream and a cilantro-flecked guacamole.
My colleague's half-sized burrito, was flavorful and filling, made with braised chicken, rice, beans, cheese and salsa, and wrapped in a ten-inch flour tortilla. The shrimp taco, filled with lettuce, tomatoes, pico de gallo, cheddar cheese and a creamy tartar-like sauce, drove her almost to a siesta-like state.
And it's fitting. This place feels like a tropical getaway, but you can leave your passport at home.
AT A GLANCE
What: Taco Del Mar
Where: 2533 W. Kettleman Lane
House Specialties: Fish tacos
Drinks Menu: Soft drinks, juices
Price Range: Entrees ($3.99-$7.99), kid's menu ($1.99-$2.49)
Hours Of Operation: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.