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Is it cold? Claro que si.

Is it crowded? Claro que no.

Is the soup sabroso? You betcha.

Specially sitting round one of the patio fireplaces of El Patio de Old Town (2611 San Diego Avenue, 619-260-8389).

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Actually, fire is why I’m back here. Fire just about destroyed this place last spring. Here and Gum Saan...

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...the Chinese curio emporium named after what the Chinese used to call California: “The Land of the Golden Mountain.”

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It took months for them both to get back on their feet, so I’ve been giving them a miss.

But tonight (and ever since July, turns out), they're back.

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El Patio has everything but crowds. The whole of Old Town’s suffering from the cold snap. A few forlorn figures wandering round, huddled, trying to be interested in the history, when you know they’re just dreaming of home, or the warm hotel lounge.

For sure, not shivering outside sipping soup.

Their problem, my luck. Get the best table in the patio, right next to the best fire.

And the best service: Jesús waits patiently while I look for the cheapest, best option on the menu. He says the most popular are the molcajetes, those volcanic rock bowls loaded with choices of meats, cactus, grilled onions and cheese. Not cheap. Carne asada is $17.95. The trio of steak, chicken and shrimp costs $32.95, but that’s for two.

Me, I go for the tortilla soup. Uh, $6.95.

Jesús approves.

“Just right for the night,” he says, “and it’s not only hot. It’s hot, too.”

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Jesús

One slurp and I know what he means. Hot and picante.

“This is Michoacan-style. Peppery,” he says. “The family’s from Michoacan. The tortilla chips are corn, of course, and it’s filled with garbanzo beans, Mexican Monterey cheese, and plenty of avocado.

And the heat?

“The peppers are guajillo. They give the flavor, the red color, and the heat. So they haven’t Americanized this soup by toning it down.”

I mean tourist trap? Of course.

But I like the flavor. Right down to their molcajetes and beautiful wood plank tables.

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Even the fact that they have a troubadour every lunchtime and evening, and mariachis on the weekend. So they play “Cielito Lindo" for the umpteenth time? Good revolutionary song! I’d be happy.

But the thing about this place for me is it feels more Mexican, even than the frontline places in the plaza. Maybe because we’re talking dirt driveway, adobe walls and beautiful timbers in this off-Broadway site.

Okay, maybe it's easier to pretend that this is the real thing when you’re left to your solitary dreams like now. You know that, come summer, these tables are gonna be filled with waxy-legged gents and their wives from Hoboken and their complaining kids whining about no pizza.

That’s the other benefit of living in Diego: you get access to it off-season, when it's more like its real self.

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