The tongues. I can see them, maybe ten of them, foot-long lumps under the red-and-white checkered cloth.
Cisco the cook flaps the cloth open, pulls a tongue out, plonks it on the chopping block. Chop chop chop. Then under the cloth the surviving bit goes. Chop chop chop. The rest ends up as little cubes.
Some are gonna make my first-ever cow-tongue quesadilla. I've had tongue tacos, but now we're crossing new frontiers in my campaign: learning to love la lengua.
We're at Playas de Tijuana, half a mile south of the bullring, maybe a block from the sea. Not that I can see the sea. It's 8:00 at night. I just got here by the yellow-and-white communal taxi ($1.00 for the ride over the hills from downtown TJ: what's wrong with that?). I'm looking for "the best tacos in Tijuana." That's what Héctor, a friend of Hank's, called Tacos El Francés ("Frenchman's Tacos"), this way-big open-fronted place with a bent Eiffel Tower as the "A" in "El Francés."
I saw plenty of other taco joints, of course. The small, fluorescent-lit "Tacos El Poblano" across the road from El Francés looked sad and empty. Its three cooks gazed longingly over at the buzz of people hanging around El Francés's creamy, wide building. Heck, I almost went inside El Poblano, just to help them out.
But no. Later, I'll have to face Héctor 'n Hank and make a report. Soon I'm over the road, swinging my buns aboard a stool at the red counter. Chop chop chop. Smells of pork and cilantro. Huge spit of flaked, red-skinned pork rotates in front of roaring gas flames. Ceiling of brick arches ripples back like waves. Walls of red-and-white checkered tile surround the open kitchen (all of us counter-customers sit facing the kitchen). Red-rimmed tables with wooden park-bench seats inside, and white plastic seats outside, make for a lot of seating. And there's plenty of customers chowing down -- yet the place is still only half full.
"Just wait," says this guy sitting on my left. "Mexicans eat later. In an hour it will be packed." Name's Gustavo. He chomps into a quesadilla, a large corn tortilla covered with cheese and...
"Tongue," he says. "They're famous for tongue. About three dollars. Everything here's a little more expensive, but it's worth it."
I look for a menu, but it turns out there are none. "Here," says Marie, a cute waitress in a blue smock. She shows me her "comanda," her order book. It has nine food items listed. Tacos, mostly: asada, adobada (pork), cabeza (cow's head), suadero (a kind of steakette of meat from the breastbone), tripitas (tripe), and lengua (tongue), all 12.50 in plata (pesos), say, $1.15 in oro (dollars) -- except for tongue, which is 13.50 ($1.25). Quesadillas naturales (no meat) are 17 pesos ($1.50). Add meat (like pork, beef, tongue) and they're 32 pesos (say, $3.00). And then there're the mules ("donkeys"), which Gustavo says are quesadillas with another cheese-grilled corn tortilla on top. But hey, they're the same price ($3.00).
So, decision time. Guess it's a macho thing, like I have to match-o Gustavo to show I ain't no lily-livered gringo afraid to eat tongue. "I'll have what he's having," I say.
Cisco hauls out that tongue. Chop chop chop. Sonia the tortilla lady starts squishing out more dough-balls.
"So, is it, like, French-style?" I ask.
"No," says Cisco. "'El Francés' was just a nickname they gave to the owner, Javier. He started this up 25 years ago."
"There are a lot of middle-class people living in Playas," says Gustavo. "They like this place." Gustavo's living proof, sort of. He's a refrigeration and AC technician. Comes down from San Diego to visit Carmen, the gal next to him. She lives right here in Playas. Then this suavely dressed lady comes in and sets up at the counter. Patricia. I ask her if this is her first time. "First time? Do you hear that, Cisco?" She orders a quesadilla natural. "I've been coming in for 20 years."
She's part of what I like here, life going on all around you. Right in front of me, two of the clean-up girls, Araceli and Veronica, stand chatting away, peeling onions to roast on the grill, along with roasted jalapeño chiles. Cisco lays out my quesadilla, then passes a plate of slightly vinegary cucumbers, freshly sliced. "Pepinos," he says.
I chomp into the cow-tongue quesadilla and, yes, with the grilled cheese and salsa, and a side chomp of one of those yummy, dragon's-breath jalapeños, plus pepinos to cool things a bit, it goes down fine. There's that squishy feel to the meat--but hey, that's what Cortés probably said when he chewed his first tomato, too.
"How many tongues do you go through a night?"
Cisco pats the lumps one by one. "Probably ten," he says. "Maybe 100 tacos."
I have the mula ($3.00) next, two cheese-grilled tortillas stuffed with that spit-roasted pork -- the adobada -- along with squishy grilled onions and cilantro and guacamole. Now I can relax, chew, roll my eyes back, and taste a little bit of heaven. A swill of Jarritos ("little clay cups") brand pineapple drink ($1.25) makes it even richer.
Don't want to leave, but gotta get back, report to Carla, Héctor, Hank.
"The best?" Héctor'll say, tomorrow, when I call. And I'll say, "Heck yeah."
"Even the tongue?"
"Even the tongue...finger-lickin' good."
Truth is, it was great, but I've had plenty of other great tacos, right on the street, both sides of the border. Yes, this food's fresh and vivid -- and I know I've just scratched the surface -- but what really makes this place is its atmosphere. It's a scene.
Back across the road, the three lonely cooks of Tacos El Poblano have one solitary eater. I stand outside their place on the dark street, waiting for a communal taxi. Feel bad. Want to ask them, "How's it going?"
But too late now, Judas.
I bite my tongue.