South Bay Drive In

2170 Coronado Avenue, Nestor




'Course, you know I love this. Swap meet. Real people, real stuff. No fancy buildings, displays, or printed ads, just piles of clothes and garage-sale antiques and pots and pans. Sort of like the markets of old. Medieval, that's the word. Robin Hood probably wandered through stalls like these, looking for a stool for Maid Marian and keeping a wary eye out for the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I'm here looking for, uh, not so much a stool as that easy chair I promised Carla about a year ago. I saw this place at the South Bay Drive-In while on the 933. Pulled the cord. Jumped off. Paid a clam to get in. But I'm feeling...lousy, if you must know. Last night I downed one bottle of Miller High Life -- okay, the large -- and this morning I feel as if I tied one on at the Super Bowl. Never used to happen. Now I've got to line ye olde gut, and soon.

"Yes, there's a place you can get something to eat," says a guy at a used-computer stall. "It's the drive-in snack bar. Blue and white. Look for the portholes and the dolphins."

I wander along with moms, kids, strollers. Vendors calling out to passers-by lines, nearly all in Spanish, like "£más barato!" Finally I come to a big awning with tables set out underneath. I get a whiff of smoke. Oh yes. BBQ. Carne asada? A girl stands at this big flaming grill, cooking up a couple dozen carne asada slabs. She flips 'em all over, then puts on 30 or 40 pink hamburger patties. Man. That's a lot of eatin'. The folks at the tables are chowing out of brown cardboard boxes.

"How do I get one of these burgers?" I ask the gal through the smoke.

She points her spatula towards a building I hadn't noticed. Blue and white, just as the computer guy said. It's curved and has big portholes climbing up the side. It looks like a stranded ship. But there's no sign, only two small comfort-station notices. "Men" and "Women."

I spy the dolphins now, two of them, a sculpture in the middle of gardens that arc out in a semi-circle from the building. I follow some people through unmarked side doors into -- wow. A great big white-walled cafeteria, with customers lined up at a U-shaped center island. Behind the counter, women scribble down the orders.

Menu boards hang on either side. Okay, this is standard fairground-type stuff, but the prices are right. Hamburgers, $1.75; double, $2.50. Nachos, $2.00; corn dogs, two for $1.50; burritos, the same. Hot dogs, $1.50; chili cheese dog, $2.00; bowl of chili, $1.50; carne asada, $3.50; carne asada burrito, $2.50. That's pretty much it.

Except, oh yes. They have one other item: menudo. Great! It's that soupy tripe mix that all Mexican men believe will cure their hangover. White or red. Doesn't say which is served here. It's only $1.50 for small, $3.00 for the large.

When I get to the front of the line, I ask for the small menudo and a burger. That's it. Heck, $3.25. The girl writes out a number, 89, hands me the slip, and points me 'round to the side.

The food comes in a flap-up box. I add mayo, chopped onions, and relish to the burger, then stride outside and plunk down at a table where a smart-looking pair -- a middle-aged man and an older woman -- sit eating and nattering. Chris, and his spunky mom Colleen. She's finishing off a plate of nachos, he's chewing a carne asada burrito. Me, I dive into my menudo. It's red. Little polystyrene pot. Lots of onions, cilantro. I squeeze the slice of lemon they included.

"Want more?" says Colleen. She slides down a lemon wedge.

"Sure. Thanks," I say. And you know what? It's a marvelous menudo. Not too tripey. You don't get that shiver down your gut as you swallow. The soup is rich. The onions are fresh, the cilantro too. Plus I've got two nice steaming-hot corn tortillas wrapped in foil. Good deal.

It's definitely helping my poor head. (Later, inside, I spot the manager, directing operations from his stool. Julian Villalvazo. "Why's the menudo so good?" I ask. "Well, actually, it's canned, Juanita's brand," he says. "But we add fresh onions, cilantro, oregano, red crushed peppers, and lemon. That makes a big difference." So does barbecuing the burger outside. It's served with cheese, lettuce, tomato, all the usual fixin's -- but it's the patty's crispy burnt crust and smoky taste that make it, well, a crunching good burger.)

Turns out visiting swap meets is Chris and Colleen's way of getting together and having fun. "Mom took me to my first swap meet in L.A. when I was a kid. We've been going ever since," he says. "It's a treasure hunt every time."

And often, a heckuva bargain. Colleen says you can pick up silk ties for a dollar here, dress shirts for three, good brand-name jackets for five. "This buckskin jacket I've got on," she says. "I got that for five, I think it was."

Chris says a lot of the clothing-stall owners buy their stuff from dry cleaners. Left-behind items. "They get it by the pound," he says.

"The secret to doing well here," says Colleen, "is don't come looking for something. You probably won't find it. Just be ready for opportunities."

"But if you're young, or poor, you can furnish your whole house," says Chris.

Uh-oh. Furniture. Ay! Still got to locate Carla's chair. I may not be 21, but poor? I qualify.

I get up. Failure on this mission is not an option.

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