1870 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Hey, Mr. Sumption! Greetings from October 2009. You stamped this piece of sidewalk with your moniker a century ago, almost. “H.W. Sumption, October 1910.” And this huge tree. A Moreton Bay fig, the plaque says, growing here since 1877. The arbor has been sprouting and dropping figs for 132 years. Like it did just now — bop! — on my head. Of course, back then it was part of the garden of the grand Florence Hotel. Stood right here, older than the Hotel Del, and just as luxurious. But they razed it 60 years ago. Now the fig’s this isolated monster in a tarmacked-over car park.
I’m here because I was on the number 3 bus, heading north. Felt pangs of hunger. I remembered having good food at the very cool Wet Stone wine-bar/café. It’s in an uphill “country” area that used to be called Florence Heights. Jumped off on a whim.
Trouble was, it was 10:30, too early for Wet Stone. So, I rolled downhill to the only other sign of food, this cozy-looking white and red and tiled Mexican place with green plastic chairs and eight or nine black metal tables outside, under a green-and-white canopy.
“Taco Rey,” says the sign on the roof.
I arrive just as one of those maroon-and-white EDCO waste trucks pulls up, and the driver, Valenzuela, jumps down. “Excellent food here,” he says. He’s been working over five hours already. Started at 5:00 this morning. This is his lunch. Boy. If these waste guys think it’s good…they cruise the entire city. You know they have choice. So, I jump in line, where the little pass-through is, and start checking the dozens of dishes listed on either side.
Yes, the menu’s like every roadside Mexican place you’ve ever pulled up to. But this is Banker’s Hill. Lot of money around here. Doctors’ offices and hospital-satellite places, too. People used to putting out beaucoup bucks to graze good. Yet they all seem to be here, along with guys from maintenance staffs and medical offices who’ve come out for coffee and a smoke.
The first thing I see is a hamburger for $2.49 ($2.99 with cheese, $5.89 with fries and a drink). A guy’s chomping away on one at the first table. Mark. He can see I’m on the horns of a dilemma. “Chimichangas,” he says. “Go for it. They’re really good here.” Chimichangas? Oh, yeah. Burrito, but deep-fried. Muy tendador. They come in at $4.99, for beef, chicken, or mixed. With carne asada they’re $5.19. Beef or chicken tacos cost $2.49, or just $2.29 if you go for ground beef, which — confession time — I kinda like. More specialized things such as tongue or adobada (pork) or fish cost $2.79.
But wait. ’Tis still the morning hour. And here, I see, we’re talking breakfast burritos, such as the d’lish-sounding bacon, eggs, potatoes, and cheese ($3.29) or the chorizo with eggs ($3.49) or a bunch of “breakfast plates.” Scrambled eggs with ham (plus bacon, beans, and tortillas, on all the plates), huevos rancheros, cheese omelets (all $4.99).
“Aw, heck,” I say to María, the gal taking the orders. “What’s the most popular?”
“Huevos a la Mexicana,” she says without hesitation. “Or the chorizo.” I see that’s $5.29. There’s a line behind me now. Can’t screw around. María looks, waiting. Behind her, there’s a blur of two white-robed cooks, pans in hand, omelets in air, zipping ’round like whirling dervishes.
“Mexicana,” I say.
I find a table near Mark. A tortoise-shell cat slinks out from a sidewalk garden of roses, sits down in a patch of sunlight, and starts washing herself. This is her territory. That and the non-traffic quiet make it all feel homey, comforting. Until a Continental plane losing height for Lindbergh thunders over, wheels dangling like they’re going to knock off the chimney pots of the houses on Third. Then, silence again.
My breakfast is generous: eggs stuffed with onions, green peppers, tomatoes; two big, well-cooked flaps of bacon and cheese-capped frijoles on the side; and two pots of salsa, which I upend into the mess. Very Mexican. And so is the coffee ($1.25, small), flavored with cinnamon. Yes, it’s a polystyrene-box presentation, but who’s complaining? Half the fun is platicando — chewing the fat — with your neighbors. Mark, turns out, files legal briefs for an attorneys’ service at the courthouse. Spends hours waiting in line down there every day. “You know the best way to finish up here? This.” He shows me a nine-inch sugared churro. Dang. I get one ($1.51), and with the cinnamon sweetness in combo with the cinnamon coffee, he’s right. The perfect crunchy end.
He takes off. Wish I didn’t have to. Breeze makes the jacaranda tree leaves flitter back and forth. I cast my eye north across the parking lot to that big ol’ 1877 fig tree. Hey. Think I’ll go grab one of those baby figs, stick it in the ground somewhere with a plaque. “Moreton Bay Fig, planted by E. Bedford, 2009.” Some kid in 2141 might come upon it and say, “Jeez, this is one o-old tree. Wonder who that Bedford geezer was?”
The Place: Taco Rey Taco Shop, 1870 Fourth Avenue at Fir, downtown, 619-234-6617
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: Breakfast burrito with bacon, egg, potato, cheese, $3.29; chorizo burrito with eggs, $3.49; huevos rancheros, with ham (plus bacon, beans, and tortillas), $4.99; huevos a la Mexicana (same sides), $4.99; hamburger, $2.49 ($2.99 with cheese, $5.89 with fries and a drink); chimichanga with beef, chicken, or mixed, $4.99; beef or chicken tacos, $2.49, with ground beef, $2.29; carne asada quesadilla, $4.49; beef tostada, $2.99; chicken or beef fajitas, $6.99; carnitas (pork) torta, $4.79
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; till 7:00 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday
Buses: 3, 120
Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and Elm (northbound); Fourth and Fir (southbound)