Wed, Oct 10 2012 01:08 PM Posted By: Phillip Brents
El Juan Café, a National City culinary landmark, will celebrate its 66th anniversary on Wednesday, Oct. 10.
“It’s business as usual,” owner Pat Santos said.
The Mexican eatery opened in 1946 and has been serving tasty — no, delicious — cuisine for South County diners ever since.
The restaurant ranks as one of the few surviving establishments in San Diego County to remain open so long.
“El Juan Café is a tradition and we’ve kept it going,” Santos said.
The restaurant, like many others in the region, is hopeful of an upturn from the current poor economic climate.
The restaurant recently welcomed back head chef Hector Rodriguez, who had worked at the eatery for 14 years before taking a 10-year hiatus to work on other projects. Santos said Rodriguez has brought the original recipes with him.
That can only mean good things.
“People have already noticed the difference and have said it’s a change for the better,” Santos said.
Leonor Garcia-Rodriguez has also joined the staff as a waitress; she and Rodriguez both have extensive restaurant experience.
Anthony Davis remains on staff as a waiter. He is the great-grandson of former El Juan waitress Annie Orndorff, who worked at the restaurant for 57 years until her 80th birthday.
Orndorff recently passed away due to complications from pneumonia.
The connection with the past remains strong at the NC establishment.
“We still have a lot of regulars,” Santos said. “Whenever Sweetwater High School has a reunion, people come in for breakfast the next day or dinner the day before. Even though they may have moved away from the area, they still remember us.”
El Juan Café remains a part of their cultural heritage.
The eatery has been popular with diners in the annual Best of South County readers poll conducted by The Star-News. The restaurant has won for best Mexican food, best bartender, best server and best wet burrito.
Garcia-Rodriguez related a recent incident where a woman from Long Beach came into the restaurant to order the chile relleno combination plate. “She said she had eaten at the restaurant before and when she was down here again, she said she just had to have that unique sweet sauce,” Garcia-Rodriguez said.
The chile relleno combo plate (No. 5 on the menu) is as popular as it ever was, Santos said.
The combo plate in question includes a chile relleno (cooked El Juan’s special way), taco, enchilada, beans and rice.
The restaurant now lists 15 combo plates, ranging in price from $10.50 to $13.55.
The No. 1 combo plate (tamale, enchilada, taco, beans and rice) is also hard to pass up.
The newest addition is the two shrimp tacos or shrimp burrito combo plate (No. 15).
Besides beef or chicken fajitas, El Juan now offers shrimp fajitas. We found them quite tasty and surprisingly meaty.
The restaurant continues to offer $7.25 lunch specials (now served throughout the day). They include an empanada and enchilada (Tuesday) and taco and enchilada (Wednesday), both served with rice and beans, a chimichanga and rice or mixed burrito and taco (Thursday) and chile relleno and enchilada or two fish tacos, rice and beans (Friday).
The flying saucers, another of the restaurant’s longtime favorites, are a good choice in today’s health conscious society. The large crispy flour tortilla is topped with refried beans (no lard), choice of beef or chicken, lettuce, tomato and cheese. Guacamole and sour cream are add-ons.
The one thing that has always stood out about the food at El Juan (and that specifically applies to its tacos) is the kitchen staff’s use of crisp lettuce, sharp cheddar cheese and ripe yet firm tomatoes.
Santos said lettuce is shredded fresh daily and that both the guacamole and the establishment’s signature salsa are made fresh each day.
For those who have grown up in National City, El Juan remains the standard by which Mexican restaurants are judged.
Rodriguez said he takes satisfaction in seeing his culinary creations appreciated by guests. “He said this is his calling,” said Santos, a Chula Vista resident since 1978 who has owned the restaurant since 1995.
The NC eatery is making a foray into cyberspace with a website (under construction at eljuancafe.com). Santos can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She is hoping with both the new online presence and staff additions that the restaurant can steer itself into a more vibrant future.
“It’s what’s needed now,” Santos said. “With this new partnership, we’re trying to build it back up.”
El Juan Café is located at 2316 Highland Ave., in National City. Business hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant is closed to the public on Monday but is available for large private parties.
The restaurant also features a full bar. For more information, call 477-0174 or 477-6262.
© 2009 The Star-News