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A TASTE OF AMERICAPull off Interstate 5 just north of the airport in San Diego if you want to feast on Mexican food: There is a tortilla press turning out big, warm, wheaty ones for burros and chimichangas; there are hot corn tortillas, freshly fried and super crunchy; there are chimichangas, quesadillas, tacos and taquitos. There are lush, piggy carnitas, combo plates topped with gobs of sour cream, and crisply fried fruit burros dusted wtih cinnamon-sugar. El Indio is the place to savor nearly all the good varieties of Tex-Mex food - or, more properly, Cal-Mex food.

The menu is based on the food of Sonora in western Mexico, which means that most of the cooking is not too spicy and includes copious amounts of drippy cheese and mild peppers, as well as fresh avocados - sliced as garnishes and mashed into sensational guacamole. Cups of hot sauce come with nearly every meal, and although the fresh-tasting sauce is zesty, you don't have to worry about scorching your tongue. Food can be ordered by the piece - taco by taco, wheat tortillas by the dozen - or as lavish suppers that come garnished with rainbows of bright tomatoes, peppers, avocados and always lots of sour cream.Dining at El Indio is very informal. In fact, there is no indoor seating at all. It's just a bunch of takeout windows and a long (but fast-moving) line of customers waiting to place their orders. Across the street, however, El Indio maintains a sunny, fenced-in patio to which many people carry their heaping takeout plates, along with cups of cold soda or Penafiel to drink. Here you sit, serenaded by cars passing on the raised highway, as well as the festive sounds of customers at their plastic-foam plates, plowing plastic forks into utterly authentic western chow.

Above the windows where you order your food at El Indio are portraits of fierce Mayan gods, including the god of war, the gods of rain and wind and the god of Mexican food, who according to this portrait goes by the name of El Indio. We aren't up to date on our Mayan theology, but there is no doubt in our minds that El Indio is indeed the god of Mexican food, at least in San Diego.

A while ago when we were waiting in line, we picked up a copy of El Indio's cookbook, which includes all kinds of recipes for familiar Mexican tacos and burritos, as well as some meals found only in home kitchens or the most authentic kinds of restaurants (such as hog 'n' hominy or cactus shoots with chili sauce). One of the recipes in the book is for picadillo, also known as Mexican hash - an easy-to-make, one-dish meal that is a close cousin to chili but with the added zest of olives and a sweet streak of raisins. Serve picadillo as a meal by itself, or use it as the filling for tacos or tamales.

El Indio, 3695 India St., San Diego, CA 92103; (619) 299-0333.

Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.

1990, Jane and Michael Stern

(Universal Press Syndicate)


2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 medium onion, minced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound beef, ground for hamburger or very finely chopped

1/2 cup tomato sauce

2 fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup strong beef broth

1/2 cup chopped green olives

1/2 cup seedless raisins

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

In a large skillet, fry garlic and onion in olive oil over medium heat until onion softens. Stir in beef. Cook and stir constantly to keep beef broken up as it cooks. (Remove garlic if desired.) Stir in tomato sauce and tomatoes. Stir flour into beef broth; add it to meat. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer 30 minutes.

Serves 4.