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Then, too, the company supplies raw ingredients, not corporate MREs. Each shop marinates the meats and chickens on premises, makes the salsas, mashes the guacamole, and braises the stewing meats (carnitas and barbacoa) until they're falling apart.

Every branch of the chain has its own unique decor and art, and the sound systems play world beat music. The Hillcrest location includes a pleasant outdoor patio as well as indoor seating. For drinks, there's a wine margarita, foreign and domestic beers, and an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages, all at rock-bottom prices. Do you wonder why I'm in love?

SLUGGER'S SPORTS GRILL Slugger's is a brightly lighted sports pub next to the trolley tracks, with big TVs playing loudly on more than one wall, a jukebox on another, and a lunch crowd of the hard-hats who are currently reconstructing the East Village mingling with hard-bitten residents not yet displaced by redevelopment. Facing the door is an order counter and a long open kitchen. After a recent change of ownership, the shop doesn't yet have printed menus; you order from a four-panel overhead board behind the counter and tacked-up paper signs advertising specials. Then you sit down to watch ESPN, cracking up over phoofs, along with the hard-hats, until the cook calls you to pick up your food. The new owners are East Indian, but the cook is still a big, tough black guy who looks like a linebacker and whips up a mean barbecue sauce. He's Slugger's secret weapon, and I understand (and hope) he will remain.

The number-one item here is the "Chicago dog." The hot dog in a bun first gained fame in America at the Chicago World's Fair/Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was specifically the same elaborate sandwich that Slugger's sells -- a coarse-ground, hickory-smoked all-beef frankfurter in a steamed bun with yellow mustard, sweet relish dyed the brilliant green of fake emeralds, chopped onions, tomato wedges, a mild pickle spear or slice, semi-hot marinated "sport peppers," and a dash of celery salt. The two young immigrants from Austria who created the sandwich went on to found the Vienna Beef Company. Slugger's rendition includes all the favorite Chicago brands: Vienna Beef franks, barrel-cured pickles from a related Chicago company, and Gonilla poppy-seed frankfurter buns.

But I'm not from Chicago and not that crazy for dogs, so my favorite item on the menu is the barbecue plate. This isn't genuine smoked barbecue, merely grilled, but the sauce is dark and Southern-tasting, with a wicked little sting that lasts and lasts on the palate. Sometimes the kitchen has BBQ ribs on hand, but not when I've been there. The alternative is a grilled chicken breast -- not my favorite meat, but at least they don't overcook it. The plate includes a deliciously creamy Southern-style potato salad (with egg yolks mashed into the mayo, and a touch of pickle relish), rich, molassesy baked beans, and a "dinner roll" that's actually a toasted burger bun, to sop every drop of the sauce.

Among the sides are "slips" ($1.45), large, skin-on, made-to-order potato chips that are purposely not quite crisp. They're very salty and greasy, but the grease is "healthy" canola oil, if that makes a difference. Another possibility is skin-on French fries, which I haven't tried.

Other choices include a chili dog, a Comiskey Park Pole (a Vienna Beef Polish sausage), sub sandwiches of Italian sausage or beef, or a combo. At the bottom of a list of burgers you'll find a Grand Slam steak sandwich ($6), a slightly low-rent version of a Philly steak, with sautéed peppers and onions and melted cheddar or Swiss on a hot dog bun. It's not the best local version, but it's not bad. Some day I hope to try the Babe Ruth lobster roll ($9) or the Ted Williams fried clam strips roll. But I doubt that I'll ever get around to sampling the "pizza puffs," whatever they may be -- I've got a great pizza place just a few blocks from home.

PIZZERIA LUIGI It's a little red storefront in the heart of Golden Hill. The guys who painted it red planned to open an art gallery, but just before the grand opening, all the art was stolen. (I didn't realize that the local thieves were such aesthetes.) So the building instead became home to a place that the neighborhood desperately needed, a pizzeria -- and not just any pizzeria. Luigi's big draw is real New York-style pizza, with a thin crust that's crisp but not hard: You can fold it nearly in half to eat on the fly, like you're on a Seinfeld rerun. One of the owners is an Italian-American from Brooklyn, who used to work at Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest. (I like Luigi's better.) The other is from New Jersey -- or Joisey, if you prefer. Mozzarella is mother's milk to them both.

Once again, you line up at the counter to place your order. There are only a few cramped tables if you want to eat inside, but in fair weather, the umbrella-shaded patio to the side is a neighborhood gathering spot for the nicest folks in Golden Hill. (The maybe not-so-nice ones hang out at the iron-barred 'Berto's or at the 7-Eleven, which is well-stocked with beer and porn mags but chancy on milk and bread.) Since Luigi's beverage selection is confined to soft drinks, there's a lot of rapid jaywalking across 25th Street to the Jaroco liquor store for beer or chilled Japanese fizzy water (unfiltered sake, popular in the neighborhood). Evenings, Turf Supper Club patrons who don't want cook-it-yourself steak often stop by Luigi's for a pre-pub fill-up.

If you want to buy just a slice or two, you'll have to take whatever's on hand. Most often, one of the slicer pies has sausage and pepperoni and the other has spinach and ricotta. Some days, the sausage is excellent, other days it tastes a little stale and greasy -- obviously a matter of age. The spinach-ricotta pizza is always terrific because the greens are consistently fresh and tender and the cheeses are fine -- naturally sweet ricotta and good, gooey mozzarella.

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