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El Carrito

2154 Logan Avenue, Logan Heights




Woof! Woof!

Big black dog’s barking at me. He’s standing in a strut pose on the porch of one of those great old Victorians they have here on Logan Avenue, in the barrio.

But I don’t stop. I’m searching for a place my friend Hank and I had a great brunchy-lunch at, way back.

Seen from outside

It was a converted railroad car sitting in the garden of an ancient brown wooden house, near the Don Diego VFW post and across Logan from — what was that old bar Hank sometimes hung out in? Oh, yeah. The Two Rosas.

A hundred yards up Logan, and here they all are: Don Diego, the Rosas, and the trolley car, with a kind of chimney stack at one end that makes it look like a locomotive. El Carrito. Only thing new is it’s now painted white and coppery red instead of blue.

I walk through the swinging metal security door, and there inside is a face I remember. She’s sitting watching a morning chat show in Spanish. Same lady as last time, I swear.

I count nine tables, four-tops on one side, two-tops on the other. Aisle down the middle where everybody used to stand, hanging onto straps. It’s all creamy white walls and hooped ceiling, supported by carved buttresses and arches and decorated with paintings of forest glades and views of Paris. And it’s long. It feels like a trolley car. Honestly, you expect to hear the conductor shout, “All aboard!”

I also recognize the large Jesus portrait hanging next to the kitchen, which is at the far end on the right. And I remember this lady in the green T-shirt and blue apron — it’s Josefina, the cook! Lord, it’s been seven years. Feel like grabbing her in my arms.

“Seven? I’ve been here 17 years,” she says as she shuffles me to a table.

Josefina, in her kitchen

There are four or five other customers. Everyone nods or says hello. In this narrow room, it would be hard not to. Josefina leaves a plastic menu.

Hmm…it’s still morning. A decent breakfast, methinks. Under desayuno, I see that breakfast is everything from two eggs any style with ham or bacon ($4.50) to a ham or cheese omelet with rice and beans ($4.75), to bistek a la plancha con huevos (grilled steak with fried eggs), rice, and frijoles ($6.75).

These are good prices. And now I remember what Hank and I ordered back in ’04. He had the grilled garlic shrimp. Cost $8.80. All the shrimp dishes did. And all the fish dishes (like fried tilapia) cost $6.80. And the dish I had was…yes: the same bistek a la plancha con huevos. The price seven years ago, same as now: $6.75.

For starters, that gives me the gusto for another breakfast steak. Or at least something meaty. I’m tempted by the carne asada a la tampiqueña, $6.50. Josefina says tampiqueña (Tampico-style) means top sirloin with beans, roasted raja peppers mixed with heavy cream or broth, plus some guac and queso fresco. But I decide on the bistek de res empanizado — breaded beef steak a la milanesa, Italian-style — with rice, beans, salad, and a juicy half lime to squirt over everything. Also $6.50.

Mari and Gloria, her mom

The ladies at the next table see me shaking my head as I chow down. “So-oo good,” I say. “Tender and, well, interesting. Might be the salsa.” Because I have splotted quite a bit of this dark-red homemade salsa over the meat and beans.

“They make that out of roasted Anaheim peppers,” says one of the women, Mari. Gloria, her mother, agrees. “We call them California peppers.” She says they’re smoother than pasilla chiles. “A lot of restaurants use pasilla for everything, but this is a wonderful salsa. Josefina makes it.”

“Mom insists on coming here, even though we live in Chula Vista,” Mari says.

She’s finishing a chorizo burrito ($4.25). Gloria’s just put away a breakfast steak a la tampiqueña.

“It’s because they cook casera-style, country homecooking,” Gloria says.

Mari says, “Mom knows good Mexican food. She’s been cooking it all her life. But what we like best here is their menudo. They put cows’ hooves in to simmer and let the marrow and bone flavors infuse the soup. It’s delicious. Saturdays and Sundays. People come early.”

Man, I so like this place.

I ask Josefina, “Why haven’t you raised prices in all this time?”

“People can’t afford it,” she says.

And, yes, she says, this used to be a genuine San Diego electric streetcar. The original owners bought it in 1948, when the rails were being ripped up all over San Diego. They took off the wheels, dragged it into this garden, and turned it into a restaurant.

Good for them. But, jeez, it frosts me how for 60 years streetcars ran all through San Diego. They worked efficiently, without the pollution of cars, from 1889 to 1949. Then the Detroit auto barons pulled a fast one on San Diego, L.A., and elsewhere, and stopped all trolley transport. Why? So they could sell more automobiles.

I stand out on Logan, looking at it. They say MTS is restoring other surviving trolley cars and is going to run them along with the current trolleys. I’ve got a suggestion. Why not make El Carrito the dining car? ■

The Place: El Carrito, 2154 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan, 619-702-4806

Type of Food: Mexican

Prices: Two eggs any style with ham or bacon, $4.50; ham or cheese omelet with rice and beans, $4.75; grilled steak with fried eggs, rice, and refried beans, $6.75; fried tilapia, $6.80; grilled garlic shrimp, $8.80

Hours: 7:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily

Bus: 11

Nearest Bus Stop: Logan Avenue at Sampson Street

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