What $13.93 buys
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Berta's Latin American Restaurant

3928 Twiggs Street, Old Town

When you think about it, Mexican restaurants are everywhere. But South American restaurants? Not so much.

Tonight, I'm wandering away from the crowds on San Diego Avenue in Old Town, heading down Twiggs in the dark to a, like, really old part of Old Town. To me, this is the part that feels the most Mexican. Talking about the Casa de López, the 1835 hacienda that Rockin' Lobster Baja Bar & Grill has kept alive and kicking at the end of Twiggs Street.

But before I head in under the arch and up the ancient driveway for a wee dram and a snack, here's this little ol' house on the right. Big sign.

Cozy interior

"Berta's Latin American Restaurant."

And on a menu outside, "Salads." Hmm. Salads from South America. Could be interesting.

Besides, all this saladifying is starting to produce results. This morning I weighed in at 203.2. Yee-hi! That's about six pounds down. May as well carry on, now we're gaining the Big Mo.

Plus, the menu includes one salad that really makes me curious: "Quinoa salad from the Andes."

Problem: They have a sign propped on a table by the front door saying "Closed."

And yet I can see a table-full of people inside laughing and eating. So what the heck. I try the front door, and it gives. I follow the tables around to the kitchen. Lots of pot clanging, talking.

"Uh, you guys open, or does that sign mean what it says?" I ask, craning my neck around the corner into the kitchen.

"Oh, we put that up because one of our friers broke down. What do you want to eat?"

"Uh, just a salad. That quinoa salad was the one I was looking at."

Actually it was one of three. The others look different from the usual run too: the jicama (Mexican yam) salad, which comes with jicama cubes, black beans, red bell pepper and onion and parsley, costs $7.95. The mango avocado salad has mango, avo, red onion, and jicama ($8.95). But it's the quinoa salad ($8.95) that I'm interested in. Mainly because I know quinoa ("keen-waa") is real South American, comes from the Andes mountains, and has all these great health properties, like much more protein than grains such as wheat, and the right kind of anti-oxidants so its fats don't make you, like, fat.

"Quinoa we can do," says the lady, coming out of the kitchen. "And it will fill you up. We do it with cucumber, corn, peas, tomatoes, red bell pepper, and parsley. And olive oil and lime juice."

And for five bucks more you can add chicken or shrimp...or maybe not chicken tonight.

"We might be able to do the shrimp," says the lady, who — hey — turns out to be Berta herself. "We make it with our own chipotle sauce."

But no. That's okay. Rather have the true vegan thing at that good price.

Berta, Marta

I sit down at a large table with maroon tablecloth under glass. Tables with saddleback chairs follow the L-shaped dining room. A lady in a traditional long white dress comes and asks if I want something to drink. Hmm. They have interesting cervezas from places Iike Honduras, Brazil. I end up going for the dark Filipino San Miguel Cerveza Negra ($4.95) "made with roasted malt," and boy is it maltily delish. I find I don't miss the bitter hops our San Diego beers usually whack us with.

The quinoa is, well, interesting. Its little wax-eye grains taste like parsley and rice together. 'Course that's partly because they have put plenty of chopped parsley into the mix. It is slightly lemony, but also a bit like oatmeal. The flavors of the tomatoes and peppers, corn, peas and cucumber come out nicely with the lime and olive oil dressing, and the hot flour tortilla with hot sauce certainly perk it up.

But a bit like with my San Miguel-beer-versus-San Diego-craft-beers' naked aggression, you realize that Latin American foods might be more delicately-flavored, more like northern Californian nuts'n twigs chow, compared to say, northern Mexico's jowl-burning tastes.

How do I know this after one quinoa salad? I don't. Just suspect.

"Well, of course the food is different," says Berta. "We have more potatoes, and food like quinoa from the Andes. Food from altitude. Even the Chilean tortilla is very different. It is thick, and back home we would bake it in the embers of a wood fire. You cannot compare the tastes."

"Lots of things are different ," says Marta. "Like our Spanish: I'm Mexican. We say 'de volada,' meaning, 'right away.'"

"And we say 'al tiro,' 'like a shot'. There are lots of differences like that," says Berta.

Berta comes from Valdiva, a town in Chile that was totally destroyed in a 9.5 earthquake and tsunami back in 1961. She remembers the trees waving and the ground opening up when she was a kid. "You don't forget something like that."

Of course I haven't tried any of the main dishes. Will just have to come back some time for them. I'll need some dinero though, because entrées go for about sixteen buckeroos. But Berta says she has pared back costs as far as she can.

"We make everything by hand," she says. "And wholesale food prices keep going up. So do rents, but luckily I have been here since 1991, and I bought the house and land back then. Otherwise I couldn't go on."

Back out on Twiggs, heading for Congress street, and the trolley, I swear I'll be back, and next time, a little less vegan.

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