By Emma Gallegos, Staff Writer
It’s not even fair – some restaurants have me right out of the gate. When I walked into Senor Baja, I could immediately smell the grease. It was the smell of so many flaky fish fillets being freshly but lightly batter-fried to a golden brown.
The sign out front still says El Taco Nazo, which is a familiar chain throughout Southern California.
I haven’t eaten at any of the other locations, but in Baldwin Park it is blissfully apparent that no one ever asked a focus group for their opinion. There is a shelf of model cars, gigantic close-ups of shrimp cocktails framed on the walls and a picture of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The specials are hand-written on those pre-printed cardboard signs you see at garage sales or used car lots.
From the smell of grease to the eclectic decor, the message here is clear: it’s all about the food. Who needs to worry about the subconscious signals you’re sending with decor, when you can lure people – especially in this economy – with the thrill of 99-cent tacos every Monday and Wednesday? (And if the economy has really got you down, on any day of the week there’s a well-stocked refrigerator of cold beer – domestic and Mexican – behind the counter for $3.75 each.)
The only hint of a focus group on the horizon is the name change in the works. The sign on the outside still says El Taco Nazo, but the eatery’s Web site said the name will be changed to Senor Baja, so that people will more readily associate their restaurant with Baja California. The Web site also notes that they will be remodeling their stores and going through a “re-imaging” process. We’ll see if Zapata – who isn’t from Baja – will survive the focus group.
There are few things about the restaurant I’d like to see changed. The whole restaurants hums with energy and efficiency. Waiters sailed around the corner to music that sounded like ABBA from warmer climes. A few waiters sang along. A sign on the sneeze guard suggests kindly that you take only what you’re going to eat. And by the time I got my utensils, a straw and napkins, they called my number. I’ve waited longer for Happy Meals.
I opted for the fish taco combo, which came with beans and rice and a drink ($6.49). I splurged with some flan for dessert ($2.31), but even with all that, I only broke $10 by two pennies because they tacked on an extra 50 cents for using my debit card.
Fish tacos are their specialty and they hit it out of the park. The fish was hot, fresh, golden and not that greasy. The cabbage was crunchy, the tomatoes ripe, the cilantro fragrant and there was just enough sour cream to keep the taco from being dry. The flan wasn’t made on site, but it was creamy and had absorbed the not-too-sweet caramel sauce. The only true disappointments were the rice and beans, which were probably made en masse early on in the day and were cold and bland by the time I got there.
It’s best to forgo the combo. Opt for a few 99-cent fish tacos on Mondays and Wednesdays, you might even be able to get a beer without breaking $10.
Senor Baja is at 14343 Ramona Blvd., Baldwin Park, and can be reached at (626) 338-6420.