April 08, 2005

Can you spot the hidden Highland Chicken?

El Gallo Rojo opens... for those who can find it

By J.D. Hawk

Ever sense something is different but can’t quite figure out what it is? Some denizens of National City may have a similar feeling when they drive by 1231 Highland Ave., across the street from the Wal-Mart shopping center.

For over 20 years there was a successful Chinese restaurant called Hong-Yun at that address and now, poof! ....it’s gone. The previous owners, according to landlord Anthony “Tony” Aquaro, had enough of the business and called it quits so they could enjoy their retirement. Aquaro, no stranger to the restaurant industry himself, decided he’d change the style of the restaurant and open it under a new name: The Red Rooster.

Executive Chef Anthony Aquaro creating another delicious dinner.

Why shouldn’t he? Aquaro has been around the block so to speak and even as a child, he’d visit his father who had owned an Italian restaurant in downtown San Diego where sailors and night life lounge-lizards would often stop by to eat as late as 3 a.m. On one of these late-night excursions, a suave businessman came in and ordered a plate of steaming-hot spaghetti. Aquaro quietly watched, hoping perhaps, to observe how a true gentleman eats. The eloquent stranger calmly pulled the plate toward himself and then...dropped his head down face-first into the blistering food and fell asleep drunk. “Instead of reacting, flinching or jumping from that hot pasta, he turned his head to the side like it was a pillow,” Aquaro chuckled with an entertained smiled. “I have a lot of stories like that,” he said.

Fast forward to 2005. Aquaro’s idea was to change the Chinese restaurant into an American country-decor style restaurant with Mexican food on the menu as well. But he soon found that the Mexican food outsold the American food by a 9 to 1 ratio. So the business-savvy Aquaro decided to change the name to El Gallo Rojo. But there’s no sign-changers in town, says Aquaro, that can change the name anytime soon. The sign still says Red Rooster.

Now poor Aquaro watches as confused Chinese-food lovers walk by stunned, scratching their head wondering where their chop suey went, and still others, perhaps, walk in startled to find out that Red Rooster — or El Gallo Rojo as it’s officially called now— actually serves Mexican food.

Then, as if life were taking cues from the direction of Woody Allen, a construction crew showed up in front of the restaurant and began tearing up the street, driving customers away. They will be up and down the block, according to Aquaro, for months to come.

But for those willing to search it out and find this hidden chicken of Highland, they may just have something to crow about, because El Gallo Rojo may just be one of the best Mexican food deals in the San Diego. Why? Because El Gallo Rojo has combined the clean atmosphere of a restaurant you’re not afraid to bring your family to, with affordable prices similar to small taco shops.

“They use to have the windows boarded up for some reason,” Aquaro said. “It looked like a scene from a Chinese Mafia movie. It was very 1970’s motif with traditional Chinese lanterns.”

New flooring is now in place, new wallpaper — bordered from wall to wall with roosters — new maroon curtains and vases of flowers adorn each of the 10 spacious booths. Surprisingly, even with the door open, the sound of traffic on Highland Avenue doesn’t blare into the setting and only resonates inside as a strange, soothing muffle.

The menu lists all the typical Mexican food appetizers and entrees, including nachos, quesadillas, Enchiladas, tostadas, and chimichangas with a more-than-reasonable price of 4 to 6 dollars. Aquaro seemingly hasn’t passed on the cost of remodeling to his customers.

As one who champions the carne asada burrito above all other forms of nourishment, it was the carne asada burrito combination that came under the most scrutiny. Served with a side of Spanish rice and beans for $7.15 ($5.45 a la carte) the beefy burrito comes with respectable amount of carne asada, sour cream and guacamole. Tomatoes, onions and cilantro also inside, but El Gallo Rojo doesn’t try to fake-out the customer by overpacking it with lettuce as, unfortunately, has been my experience with other vendors. A red chili sauce poured over the top of the burrito adds flavor and rates high on my scale. The soda refills were free.

There are also the many bargains that are often going on with newspaper coupons, such as featured in La Prensa, and the specials you can get by way of flyer-menus only handed out at the restaurant itself. My personal favorite is the “buy two burritos and get the third free.”

With a pleasant, sanitary atmosphere, good Mexican food that beats comparable restaurants in price, and life-long chef running the place, El Gallo Rojo gets a perfect five sombreros out of a possible five sombrero rating. Call 619.477.7100.

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