The Landings at Carlsbad

2198 Palomar Airport Road #100, Carlsbad

The green liquid bubbles down my throat like a cold witch's brew.

"Well, I'm a cactus," says Hank.

"You know, dude?" I mumble. "This ain't half bad."

My breakfast is a humungous-sized cocktail glass filled with thickish nectar. Cactus. Nopal. Plus spinach and OJ, to help gentle down that "nyuck!" flavor of the cactus.

Did I mention? We're in Rio.

Zona Rio, that is. Tijuana. Heh heh. But I tell you what: It could just about be the real Rio. Spiffy tree-lined boulevards, smoked-glass office buildings rising out of the pavement, looking like architectural drawings of themselves. Government departments, Office Depots, Nextels -- the whole capitalista enchilada. In fact, we're here in the building with the giant "Nextel" sign on it, a new cream-and-terracotta place, mostly doctors' offices. Across the road is the Secretaria de Economía and PROFEPA (Procuradoría Federal de Protección Al Ambiente), the Mexican EPA. We're talking sophisticated foot traffic.

Hank brought me down after a buddy of his told him about Al Natural. "It's a health food restaurant in a pharmacy," he told me. Who could resist?

We caught a $6.00 yellow cab from the border and jumped out just before the Baja Inn hotel. Al Natural's on the corner, all white tile and mustard-yellow walls, with models of fruit in blue box-frames as art. There's an open kitchen on one side, a pharmacist's counter on the other.

Fernando Calzada's the guy who started this up. He's the pharmacist brother of a homeopathic doctor upstairs. That explains why half the people eating here are Americans, popped over the line for a little alternative medicine.

Fernando runs the pharmacy while Tania, his wife, is in charge of the eatery. She suggests we start off with a fruit-smoothie thing. She has a dozen on the menu, all around $2.15 (depending on the exchange rate). Like the Conga, with papaya, pineapple, melon, apple, guava, and water melon, or the "Tijuana" -- papaya, strawberries, bananas, and orange juice.

There's only one rule. Fernando rubs his belly in warning. "Never combine peach with papaya. It causes trouble." On the other hand, he says, if you want to get your waters flowing, "Take the diurético, pineapple and orange juice. Soon you'll be running, guaranteed."

I chose the verde smoothie, the one with spinach, OJ, and cactus, mainly 'cause my friend Willy, the folk singer who lives down here, swears by cactus juice. Takes a shot every morning. Says it keeps his diabetes at bay. Makes him feel good. "Taxi driver told me about it. I haven't missed a day since," he said.

But Hank's getting twitchy. "Breakfast, pal. Let's get some real breakfast."

By now, I'm full of cactus juice, but I go back to the counter anyway. "It's all natural," explains Tania. "Everything we buy is organically grown and raised. No chemicals." She hands over the English menu. Hmm. Guess that applies to the chickens in the "three-chicken enchiladas" (they come with frijoles, avocado strips, corn tortillas, $3.50). And the eggs. Omelets (like the one with mushrooms, spinach, turkey, ham, and same sides, $3.00). I like the sound of chikichiki eggs (any style) with onion, tomato, spinach, lettuce, and cheese ($3.00). Or, you can abandon breakfast and do lunch. A sandwichazo (chicken, turkey, ham, mozzarella) costs $3.50. A green salad with chicken is $3.50. The Al Natural sandwich is spinach, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, onion, alfalfa, and cheese ($2.75).

"We bake our own bread too," says Fernando. "It's 12-grain. Organic. Twenty calories. Eating here I've lost weight myself. You should have seen me before."

He holds his hands out to surround his ex-stomach.

Hank does the omelet, and I go chikichiki, scrambled. It's nice. Taste is fine. Not something you'd wake up nights craving, like an adobada taco, but hey, it's healthy. Eat good, feel good, do good to that big bad bod of yours. Plus you get frijoles and hot corn tortillas in round plastic tortilla boxes.

Half the interest here is the other people. They've mostly come for a purpose. Helyn, at the window table with her husband Russell, has traveled all the way from Ogden, Utah. "I've just had my last mercury filling out. Dr. López, upstairs," she says. "I feel so-o good about it."

She's been eating a veggie omelet ($3.00). "If I had my druthers, I'd go for the fruit salad," she says. "It has lots of fruit with cottage cheese, honey, and granola. Three dollars. But not today."

Turns out Russell is a naturopath too. Says he sends patients down here from Utah to see Fernando's brother.

Why come all this way? "Because Mexican medical doctors are better trained," he says. "In the US, doctors are God. Patients just obey. Mexican doctors have a heart. They see themselves as servants of the people."

Wow. Food for thought. For some reason, it makes me hungry again. So Hank and I go halves on a "sandwichazo" ($3.50). To go. We munch through the chicken, turkey, ham, and mozzarella all the way to the border. "God, that bread's good," Hank says. "I think I'm becoming a convert. How 'bout you?"

"Me, I'm becoming a cactus," I say.

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