Jan 2009

Ernie’s Al Fresco – Pasadena

For over twenty years, Ernie Mercado has been serving up good eats to the Caltech community from his lunch truck. The Astronomer and I first learned about Ernie from our phở-loving friends—Bao, Hung and Kunwoo. For three fairly quiet gents, they spoke animatedly and highly of Ernie’s food.

The Astronomer and I finally tried the goods on a rainy day in December when I happened to be working on a freelance piece from the Caltech library. Whenever I have an extreme case of writer’s block, I head to Caltech for a change of scenery. It seems that I focus better when I’m surrounded by geniuses.

During prime lunch hours, Ernie’s truck is conveniently parked outside The Astronomer’s physics lab. Even though it was cold and wet on our visit, there was still a good-size crowd huddling around Ernie’s truck.

Mexican fare is the name of the game at Ernie’s, and most items are priced around $3 to $4. All food is assembled to order by either Ernie or his helper. I went with the Tijuana Trio—three tacos filled with pork, chicken and beef. Since chicken is my least favorite animal to eat, I asked Ernie to substitute an additional pork taco instead. He kindly obliged and agreed that chicken was lame. The tacos were sprinkled with chopped onions and cilantro, and served with a lime wedge and two mild salsas (pico de gallo and tomatillo) on the side.

All three tacos were solid in the taste department, but a little chilly temperature-wise. Luke-warm food could be avoided if everything was cooked fresh to order, which isn’t the case at Ernie’s truck. This was my first lunch truck experience, so I’m curious to see how other vendors approach food preparation on wheels.

I added a side of beans and rice to my order. Both items were good, but could have used a few more minutes on the stove or a quick nuke in the microwave. Eating cold food on a rainy day is sad.

The Astronomer ordered a carne asada burrito, which came with a side of tortilla chips and salsa.

The Astronomer enjoyed his burrito very much. I didn’t steal a bite because I like my burritos San Diego-style with all meat and no rice.

Ernie’s Al Fresco
Multiple locations in and around Caltech
Pasadena, CA 91106
Phone: 310-367-4291

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4 thoughts on “Ernie’s Al Fresco – Pasadena

  1. I’ve had Ernie’s a couple of times (when I worked on campus). The thing you have to remember is that for years (!!) Caltech’s food service was incredibly bad. Horrible.

    They finally built a shiny new dining area, and went to a lot of trouble to make everything pretty, but it’s still kind of institutional. And expensive.

    So I think there’s a lot of nostalgia for Ernie’s because he’s always there, he’s cheap, and the food is very good, compared to what used to be available. I’d love to have Ernie come here and make something with a little spice for us.

    And I totally agree about a burrito: no rice. No. Rice.

    I’m so enjoying these reviews, please keep them coming!

  2. OMG, the (sort-of) taco truck. Here in Durham they have late-night taco trucks that are open from 8pm to 3am and I have to admit that I’ve been eating at them way more often than I could have ever anticipated. I get to practice my limited Spanish, too! They do warm up the meat to order, so I think it’s possible.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m making an illicit transaction because I’m standing out there in a not so pretty part of town in the cold anxiously waiting for the goods. =)

  3. Fiona – Thanks for the back story—it really explains a lot about the campus’ relationship with Ernie. And woot to NO FILLERS 😉

    Sharon (AKA Woman of the Night) – Haha! Your story made me laugh. Clearly, Durham’s got it goin’ on!

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