Tacos el Gordo

1351 Third Avenue, Chula Vista

Just as well Hank's not here. He'd be ropeable. Spitting tacks. Mad as a wet hen. "Just for a taco?" he'd say. Answer is, hell yes.

I'm tramping alone here in the dark, down Beyer Avenue into the lonely Otay River Valley, past trees and wetlands, a mile probably, till -- finally! -- I'm back into the land of streetlights and, yes! A sign reads: "Tacos El Gordo de Tijuana B.C. Now in California."

This is what the guy on the bus, Javier, was talking about. "Best tacos in town," he said. "Worth walking a mile for."

is red and white, fluorescent-bright, with Formica tables and two genuine black bulls' heads glaring out from the wall. The whole back end buzzes with cooks scurrying behind steaming chafing dishes. There's a constant chop chop chop as they hack meat into bite-size bits. A distinguished-looking gent sits at a separate cash-register counter up front.

"Just order what you want, then bring it over to me, señor," he says.

Wall menu's nice and simple. Tacos are $1.65 each. You can get cabeza (beef head), lengua (beef tongue), sesos (beef brains), buche (pig's stomach), adobada (pork), tripa (intestines), suadero (beef shoulder), and Azteca (cactus and grilled beef).

That's it. Of course they have quesadillas, sopes (fried cornmeal cakes), and tostadas (also $1.65, $3.30 with meat), but hey, this is a taco place.

"Are they good?" I ask these three ladies chowing down. Judie, Lluvia, and Myrna. "For sure," says Lluvia. "This place is just like Tijuana. And it's clean. We are regulars. Try the tripe."

I go up to the counter, order one adobada (marinated pork) for comfort food. Then I fearlessly ask for sesos, cabeza, and an Azteca (cactus and grilled beef). I get an horchata rice drink ($1.10).

I pay up to Señor Salvador Gómez, the manager at the cashier's desk, then go douse my tacos with salsa and onions and cilantro and radish slices. The cabeza tastes, well, a little nutty. The sesos have a sweet edge, and the Azteca's prickly flavor is mellowed by the grilled beef.

But boy, you can't beat good ol' pork tacos. The adobada tastes rich, porky, marinated.

"This place has been open 5 years here," says Sr. Gómez, who comes from Mexico City. "But El Gordo has been making tacos for over 30 years in Tijuana."

I must say, the joint has a happy, well-oiled atmosphere, full of families with giggling kids, old guys, workers on their way home. It feels kinda homey.

And I feel kinda full.

Then a funny thing happens. I catch a 929 bus to the Iris Avenue trolley station. My next bus ain't going nowhere for another twenty minutes.

I look toward a dark patch where the 905 freeway crosses the trolley tracks. A cluster of light down there shines, so I wander over to a tent canopy set beside a catering truck. Three white tables set up under the canopy glow in the dimness. A girl tosses two flaps of meat on her charcoal grill, and the fire crackles and sends up great puffs of smoke, searing the beef -- it also heats a traditional olla, a decorated, brown ceramic pot. Beside that, a plate piled high with fried onions and jalapeño peppers stays warm.

Hmm. I go up to Maria, the girl standing at the little cash register on a wobbly table. "You do tacos?" I ask. "For sure," she says. "We are La Taquiza de Tijuana."

I ask for a couple of pork tacos: al pastor and adobada.

"They're the same thing, señor," Maria says.

Huh. Always wondered about that. "Okay, I'll have one adobada and one barbacoa" (birria, or marinated beef). She calls the order up to Joël, the cook in the truck. Inside, a velvet flame, blue and orange, caresses a stack of meat on a vertical spit.

Joël hands down my plate of tacos, and Maria takes me along the rack of salsas on a shelf in the side of the truck. "This salsa de árbol is for your adobada," she explains. "This salsa de chile chipotle is good with beef. The salsa verde is good for lengua [tongue] and cabeza [head] tacos. It doesn't overpower their more subtle flavors."

She leads me to the sizzling charcoal grill. "And these frijoles in the olla, and the onions and jalapeños, take them al gusto."

What a deal. Plus, the tacos are only $1.25 each. I grab a $1.00 Coke to help swill 'em down. "This is the best place this side of the border," says Mario. He's sitting at the table where I plunk my plate. "It's better than El Gordo. The cooking, the atmosphere. This is how we like it."

I gotta say, eating in the cold shadows, with the warmth of the grill and the bobbing lights and the talk among strangers -- this is hard to beat.

And hey, paying $1.25 instead of $1.65? That doesn't hurt either.

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