A rooster crows. A palm tree creaks. The blue Pacific crinkles. A smudge of black smoke creeps over the hill. Coco milk slicks sweetly down my gullet. Heaven.
This is at kilometer 44 (that means 44 klicks south of TJ), just up the road from Puerto Nuevo. I'm down looking for a surprise for Carla. Crazy idea of buying a chimenea, one of those clay oven-fireplaces you can use outside to warm a summer evening, and maybe barbecue a steak or two on. Down in Baja, where they make them, I figure I can save a few bucks.
So here I am, a trolley, two community taxi rides, and a deal of walking away, on this still-scrappy coastline south of Rosarito, looking around the pottery and fountain-making places set up along the side of the free road. This guy Fernando Silva has some chimeneas for 15, 18 dollars, going all the way up to the big ones with grilling shelves for $125.
It's while I'm umming and aahing about what I can afford and what I can lug back in a community taxi that I spot some red-and-white tables under a fawn-colored awning across the road. There's an outside counter too, with a pile of green coconuts.
I meander over to this coconut stand. "Mariscos," says the sign. "Tortillas a mano. Carne asada. Rica birria." I step in under the awning. The ladies behind the counter -- Maria and Esther, and Esther's daughter Cynthia -- prepare tortillas and meat and shellfish. Maria is cooking carne asada on the little stovetop. Behind her, a big model sailing ship hangs from the roof. "Mariscos Fello," says the name written down the bowsprit.
"Buenas tardes," says Esther.
"Buenas tardes," I say back. After all these years, I still wonder why in Spanish you're talking about many good afternoons, not just one.
" 'Fello?' " I ask.
" 'Fello' is the nickname for 'Alfredo, ' " Esther says. "He owns it. You want a coco?"
"Lot of milk or less?"
She goes out to where the coconuts are piled up on the multicolored tile counter amongst the palm trees, grabs a big green coconut and a machete, and hauls it over to a fence post with a square block nailed to its top.
Chonk, chunk chunk. Esther is surprisingly strong. She hacks away with the machete and levers off the hairy skin at both ends. But she never breaks through to the hollow liquid center. Now she becomes a surgeon, the cuts more delicate. Finally, she exposes a little swelling at the top. She chunks her machete into the wooden block, brings the coconut back to the counter, and with a paring knife, opens up a square hole into the hollow middle. She plops a straw through and slides it over to me.
"That's $3.00," she says. "These come from the south." I wonder if she feels this is expensive.
For me, no problem. I sit down and start sucking up the sweetest, most thirst-quenching drink in the world -- or so they say. I believe it. I've been on the run for four, five hours, and this is milky, yet as thirst-quenching as a Sprite. I can feel it lining my dusty gut. Plus, this drink goes on and on.
'Course about halfway down I start getting hungry. The signs painted all over the counter's siding advertise "Tostadas, ceviche, fish taco, birria." And more specialized combos like "Campechana," a cocktail of shellfish, shrimp, clams, oysters, octopus, and squid. About six bucks. Oysters cost about 90 cents each (10 pesos). The big pata de mula shellfish are about 45 cents each. Birria de res, a beef stew, is 35 pesos, say three bucks. Carne asada tacos are 10 pesos (just under a dollar), so are fish tacos. A tostada de ceviche is 15 pesos, say $1.25.
That's what I go for in the end, a tostada, plus a fish taco. I want to see how it compares with Rubio's. Maria dunks a couple of pieces of fish in a wok-shaped pan and gathers cilantro, tomato, onion, shredded cabbage, a sour cream-looking mix, then folds the fish in. Esther has piled camarones and carne de pescado (fish flesh) on a tostada with onion, cilantro, tomato, and white onion. She tops the whole mound with slices of avocado.
And all for $2.25. I take the food out to the counter where the coconuts are. They have a collection of, I swear, maybe 20 hot sauces. I go for Salsa Amor.
I kind of make a pig of myself, all over the Tecate table, crunching up the tostada shrimps and fish, gunging into the fish taco -- it tastes how I remember Rubio's -- and slurping on this bottomless coconut. That flavor works extra well with the tostada.
But of course, the best thing is the atmosphere. We're not in Puerto Nuevo. This is just seaside roadside fare. Maria's from Michoacán. Yes, this is pretty much what you'd get down there too, she says. And it's great to sit here in the breezy shade, pick away at the food with greasy fingers, and join in the swirl of conversation.
Uh-oh. That bit of smoke behind the hill's getting bigger, blacker. Now we hear a siren. Big red fire engine, Bomberos Rosarito, hurtles by. On the back step of the engine, two firemen hang on for dear life. It swings onto the dusty hill road, heading toward the smoke.
Reminds me. It's getting late. Got to close that chimenea deal. First though, I take my coconut back to Esther. With a mighty swing of the machete, she cleaves it in two. Then with a kind of ice cream scoop, she levers out all that nice white flesh and tosses it in a plastic bag.
Just for luck I shake some Salsa Amor on. Doesn't really work, but there's plenty more pure white flesh left, almost another meal in itself. Great. It'll keep me going as I nurse my chimenea back to el norte.