Cheap, tasty and very Californian

El Forastero Mexican Food

El Forastero Mexican Food

5116 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Carmichael, CA

(916) 488-1416

I’ve been eating at El Forastero Mexican Food regularly since the chain’s Carmichael location opened near my house in October 2011, replacing a former Taco Bell. El Forastero launched in 2007, according to its website. In addition to its Carmichael restaurant, it has four other locations: two in Sacramento (850 El Camino Avenue—the original one—and 8949 Folsom Boulevard) and two in Stockton. I’ve only dined at the El Camino Avenue and Carmichael spots, but the vast majority of my visits have been to the latter location.

There are four main reasons I keep coming back: It’s convenient (read: right near my house, with a 24-hour drive-thru), tasty, cheap and the staff is uniformly friendly.

Despite being an eatery founded by three brothers from Mexico, the menu at El Forastero—which means, as they say on their website, “someone who is or come from other place”—resembles the type of Mexican food found in Southern California: a blend of American fast food, Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican dishes. There’s menudo on weekends, but also french fries hiding inside burritos and buried underneath steaming piles of carne asada.

There are many types of prepared meat on the menu, such as carne asada, shredded beef, adobada, chorizo, ground beef, carnitas, chicken, fish and shrimp. For a taco or torta filling, my favorite is adobada, a pork marinated in a red chili sauce. But overall, the camarones a la diabla (shrimp in red hot sauce) and the camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp in garlic sauce) are the most flavorful. The a la diabla strikes a nice balance between sweet and spicy, while the al mojo de ajo doesn’t have too much butter—as is common with this dish—but instead features a nice, smoky garlic flavor. The crustaceans in the shrimp burrito taste relatively bland compared to these two standout shrimp plates.

This Mexican eatery also offers two of the most famous San Diego-style Mexican dishes, both delicious but full of calories: the California burrito and carne asada fries. The latter consists of a plate of fries topped with carne asada, cheese, sour cream and guacamole (so does an order of carne asada nachos, but with tortilla chips instead of fries). A California burrito is basically an order of carne asada fries wrapped in a tortilla—which, surprisingly, isn’t even the fattiest-sounding dish on the menu. That distinction most likely belongs to the hangover-curing Super Breakfast burrito, with bacon, chorizo, ham, fries, eggs and cheese—all wrapped in a tortilla. It’s incredibly rich and hearty, but I can only consume half of it in one sitting.

El Forastero’s mini-tacos are a great bargain at $1.50 each and seem relatively healthier. Made in the “street taco” style with only three ingredients—meat, onion and cilantro—these are best consumed with salsa from the in-house salsa bar, which usually features five or six different house-made sauces, plus bottomless chips. Mini-tacos are the best way to taste all the different meats. Regular tacos (which are $2.75-$3.20 each) are about twice the size and are priced accordingly. The rolled tacos resemble taquitos, but don’t impress as much as the standard tacos. Nor do the shells of the fried tacos, which are incredibly brittle, and seem to have lost all their moisture.

El Forastero certainly lives up to its name, because its food tastes like it comes from another place—namely, Southern California. The fast-food booth seating, the prices, the 24-hour drive-thru and the cuisine all make me feel like I’ve finished a six-hour journey down Interstate 5 instead of a five-minute drive down the street.