San Diego `If there's one street I try to avoid in TJ it's Agua Caliente. Hot Water Boulevard is one noise-howling, traffic-clogged, fume-breathing hell.
But every hell has its havens. And this one is where I'd like to bring my darlin' Carla for her birthday, a night away from all her sweating, hurt-like-hell recovery. She's walking without the walker for short stretches these days, so heck, time for a change of scenery.
I'm standing tonight opposite the Grand Hotel Tijuana, that double tower (who can say twin tower anymore?) across Agua Caliente, guarded by walls so high they give new meaning to the word exclusive.
But what I've come for is this little piece of Olde Worlde Tijuana, right here, on my side of the street. Okay, it's a motel, but built like a colonial Mexican posada -- an inn. I walk under El Conquistador's sweeping canopy and into its courtyard, and suddenly I'm into a world of glowing stained-glass windows, heavy doors, twirling black wrought iron, arched stairways, whitewashed walls, wagonwheels, low-light lamps blushing modestly amongst tropical foliage...heck, you expect Zorro himself to come clattering out from the shadows on his horse.
I'm admiring the scenes in the stained glass set in the walls across the courtyard entrance when it strikes me -- are they all Don Quixote? Who else would be thin, in tin, tan and tall, and riding a horse beside a squat fellow on a donkey? In the first window he kneels before a lady. That would be the Lady Dulcinea. Then it's him on horseback with his lance at the ready, then him and Sancho Panza in a castle, a prison?
Now I'm being attacked by smells wafting in the night air. I'm thinking tortilla soup. Next nostril-twitch has to be garlic and a filet mignon searing away. Aha. I see a kitchen, and to the right of that, the entrance to an eatery honoring El Quijote.
Guess I should test the goods here in advance. For Carla -- it's the least a man can do. So I walk into a room that's half Spanish, half Denny's. Stucco walls and ceiling, blond wood chairs, cream-theme booths. But then you have gold-painted wrought-iron chandeliers, wood-grilled windows, heavy-timber rafters, green glass and black wood kitchen doors, and a fireplace with talavera pots on the hearth. And planted all around the walls are framed paintings of scenes from Don Quixote's life, and -- hey -- at the end of the room, the man himself, in full metal jacket, helmet and lance, a larger-than-life metal sculpture silhouetted against a lighted wall.
I know the food's gonna be over my head. I mean, the tables all have fine linens and fresh flowers in vases. So I ask this elderly waiter if I can see the menu first. Hmm. This could work. I sit down at a booth to better study things. Appetizers, soups, and salads go for around three, four bucks, and antojitos, like the combo of chile relleno, enchilada, chicken taco, quesadilla, rice, and frijoles -- are about $5.00. That's 52 pesos for a lot of food. They also have sandwiches, including a cheese-and-bacon burger for $5.00, and main dishes like chicken breast cordon bleu stuffed with ham and cheese, plus rice and veggies for about $7.00. The carnes look good. New York, T-bone, and filete mignon. They're all $12--$15. For $9.00 you can get carne asada a la Tampiqueña (think that means lots of onions and rajas -- charred strips of green poblano chiles -- on top), with guacamole, enchiladas, and frijoles. Or a chopped-up steak a la Diabla in a chipotle salsa for $8.00. Fish are $7.00, but a delicious-sounding plate of cheese-stuffed shrimp wrapped in bacon is $15.00.
Raul, the gray-haired waiter, hovers. I cave. Order a sopa Azteca, tortilla soup, and, only 'cause I just discovered it and the price is right, three codornices a la parrilla. Quail. They catch 'em in the fields around TJ, poor little devils. ¿A la parrilla? Grilled. Comes with rice and veggies.
Raul brings them on a classy, blue-striped white china plate, and they're pretty good. Not too chewy, tasting a bit like chicken, but stronger -- and bonier. The three lie splayed out, golden, and still, uh, birdlike. Gotta pick 'em up and eat 'em by hand. Their charred-grilled flavor is helped by the strong, brown salsa that Raul brought in a pot.
But the prize of the evening is that sopa Azteca. £Rico! Raul says it's ground tortillas. But he brings a side plate loaded with tortilla strips, grated queso fresco cheese, a pile of chopped dark red chiles, and a diced half-avocado.
"Yes, yes," he says, when I ask if I should dump it all in the soup. I do. It turns to magic. Zesty, a full-flavored, crunchy, cheesy soup. Worth the trip in itself.
By the time I'm through, Raul and the others are laying out the tables for breakfast. Ringo Starr sings "It Don't Come Easy" on the sound system.
But if I can zip Carla through Agua Caliente's craziness by taxi, by night, and into this cocoon of colonial Mexico, the rest should be as easy as, hey, tilting at windmills.