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'Sweetheart, we just can't afford it."

"If it was for your brother..." "Darling. It's not only feeding your brother's big mush. You're talking the whole family."

"Edward! We can do this. It's important to me, okay?"

God. I hate when they do that. Carla wants to have a "little" dinner party for ten rellies, honoring her illustrious brother, the rich one who's coming in from New Yawk City, where he now lives. He usually spends a whole night trumpeting his successes, then hits me with "And you, Bedford. Found a real job yet?"

Aaargh!

The killer is that Carla wants to do this in Coronado. I mean, come on. Dinner for ten in the Emerald City? Not to worry. She says, "Remember my Coronado friend? Sarah? She told me about a place. Inexpensive. Really."

So, sigh, we catch the 901, get off outside a place called Island Pasta. But Carla leads me next door instead, to "El Vaquero Loco."

" 'The Crazy Cowboy,' " I say. "Didn't this used to be the Coronado Bakery?"

We walk in, and hey, is freshly painted -- or sponged, rather. Walls of orange, blue, yellow, pink. We're talking loud. Plus big ceramic pelicans. Sailfish hanging on the back wall. Bamboo-lined counter, and a red-, yellow-, green-, and purple-striped upholstered bench along the left wall. An assortment of chunky wooden, plastic, and pigskin chairs surrounds seven tables, and surfboards and straw sombreros hang from the 14-foot ceiling, acting as light shades.

"How much are the tacos here?" Carla asks this gal Maria, who's at the counter, then flashes me a look, as though she already knows the answer.

"Right now, they're 99 cents for the street tacos," Maria says. "And $1.25 for fish tacos."

"Oh, really?" says Carla. "Here in Coronado?" She hooks a thumb in my direction. "Could you repeat that for my friend here?"

Maria does just that. Triumph doesn't begin to describe what I see in Carla's eye. "Ha!" she says. "And your previous cheapest was -- what? A dollar twenty-five down San Ysidro way?"

"What do you mean by 'right now'?" I ask Maria.

"During happy hour. Three to five. Monday to Friday."

"So, normally..."

"They're $1.75. Four for $6.00. That's for the mini corn tortillas, with carne asada, carnitas, chicken, or beef, and guacamole, cilantro, and onions."

"Okay, and how about for standard-sized tacos?"

"Three dollars. Five-fifty for two."

Carla's unfazed. "Ninety-nine cents!" she says. "On the million-dollar isle!"

"Yeah, except we can't hold your brother's party during happy hour. They won't get here till seven."

Carla sighs. "Maybe we should just sit down and try the damned things."

Fine by me. We each grab a little pink menu. It's stacked with the standard Mexican stuff, but I must admit the prices are pretty good. Carne asada nachos are $6.00; chicken enchiladas, $4.00; machaca burritos are $5.25; and your typical combo plates go for $6.25 or $7.25. Like, chile relleno and enchilada with cheese, chicken, or beef, with rice, beans, and tortillas, $7.25. Shrimp Ranchero is the only dish over $8.50.

"Hey hey," Carla coos. "See? Just like TJ street dogs." She's pointing to "TJ Danger Dogs: jumbo hot dog wrapped in bacon." One's $2.50, two are $4.00. We end up splitting a single. We also get four of the mini-tacos, two carne asada, two carnitas -- pork -- and one fish taco.

Everything comes on paper and polystyrene, but it's all good. Twin corn tortillas with the usual fixin's. Me, I always like the pork best, but Carla says the carne asada beats all. The fish taco -- it's pollock, but as tasty as Rubio's. Glad to see they have the traditional Mexican drinks too. Carla orders the tamarindo, and I go for the horchata, a milky rice-and-cinnamon drink ($1.70 each).

We're chomping away when this guy comes in. I recognize him -- Leroy, the manager from the Village Pizzeria farther down Orange Avenue. Turns out he's also the manager here. His cousin and business partner David leapt at the location when the bakery closed. "He had always wanted to open a place which gave you the real street food from Tijuana," says Leroy. "The same. No frills. As cheap as possible. So we've been playing this by ear. We decorated on the cheap. Went down to TJ, bought $100 worth of sombreros, pelicans, serapes -- that's them covering the bench seat now -- then gave a lick of paint, and presto! We got ourselves a restaurant."

And the party? It turns out to be the best idea we -- okay, Carla -- ever had. The whole familia turns up Saturday night, when it's looking really exotic in the dark. We tell everybody -- cousins, in-laws, and yes, Brother Al -- to have at it, order what they want. Somebody has brought cerveza. Leroy says that's cool. Soon the tacos, nachos, and Danger Dogs are flying from grill to gut.

"This is the real thing," says Brother Al, his greatest compliment of the night. "Not like those theme restaurants that play at being Mexican. All we need is some mariachis."

The best news? The whole thing costs $57.00 plus tax, plus I leave a $10.00 tip. Hey, for me, that's big.

'Course there's no escape from the Dreaded Moment. We're milling about outside afterwards when Brother Al hauls me aside. "How are things, really, Edward?" he says. "I'm concerned. Got a real job yet?"

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