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Jalisco Café

1669 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

It all starts with me playing Mr. Magnanimous.

"Anywhere, anywhere," I say. "Name your favorite eatery." This is on Genesee, driving our beautiful neighbor Linda's car, after we've been to see Carla's doctor. He pummeled that broken leg of hers. She's hurting.

"All-time favorite?" she says.

"All-time."

"Jalisco's," she says without hesitation. "I.B. Take the 163 to 5 to Palm Avenue."

Wow. "So what's with Jalisco's?"

Carla's eyes soften. "I was 17. José. Midshipman. Peruvian. His navy ship was visiting. It was the only place I could think to take him. We ate chiles rellenos. He said it was the truest Mexican food he'd had in San Diego. He said I was the truest experience he'd had...The music, it was old-fashioned but beautiful. Singers like Pedro Infante. José was so...genteel, so sophisticated. Not like the oafs I was hanging out with."

"Like me, you mean," I say.

Carla sighs. "He made you feel he wanted to open the car door for you. He'd rush around to get it before you had time to lift a finger." She sighs again.

Great. Now I'm competing with a door-opening middy.

We finally make it to straggly Palm Avenue, and there, sandwiched between the Ever So Naughty Adult Theater and the Whirly Bird Cocktail Restaurant sits the Jalisco, a small-scale cream stucco place with token tiles set along the front of its flat roof, like some bald geezer's ill-fitting rug.

We park the car, and a minute later we're inside this low-ceilinged, cream-walled, woody room half filled with chit-chattering people, plus Mexican music, overhead fans, a frosted-glass central divider, a J-shaped counter for seating lone wolves, and a wall painting of a Mexican charro on horseback twisting the tail of a bull, to floor him. Plus pâpier-mâché parrots hanging from the ceiling and in the stained-glass windows.

Carla takes a deep breath. "We sat over there. But let's sit on this side instead."

We end up at a long wooden table with big honest varnished wooden chairs with no cushioning on the seats; they're comfortable all the same.

"You're listening to £La Preciosa!" says the radio.

A gal, Bertha, brings over a menu. I'm a little worried. Nothing could possibly be as good as Carla's last time with José, for sure.

But things start well: The chips are piping hot, fresh, and tender. The salsa's hot -- picante -- but not too eyeball-popping. I order what I want most in the world right now, a coffee ($1.75) and, seeing as they serve breakfast all day, think about a desayuno. Maybe the "Jalisco Special Omelette," four eggs with pollo asado or carne asada, jack cheese, beans, and tortillas, or hash browns and toast for $7.49. "This is Muy Grande!" warns the menu. Carla has an iced tea ($1.80).

I'm also tempted by "Our Famous Flying Saucer," except, really, it's just a crisp flour tortilla with beans, shredded beef or chicken, salad stuff, and guacamole ($4.99 a half, $6.99 whole, or with carne asada or pollo asado, $5.99/8.25).

"Let's start with an appetizer," Carla says. "See? Jalapeño poppers are only $1.79 for three, with sour cream."

Ho-kay. Bertha brings them, and man! They are scalding hot.

"So you and, uh, José ate chiles rellenos," I say, looking at the menu. "They still have them. 'With beef or chicken enchilada,' $7.99. Or on their own, only $2.80. Wanna take a chomp down memory lane?"

Carla ignores me. She looks up at Bertha. "Carne asada enchiladas," she says, as decisively as if she'd been Hank. I check the listing. "Two enchiladas stuffed with charbroiled steak, served with refried beans, Spanish rice, and guacamole, $8.99."

Me, I've just spotted one of the Burritos Grandes, the chorizo with egg ($4.79). Not breakfast, but near enough. I order it.

And when they come, man, they're huge. Carla's plate is vast, oval, and loaded with steak-filled enchiladas, a sea of frijoles with melted cheese, Spanish rice, salad, da woiks. My burrito is stuffed with mucho chorizo. For a couple of minutes, we're heads down.

"Oh God," Carla says suddenly. Her ear's cocked to the radio. "That's incredible. Could it be? Ask who that is."

Some velvet-voiced crooner is singing "Te llevaste mi polla, gavilán..." "You took my little chicken, sparrow-hawk..."

"It's Pedro Infante," says this guy Robert, from the counter across the divider. "'Chicken' means his novia. His true love has been stolen."

"Oh God, Pedro Infante. I knew it," says Carla. She starts singing right along. "Gavilán, gavilán, gavilán..."

Robert sits back down at his counter seat. He has just put away a pollo asado ("marinated and charbroiled boneless chicken served with refried beans, Spanish rice, guacamole, and corn or flour tortillas, $8.99"). Says you expect this sort of scene here. "It's a social place for me. I've been coming in for 26 years. But I'm a new boy. has been open for 60 years, since the 1940s. And it's always been popular: Weekend mornings, the line goes around the block."

"Te llevaste mi polla, gavilán," Carla sings. Then she stops. "I can't eat any more. I can't stay. Pedro Infante, my leg, José, it's all too, too...Can we take the rest home? We could reheat it for breakfast tomorrow..."

But before we up-anchor, Carla recovers enough to go along with me in a quick $1.95 buñuelo, a crisp tortilla fritter with cinnamon and syrup. So sticky-beautiful.

Bertha brings a polystyrene box. Lauri brings the check. They understand. They've both been here 17 years. It's that kind of place. Me, I'm not too fussed at leaving before we finish. As good as this tastes now, I know it'll be twice as fab on the reheat tomorrow morning. Thanks, José.

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