Why does everyone in Redlands feel the need to tell me they live there because they could never live in the cultural wastelands of Riverside or San Bernardino? (It’s the same way people say “I live in San Bernardino—near the college,” so you know they paid 100K more for their house, which ensures they don’t have to mix with any unnecessary IE seediness—as if there’s an escape!) Although most people want you to see the pretty parts of Redlands—filled with gingerbread Victorians and equally antiquated orange groves—the not-so-pretty parts of the Citrus City are always the most interesting.
But common people exist in Redlands, and most of the people driving late-model cars, wearing expensive sunglasses and taking their kids to summer camp want to eat their food, if nothing else. Luckily, in the 10 minutes it takes to pick up a chile verde dinner plate, few of their friends will recognize them from the private school carnival or Whole Foods.
Because just when you’re sure that the IE has the crappiest Mexican food around, you get lost in Redlands and see a 60-year-old man sitting on a brick planter, his prosthetic leg perched next to him. Then you see a couple of lines four or five people deep, and figure that little building with wrought iron bars on its windows and no seating must be doing something right. The best Mexican food is always found in places like this, surrounded by used car lots and plenty of asphalt. Too bad there were no railroad tracks.
Why? Because they have nothing to prove. They have good food, low prices and low overhead, so why bother with expensive land, decor and vinyl booths? Loyal customers will follow good food anywhere.
Like to Cuca’s. When I saw the bright yellow and orange painted windows shouting “TORTAS” and “KIDS Burritos,” my spirits lifted. There is no place to sit at Cuca’s original restaurant on State Street, unless you plan on copping a squat on the planter or sidewalk. You take your food, just like the two 10-year-olds I saw grabbing white paper bags filled with burritos and tacos and gargantuan 32-ounce Pepsis, and skedaddle down the street to eat them on the porch with Nana.
Peach-plump University of Redlands coeds, sleek attorneys and crumpled city staffers frequent Cuca’s, but just as quickly disappear into cars to places unknown—panhandlers and exhaust fumes kind of kill the ambience. (By the way, the guy with the prosthetic leg was not panhandling, only the ones with real legs were.) And although the misters are a nice touch, chances are you don’t want to hang out with the two guys who tell you they’re Vietnam vets, but look 10 years too young and ask for spare change.
So is Cuca’s really a restaurant? It’s hard to say. But you definitely can get some damn good tacos, burritos and tortas there for a song. I inhaled my carne asada torta in my car and was immediately filled with fresh beans, quality meat and vegetables that made it a necessary and refreshing buy. And if you can be satisfied for $3.59, isn’t it always worth it?
What makes Cuca’s great are the little things. Bean and cheese burritos are so basic that many restaurants don’t bother to make them special—using canned refried beans and tasteless cheese. It’s as if they have no respect for simplicity. Cuca’s puts Mexican rice in their bean and cheese burrito, as all bean and cheese burritos should have, plus a generous ratio of cheese. The fresh beans round out the excellent meal. A ground beef taco has a similar negative label, but instead of making it a throwaway dish, Cuca’s spices the meat, uses fresh lettuce, and again loads it with cheese.
You can get a full meal at Cuca’s for only five dollars, and with that sawbuck comes a rarity—choice, be it tacos, tortas or enchiladas. So who cares if you eat it out of a plain paper wrapper on the sidewalk? You’re in good company. Well, company, anyway.
Cuca’s, 527 W. State St.
Redlands, (909) 335-9557. Lunch/Dinner for two: $12.