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La Doña / New Mexico Cafe

1784 Newton Avenue, Barrio Logan

"What do you mean, you haven't heard of her?" says Carla. "Everybody's heard of La Doña!"

History, history, history. Carla has it coming out of her pores. Now it's Mexican movie history.

I'm calling her from Barrio Logan. Pay phone. Down here looking for that danged easy chair she wants — okay, needs — now that she's home from the hospital, learning to walk on her fractured leg again. I'm trying to match her desires with my dinero. Have just been to a warehouse here on Main. Furniture Classics. Saw three possibilities. You might say: Three chairs for Carla! So I went in search of the nearest pay phone so I could check it out with her.

I found one outside this eatery — La Doña — across from Perkins Elementary school. But first I had to pop into La Doña and catch its smells. Ended up ordering the Thursday lunch special, the Chili and Barrio Plate ($4.75). The back wall, I noticed, was covered with black-and-white pictures of a sassy, slinky dame from the forties, for sure.

On the phone outside, I couldn't help mentioning her to Carla.

"La Doña? La Doña!" she says. "That's María Félix. The Marilyn Monroe of Mexican movies. Died a couple of years ago. On her 88th birthday. What a woman! Her brother clained she'd been poisoned."

"Jealous lover?"

Who knows? She knew everyone, presidents, kings..."

"Chili and Barrio Plate!" calls the girl from inside.

"Sweetheart," I say to Carla, "I gotta go."

"What'd you call for?"

"Chairs. I'll get back to you in a little bit."

I clunk the phone down and head for the door. The outside of has white walls, with brick highlights and a tile overhang, a couple of sidewalk tables and blue umbrellas. The sign in the window says "La Doña. Comida Corrida Casera. Antes New Mexico" (Fast homestyle food, previously the "New Mexico"). Inside, past an artificial palm tree, another sign says, "Since 1942." Wow. Sixty-three years. Everything looks old, but spit-'n-polish clean. Reddy-brown floor tiles, white walls, windows with fancy curled white-iron grilles. Red-and-green papier-mâché parrots stand on trapezes hung around the ceiling fans. The booths have bright orange- and yellow-backed chairs and wrought-iron pedestal seats with orange pads.

Oh, and on the side wall, dozens of photos of the glory days of the Mexican Revolution. Villa. Zapata. Steam trains. Sombreros. Pistols. Handlebar mustachios.

I sit down. My plate's still steaming, thank goodness. Nice momsy flower china plate with frijoles (natch), rice (natch), and in the middle, a mess of eggs with chorizo mixed in. Then on another plate, onions, cilantro, and lime wedges. Pot o' salsa's here too, and it's a jaw-slammer. Two corn tortillas, of course, good and hot. Oh, and a horchata ($2.50, not cheap), the milky drink made from almonds, rice, cinnamon, sugar, and lime.

For napkins they have a paper towel roll on a stick on a stand on the table. Great. Swipe-'n-wipe.

One of the girls behind the counter says used to be half this size fifty years ago. That would be during the Second World War. I chow into my chorizo. It's straight, traditional, fresh-cooked Mexican food. Bet it hasn't changed since 1942.

I think of all the history that's passed through here. Barrio GIs, coming in, say, in 1942, for a last taste of home before shipping out to the Pacific. Or 30 years later, the Chicano movement's leaders sitting around arguing about Aztlan, and how to stop the police station the city wanted to build, smack-dab in Chicano Park's heartland. Early '70s, man. Read the old papers. That was a battle.

Through the window I see the palms of Chicano Park a couple of blocks away, rustling green over the rooftops. I can't help fearing for this barrio, so close to town. How long before it catches the price bug, the condo bug, the Starbucks bug. How long before it starts losing its barrio feel and pricing its longtime residents out of their own market? Gentrification: It's like moving treacle. Ya can't fight it.

I finish up and head for the furniture place again. On the way, I come across one of the finer old wooden houses on César Chavez. It has a banner across its front wall. "Expressions of Mexico Gallery." Uh-oh. Art gallery. Gentrification, chapter one? But it's really nice inside, and this gal Merle says a Tijuana woman dentist started this venture to handle all the sculptures and folk art that's "surging out of the barrio, Mexico, and Latin America."

There's one more middle-class Anglo incursion: a chic coffee place next door to the gallery. Ryan Brothers. Hey hey! My opportunity to cap the lunch with a good coffee. Turns out there really are Ryan Brothers, three of them: Harry, Tom, and Carmine. Their roasting factory occupies the old Chuey's. These guys are coffee fanatics. They even get coffee beans from the Galapagos islands. History-minded too: Turns out the infamous Jesse James leaned on this same wooden counter they've brought in here. History? The barrio's bulging with it. But like Jesse, I'm gonna have to take a coffee and run. I get a Sumatra roast ($1.95).

Then I borrow the counter phone. "Sweetheart. I'm on my way back to Furniture Classics. You want that double side-by-side chair...?"

"Bedford," she says. Her voice is different. Tired. "Why don't you forget the chair today? Just go back to La Doña's and get us some chorizo, chicharrones, some tacos, then find a video place in the barrio. See if you can track down María Félix, La Doña Barbara, 1943." Suddenly, Carla sounds her old self again. "You're gonna fall in love, man. We could, you know, make a night of it."

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