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Taquería la Chuleta

Fifth Street and Miguel F. Martinez #1100, Baja

It's 11 o'clock at night when I spot the counter. This is down where Fifth Street meets Miguel F. Martinez Avenue. Here, no lights. Ti Wan (Kumeyaay for "village by the sea," right?) is silent. Dark. Empty.

I was scurrying along, back toward the line, bound for El Norte. But the brightly lit corner-counter stops me, with its rack of street-side stools and smoky outside kitchen. Neon under the roof of the protective open-sided shed shows up puffs of cooking smoke, and maybe two dozen people on stools chowing and chatting. It's almost like a movie set.

It's also a big barn of a place. Cream brick columns hold up a large dining area behind the kitchen. Long, heavy-plank tables fill the area. A blonde-haired lady slaps tortilla dough about, then squeezes it in a hand-press. A couple of other cooks chop chunks of cooked meat into small slices. The customers sit heads-down, sinking teeth into cone-shaped tacos stuffed with meat.

Huh. Cone-shaped tacos. I pick a counter stool and park myself in front of a couple of pineapples. Feels good inside the pool of light, like there's no world out there.

Only problem: the menu listings are on the farthest wall. Have to strain to see what da heck they say.

"Have the adobada," says this guy next to me. He's just pulled up in his yellow cab, next to another yellow cab. Except the driver in that one's just sitting.

Meanwhile, the adobada is slowly turning and spitting in front of a vertical gas-flame grill. The pork is pink, with grizzled edges. It looks too good. Heck, the smoke smells too good. I order an adobada taco (12 pesos, about $1.10) and a sangría (10 pesos -- say a dollar). Claudia, the tortilla lady, slaps out a tortilla and flings it on the griddle. The cook slices off meat, adds avocado and other trimmings, makes the tortilla into a cone, and gives it to Antonio, one of the two servers.

I've got to say it: This cone-taco is great. No, this is bitchin' great...All the pork bits burst out the top, along with avocado, lettuce bits, onion. A bit of green salsa helps with the zip. The Sangría gives you a wine-y little side-slurp, too.

Antonio, who comes from Oaxaca, looks at me like he's asking, "Another?" I go for a carne asada. It's good, but not up to the adobada. About this time I notice these three guys at one of the long tables. They're talking away. Not English, but not Spanish either.

"Italiano," says one of them. They've just come down to TJ for the evening. "That's our taxi outside. The driver brought us here," says Anzo.

They've been eating tortas, burritos, tacos.

"So what do you think of it?" I ask.

"A month of this and we'd all be down for the count," Anzo says. "So much fried. Cheap meat."

"So spicy," says his friend Remo. Remo says he owns the Max New York Steakhouse and Seafood in the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.

"Shit," says the third guy. Gianfranco Langatta. Turns out Gianfranco is a famous abstract artist from New York and Rome.

Remo pays Antonio. Twenty-one bucks for the three. "That's $7.00 each," Remo says. "Wouldn't buy you a glass of water at Max's."

They take off back to their waiting taxi and the return trip to San Diego. For a moment I think of begging a lift. But, loyalty. I like this stuff. And I wouldn't want Antonio to assume I thought like those guys. Also, I can walk. Feel safer in these streets at night than in downtown San Diego. So I decide to order one more thing, to go. Something to share with Carla. Antonio shows me a printed paper menu I hadn't noticed before. Oh man. So the place does have a name. "La Chuleta. " "The Cutlet." And then I see they have daily specials, all for about $3.75. Beef stew, "spine in red sauce," breaded chicken, kidneys rancheros. And they include soup, beans, or rice, chiles, a rice drink or dessert and tortillas in the deal.

Damn. That, I'm definitely coming back for. Meantime, I reckon the torta milanesa should be pretty good. Milanesa's the Mexican wiener schnitzel -- thin slice of beef dipped in egg and breadcrumbs -- and tossed into a telera bun with lettuce and tomato and maybe avocado.

So I order it (35 pesos, about $3.00) and pay up for everything while I'm waiting. Comes to 69 pesos. About $6.00.

Oh Lord. When it does arrive, fresh off the stove, I can't resist a couple of bites. Antonio has fixed some red salsa and a collection of pickled carrots, cucumber, jalapeños, onions, and limes. And picking at them while you munch on the main bun is strictly scrumbo-delish. Sharp, gentle, sharp, rounded. You can taste the egg on the meat. Turns out this dish is Mexico's gift to the rest of the Americas. It's also my gift to Carla -- if I can stop myself before I get to her half.

I'm reluctant to leave. But Antonio's piling chairs, dragging tables. Claudia is putting away her tortilla-squasher. "How many have you made today?" I ask as I get up.

"Maybe 40 kilos."

That's 80 pounds or more. Wow.

"How many tortillas is that?"

She laughs and throws up her hands.

"Can you get me a job in America?" she says.

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