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Tacos Salceados (Tacos la Ermita)

30-A, Avenida Ermita-Norte, Fraccionamiento Santa Cruz La Mesa, Baja

Is there such a thing as a sweet taco? My friend Jason and his friend Mariana claimed they'd found this joint in Tijuana up beyond the racetrack. "Honest," said Jason. "They served shrimp tortillas with pineapple inside and raspberry sauce on top and walnuts on top of that. It was incredible!"

'Course I said, "Sweet tacos? Yeah, right. And you found Bigfoot munching there, too, I suppose?"

Then I headed south, just in case.

At 7:00 p.m., I squeeze out of one of those crowded community taxis and totter off Agua Caliente into a side street. La Ermita-Norte.

Suddenly, you're in a land of quaint houses and narrow cross-streets. And quiet, so quiet -- until a pack of schoolgirls in plaid-skirted uniforms comes up the other way, shouting and laughing. You pass an old wooden bungalow with sewing machines crowding its porch. "Máquinas de Coser," says the sign. "Sewing Machines, Repairs and Sales."

"It's down that way," says the girl on the porch when I ask. And yes, just beyond a little street called Barburias del Mar, a crowded island of light bursts into view.

"Sweet tacos? This is it," says a guy outside. "Its official name is 'Tacos Salceados,' but everybody calls it 'La Ermita.' "

Hmm. "The Hermitage." And it's a classy taco place all right. Looks middle-class. Well-dressed people, families munching, partying.

I count about a dozen tables and maybe 15 counter stools. The place has a sloping lean-to-shaped roof, white walls, and a white-and-blue tiled floor. A blue pillar in the center tells you where the original building ended: this place has expanded. They have Paris street scenes hanging on the walls. Waiters scurry 'round in white shirts and green aprons and black baseball caps, with maybe another dozen kitchen staff behind the counter.

I maneuver onto a counter stool. Tall, 40ish chef looks at me, like, "What's it gonna be?" He points to the listings painted on the wall behind me. Lord. About 30 different taco combos. "They have 30 salsas, too," says this guy on the stool to my right. Esteban.

I consider the list. First up is taco salceado. "It has meat with cheese and salsa suave," the chef says. "It's 15 pesos on a corn tortilla, 24 on a flour. Flour tortilla's bigger." That's about $1.50 or $2.25.

The list goes down. Tacos with jalapeño, carne asada, shrimp, then, hey, interesting combos: shrimp and salmon, shrimp and trout, shrimp and scallops, shrimp, swordfish, New York steak, cow's tongue.

But now the chef's assistant throws a handful of shredded cheese onto the hot plate, then glues a corn tortilla to it and adds shrimp, then slices of avocado. He creams a pinkish dressing over it and hands it to this gal on my left. "This is my quesataco," she says.

"Like a quesadilla?"

"Sort of," she says.

Man, it looks so sloppy and delicious, I have to try one. It costs about two bucks for the corn-tortilla version, three for the flour.

In a couple of minutes, the big guy hands me mine. Corn. The cheese is grilled till it's almost crackly against the tortilla. The pink dressing, salsa de camarón, gives it richness. The avocado gives it squelch. "I make the dressing specially for all fish tacos," he says. Oh man, it works.

I get a Coke in the old-fashioned bottle (about a dollar), just to help it down. Turns out the big guy's the owner, the founder. Javier Campos Guttiérez.

The question is, what next? Esteban is plowing into a quesataco with shrimp and scallops (about $2.50), but Guadalupe, on the stool next to him, has what she calls a taco dulce. Aha! Looks like a kind of crêpe. Inside, it has shrimp with pineapple, and the raspberry sauce Jason was talking about, oozing all over the top. Chopped walnuts scattered everywhere. It goes for about $3.00. "I have come all the way down from L.A. for this," says Guadalupe.

So of course I ask Javier for a taco dulce for me, and man, that combo of savory shrimp and the sweet raspberry cover works wonders. Javier has topped it with mint and garnished it with slices of orange. 'Course purists are probably gagging by now. You've gotta have a sweet tooth to appreciate it. I've got 32 of them.

"And I came down from L.A. for this," says Guadalupe's daughter, Carmen. She's looking down at a baked potato stuffed with shrimp. So, even though I've just had this sweet taco, I have to try the baked potato (about $3.00). I go for adobada (pork) in mine. And this, too, is out-of-the-box beautiful. The thing is drenched in cheese, swimming in mushrooms, pork, crispy bacon, and a white, garlicky dressing. It's so good I forget to add any of those 30 salsas.

Turns out Esteban, who's a true-blue Tijuanense, has known Javier for years. "Javier came up from Guadalajara," he says. "I knew him when he just had a standard little taco place. Then he set up here five years ago and started having these ideas, inventing new tacos. And look how he has expanded. This used to be a little hole in the wall. Now, between nine and midnight it gets so crowded, they have to line up out in the street."

It's dark as I head up Ermita toward the distant roar of Boulevard Díaz Ordaz. But I'm thrilled. What a find! Guess I'll have to, uh, apologize to Jason and Mariana for the "Bigfoot" crack -- and then slam them for not letting me in on this sooner.

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