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Tortas Johnny

200 yards south of San Ysidro crossing, Baja

Ahh... Mexico in the morning. There's nothing like it.

Even here at the line. 'Specially now, with beautiful new white sails shading you along the walkway from the border to the taxis. "Taxi? Taxi, amigo! Downtown?" Even now, around 7:30, an army of yellow-shirted cab drivers awaits. Mixteco ladies lay out their silver necklaces on their carts. You can smell corn tortillas heating and meat grilling. Taco Row hawkers call, "Pása-le, pása-le!"

I cross the road to Plaza Viva Tijuana, the tourist trap, this side of the river that has never really happened. "Aquí Empeza La Patria," says the sign. "Here begins the nation." It's Tijuana's official motto.

I head for "Mini Market Everything." This is why I'm here, to get cigarettes for my buddy Francisco. "They might recognize me, dude" is all he'll say about why he can't do it himself.

'Course I'm thinking of Number One, too. Another friend, Héctor, who lives down here, told me about what he's calling "the best torta this side of the border."

"Yeah, but where? Far in?"

"Listen, muchacho," Héctor said -- this was on the phone -- "You couldn't get closer to the line if you tried. Just ask around for Tortas Johnny."

But duty first. I pop into Mini Market Everything, buy Cisco's Delicados Ovalados (about 13, 14 bucks for a carton), and start heading back. Then I notice this bright yellow awning. "Café. Espresso. Cappuccinos, Frappucinos..."

Oh man. Java arrives in TJ! Till now it's been the land of instant Nescafé and boiling water. I make for the awning. Need coffee bad. I'm, like, sleepwalking, arms straight out. Huh. This little place has three tall metal tables under the translucent shade and a nice oasis of green grass. "Empanadas Locas," says the sign above the entrance. Inside's small but fresh. Cream tile floor, buttery-painted walls with glass-brick patches, blond wood tables, red chairs, and on the wall facing the counter, a bunch of crazy red clocks, each telling a different time.

"What's that all about?" I ask Oscar, the guy behind the counter. "Well, this is Empanadas Locas," he says. "So the clocks are crazy, too. They're saying any time is coffee time." He leans across, as if he's gonna let me in on something hush-hush. "Especially good with empanadas, our secret-recipe puff-pastry stuffed breads."

Oh yeah. Empanadas. I remember now. Kind of popular down south. Think Argentina, Brazil. But Oscar says he comes from Mexico City, where they're a tradition. "Not up here so much," he says. "Partly because they're so hard to make. It's all in the pasta hojaldrada. The puff pastry. I learned it from my sin, who learned it from aunts and uncles. You won't find empanadas like these in any panaderias. You'd like one?"

Yeah, but first I've got to have that coffee. That's 85 cents, from pump-your-own pots, U.S.-style. Then I look at Oscar's list. Every empanada on it is $1.00. They have both sweet and savory versions. Oscar says La Chismosa ("The Gossip") is the most popular.

"Why 'The Gossip'?" I ask.

"You really have to be Mexican to understand. It has rajas, strips of Poblano chili pepper, in it. Andrajas also can mean 'gossip.' "

The names of all the empanadas have some nutty joke built in, from La Mentirosa ("The Liar") to La Suertuda ("Lucky One").

La Mentirosa has pineapple and cheese in it. "When someone's saying something that's not true, or completely wrong, you say that's "pura piña, total BS. La Suertuda has our secret caramel in it. Suerte means luck, and so does cajeta ('caramel')."

The only one that's straight is La Clásica, an empanada stuffed with tuna, because that's traditional food eaten during Lent, when people stick to fish.

I'm halfway through my second (free) coffee refill by the time I'm ready to order up a "gossip." Oscar says it's the most popular one. It's savory, but I also want La Popis (meaning "The Snob," because it has strawberries and cheese in it, and "strawberry" is Mexican slang for someone who is stuck up).

Wo-ho. The "gossip" is sure "hot gossip." That rajas pepper in there packs a punch. And "the snob" shows how well strawberry goes with Philadelphia cream cheese. The puff pastry is so light it could blow away. And with the coffee, it's perfecto, and that's no mentirosa.

"Any of these clocks tell the time, the right time?" I ask.

"The center one," says Oscar. "That's Tijuana time."

Oh Lord. Half past eight. I'm late. By the time I get to the line, there's a line. A helluva line. Funnily enough, a big old food truck is parked right where the line ends. I'm standing beside the fold-up counter.

"Tortas Johnny," says this guy's T-shirt.

I don't skip a beat.

"Torta, please. Lomo."

The lomo idea comes from Héctor. "Take the lomo," he told me on the phone. "Meat from the cow's back, shredded. The best."

"And a coffee," I add.

It's 85 cents for the coffee, $2.50 for the torta. As I wait I watch half a dozen Tortas Johnny runners dancing among the slow-moving cars, taking orders, leaping back over the concrete car-lane barriers, tracking the cars' progress as they wait for the orders to cook. Turns out Johnny's been here for 36 years. The older guy serving me is his brother. He and his two sons, Angel and Gustavo, run it now. I was lucky to catch them. They're here from midnight to 9:00 a.m.

Oh man, this torta is loaded: guacamole; punchy salsa; tender meat; wide, oval, crisp bun.

I chomp into it. I know. Greed, already eaten. But better than chomping at the bit -- this is gonna be a long, slow line back to El Norteño

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