A Burrito By Any Other Name
OC is bursting with sound-alikes of the famous Alberto’s taquerias, and though the menus are similar, the discriminating diner can spot some subtle differences
Back in the early ’90s, Alberto’s restaurants were everywhere. The San Diego-based chain, started by a woman named Arselia Dominguez, built its reputation on gut-busting burritos filled with nothing but carne asada and guacamole. Then something happened.
The Alberto’s I’d been going to in La Habra suddenly became a Molcasalsa. Others redubbed themselves with a few extra letters or a few less. You’ll know when you see one. Permutations range from Albertito’s, Alerto’s, Rigoberto’s, Alberta’s, even Arsenio’s—and that’s just the few that I remember. Most of these new joints didn’t seem to be affiliated with the original, but if it sounded similar or sported a “-berto’s” suffix, then you can bet it offered that same steak-filled burrito.
Though the food was closely related, some locations were incrementally better than others. Even at Alerto’s, which is arguably the most consistently managed sound-alike with at least three OC locations of its own, there’s a noticeable difference between them, even at those within blocks of one another. The Alerto’s on Brookhurst in Westminster, for instance, is better than the one down the road in Fountain Valley.
Tasked with writing this review, I narrowed down my analysis to three spots. One was a newly opened Alberto’s in Santa Ana. The second, the aforementioned Alerto’s in Westminster. And the third, the Alberta’s in Tustin. (Neither the Alerto’s nor the Alberta’s were once Alberto’s establishments.)
To measure and make comparisons, I used the carne asada nachos as my benchmark. All subjects served this dubiously Mexican dish. And because it contained many components, the relative attentiveness of the cook revealed itself in the nachos. The plate foretold the virtues of a place like tea leaves.
First, the chips. Were they freshly fried or just reheated? And if just-fried, were they greasy? Next, how neatly were the toppings applied? Did the thing look like a colorful Jackson Pollock masterpiece or like a Michael Jackson nose job? More subtly telling was the carne asada itself. Did the pencil-eraser-sized nubs of marinated steak taste like they’d been chipped off a tender filet mignon, or a lesser, gristle-plagued cut?
At Alerto’s, the chips were fried to a greaseless crisp. The guacamole was vibrant, the sour cream cool, the pico de gallo biting. Most important, the refried beans were warm, the cheese melty and the carne asada sublimely soft. Multiple visits were greeted with the same perfectly constructed mound. Results were inconclusive at Alberto’s. One day, it was immaculate, made with intricate care; the next, it was missing some toppings and seemed like it had been slopped together. It was the same at Alberta’s. The verdict: The kitchen staff at these two locations lacked the artistry to make the dish quite as well as that of the Westminster Alerto’s.
(If you decide to do your own taste test, be sure to ask for the half-order of nachos. Because if there is one thing all have in common, it’s that the full order is a rip-off. You get virtually the same amount for almost double the price.)
And since we’re talking pseudo-Mexican food, I need to discuss something called “The Flying Saucer,” which can be classified as a tostada. It starts with a puffy disc of flour tortilla, deep-fried into a rigid curve resembling the swooping shape of a cowboy hat. On top of it: refried beans, wilted onions, peppers, shredded beef, cheese and lettuce. In your mouth: bliss.
Alerto’s triumphed in its rendition. Though this “Saucer” contained less beef than the others, the peppers and onions were julienned with a precision worthy of a French chef. Alberta’s in Tustin had the biggest—and the priciest “Flying Saucer” at a whopping $7—but it was loaded with meat. Alberto’s version lay somewhere in between.
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Chicken enchiladas—thick corn tortillas filled generously with shredded dark meat, then smothered in a piquant red sauce and cheese—were indistinguishable among the establishments. All were satisfying fork fodder and wonderfully moist. Unfortunately, none of the places did its rolled tacos very well. The same thick corn tortillas that made the enchiladas hefty rendered the taquitos tougher to gnaw than jerky.
On the fish-burrito front, Alberto’s offered the most refined rendition, filled with shaved carrots and cabbage—a bona-fide coleslaw. Alerto’s did straight cabbage, but added pico de gallo to theirs. Alberta’s distinguished itself by using the meatiest, most flavorful pieces of fish.
And that carne asada burrito? Each establishment did it justice. These meat torpedoes—the common thread among Alberto’s clones and maverick stores—were wrapped in pliant, translucent, membrane-thin flour tortillas, which were barely able to hold back the seasoned-beef barrage. Whether you take your big honking bite of it at Alerto’s, Alberto’s or Alberta’s, it’s the same burrito—and you won’t give a damn what they call themselves.
Alberto’s Mexican Food, 1425 E. Edinger Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 834-9680. Alberta’s Mexican Food, 765 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 838-8226. Alerto’s Mexican Food, 15681 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 775-9550. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $10-$15, food only.