Willy's gone walkabout. Curses. Me and my folk-singing friend were going to chow down together. But with no phone, it's always a gamble. Now it's getting dark, cold. Hawkers' cries echo up Tijuana's jostling, crowded Avenida Constitución. I duck into a passage so I won't get carried along in the flow.
I find myself standing opposite this attractive gal who works behind a tiny counter. There are three stools. "Rincón Potosino Café" the sign says. Hmm. Wonder what potosino means? "It means we are from San Luis Potosí," says the girl when I ask. "We have just arrived recently. Thirty-six hours in the bus. We have been able to open this place, thanks to God."
It's not long before I'm wrapping my legs around one of the stools. Lucero -- that's her name -- says she and Alina, her prima -- cousin -- really don't know anyone in Tijuana yet. "And I've only met one other potosina, in the optician's shop further up the passage."
This place is literally a hole in the wall. Maybe 12, 15 feet long, five feet wide, a little wider where Alina does the cooking. The only thing smaller is the dulcería -- traditional Mexican candy stall -- at the passage's entrance. Lucero and her cousin have just enough room to wash, cook, and serve customers. The seating -- half a dozen stools divided between two counters, and a single table -- takes up one side of the pasaje. I love it. No "Please Wait To be Seated" signs. Just plonk down in the swirl of humanity.
I scan the wall menu. Tortas, quesadillas, huevos. Hmm. Not really in a quesadilla mood. Then I see the item I didn't even know I wanted. Hamburguesas. Man. There's that perverse pleasure in indulging in burgers away from home. Guess it's like reading the New York Times in Paris. So let's see: hamburger with cheese, 20 pesos -- maybe $1.80-- a chicken hamburger (same price) or hamburguesa especial, which is chicken or beef, and includes fries (28 pesos, say $2.50). A woman I noticed giving away free-offer cards on the street comes and collects three platefuls of food for her helpers. Guy from curio stall #32, Javier, comes and asks for a coffee (7 pesos, maybe 60 cents). "Guess I'll have a beef hamburger," I say. "With everything?" "Everything." "Papas?" "Papas."
Two minutes later I'm getting my mouth around a truly oozy experience. The sesame bun's not big, but it's packed. Asada meat with a deliciously crunchy exterior, wicked bacon (tocino), avocado (aguacate), melted cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato: as I try to hippo-jaw it down, it's falling apart in the best possible way. Lucero brings a bottle of Chef's Review Catsup de Tomate, along with red salsas and green peppers to add kick. "Try them," says Javier. "I eat hot." But I don't put in too much. Don't want to burn out these flavors I love.
The papas are stick-size, French pommes frîtes style.
"I come here all the time," says Javier. "The owners are from San Luis Potosí. They speak more elegantly than us tijuanenses. We speak Spanish like machine guns. They are more musical."
Lucero admits San Luis Potosí is different. "We are very colonial, tranquil, lots of arched arcades, lots of plazas. Tradición and family are everything."
So what brought her up to brash TJ? "My brother Carlos has been here a year and a half. He works in San Diego. He told us about this opportunity. I have a five-year-old son, Casiel, and I thought the schooling would be good. So we came. I have never run a restaurant before. Down in Potosí I was a secretary."
"And I was at culinary school," says Alina. "I have almost completed my diploma. But Lucero suggested coming here to do this, and learning a lot more than theory here."
It turns out she is cooking some interesting stuff. Every day they have a platillo del día -- a kind of prix fixe menu, a full meal with soup, salad, main dish, and agua fresca, sweetened fruit juice mixed with water for -- erk! -- 34 pesos. Three bucks! Alina's already writing down tomorrow's menu: Vegetable soup, cordon bleu chicken with ham, melted yellow cheese, bacon and salsa blanca. That or bistec tropical. "I'll make that with pine nuts, onions, and chile dulce. It's a sweet pepper," says Alina, "pimiento morrón. And always with rice and beans or salad, tortilla, and a fruit drink, of course."
Man alive. This is something else. It's dawning on me. Alina is applying all her sophisticated colegio gastronómico learning to this little place! A hidden jewel. I'm too full to try these dishes now. But I'll be back, for sure.
A final bonus: I wander to the dulcería next door, and Orfelia, who looks like her name sounds, sells me a dulce de calabaza -- basically one of those huge sugary gelatinized chunks of calabasa squash -- for 70 cents. I'm getting it for Carla. I can't resist asking for a bar of jamoncillo, 80 cents. It turns out to be what I hoped: the nearest thing to Russian fudge you could ask for. Golden brown, crumbly, with pecans on top. I take it back all five yards to the Rincón Potosino and chow down on it with my coffee. What a combo! Purr-fect. And hey hey! All for less than four bucks.
Stand aside, Mr. A's.