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The three candles burn bright in their candelabra.

It sits on the console in the middle of this ol’ horseshoe bar. It’s the kind butlers hold to light the way through the hacienda in movies like, say, Zorro. Wax from many an evening piles up like stalactites (or is it stalagmites?) below each candle.

Ah. All is well with da woild.

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I’m sitting up at the “U” part of the horseshoe bar. Over by the window, Juan Moro is playing incredible flamenco riffs on his guitar.

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Juan Morro

Couples canoodle at tables. Two are sharing a pan of paella. Black mussel shells and red shrimp tails stick up out of the yellow rice.

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Here at the bar, Van is pouring me a zin, and the other bar guy, Aaron, is setting up glasses for Rachel and Matt.

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Aaron and Van

She’s a law student who lives in a city commune. She helps defend Occupy people who’ve been arrested. He’s into, uh, compassionate realty.

Lawdy. Who knew you could put those two words together and not explode?

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Rachel and Matt

Whatever, they’re both interesting as bejeebers to talk to. And they’re the kind of edgy people you’d expect in here, La Gran Tapa (at 611 B Street downtown, 619-234-8272, kinda on the wrong side of the tracks for the bland-leading-the-bland Gaslamp-conventioneer crowd. For me, that’s its saving grace.)

Natch, I’m here for happy hour. It’s 5:00 to 6:30 every evening.

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Sign painted onto outside wall tells the HH story

That means $3 tapas like tortilla española (a kind of quiche), cheese plate, bread and dipping sauces, mixed olives, that kind of thing. They have $4 tapas going too. The real sophisticated regular price ones cost $4-$12. The most expensive I see is the 8-ounce steak tapa grande ($16).

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Matt and Rachel's Caprese

Me I get a $4 prosciutto and olive plate with French bread, plus a glass of zin ($4). Perfect for conversazione. You’re not stuffing your face, worrying about it cooling down.

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My prosciutto, olives, bread, wine: filling

Plus I’m glad I got the zin. Been losing the beer fever recently. Even though I still love what’s happenin’ in ol’ San Diego on that front.

But absinthe? Boy. Always wanted to try that. Except, doesn’t the wormwood make you crazy? (Although, crazy like Van Gogh wouldn’t be all bad.)

Aaron has brought up a – what is it? Belle Époque? – style glass water pitcher thingy...

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Rachel opens the tap and pours a little water into her glass of clear greeny liquid. Poof! It turns into an opaque biscuit color. Magic!

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“What does it taste of?” I ask.

“Licorice,” says Matt. “You have to like licorice to like this.”

“But what about going crazy, like Van Gogh?”

“Doesn’t have the amount of wormwood, like in Van Gogh’s time,” says Rachel. “There are legal limits now. I think we’re safe.”

I pay up. That’s $4 for the olives and prosciutto, $4 for the zin, $1.40 for the service charge – yes, they include that in your bill. But the good news is they won’t even accept tips, ’cause we have already paid that. Then 73 cents tax.

Total, $10.13.

I think I like this tip policy. Because you don’t have to worry about nuttin’ at the end. Just take your change and run. And they say it nice and clearly on the menu. Don’t hide it in tiny print. If the service sucks, complain, and you’ll get at least your tip money back.

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