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'Tamales! Ta-maales!"

The lady's voice rings out across Imperial Avenue and bounces off the frontages of David Love's Boxing Club, the Masjidul Taqwa ("local mosque"), Alteraciones Garcia, Loving Care Preschool, and Central Division police headquarters -- the one with the really cool Chicano art all around its sides.

Aah. Twenty-Fifth and Imp. One of my fave parts of town.

I wander up 25th past the gas station, thinking of grub, pogey, chow. It's late afternoon. Right now I'd kill for a cafecito and something to scarf down with it.

And this is when I come across a 100-year-old clapboard house with a palapa beside it.

Chocolate y Cultura.

Huh. "Cafecito," says another sign.

"Chicano Perk," says a third. I like it.

So up the steps I go, to find a half-dozen tables set out in little patches of -- wow -- tropical garden. Beyond that, there's a flat roof held up by metal tubing, with translucent plastic sides, cement floor, clunky wooden blue- and red-painted chairs, tables, plus living room nooks set up with sofas, low tables, ads for "Peace and Dignity Journeys," and shelves loaded with books like Kafka and The Humanist Tradition in Latin America. Also, skeleton paintings, mirror hearts, Virgin of Guadalupe candles, Frida Kahlo photos, straw-paddle overhead fans, and newspaper racks loaded with La Prensa de San Diego.

Oh, and one other thing: everybody here seems to be speaking Spanglish -- Spanish, English, in and out. Very cool.

So I order a coffee ($1.25) from this guy Ildi. I recognize the red-and-black Zapatista star flag hanging on the wall behind him. (Zapatistas? The Indian-based rebellion down in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas.) "We had their people here lecturing all through January," he says.

The coffee is warm and rich. Organic from Oaxaca, Ildi says. This place has really good vibes. Ildi used to be a teacher at Feaster-Edison charter school in Chula Vista but wanted to bring learning out into The World, rather than just "training more little worker bees to feed the machine."

The mother of his partner René Guzman had a tire shop here. René and Ildi transformed it into this happening place. Ildi says the response has been "awesome." "College professors, students, cement workers, they all come by, 'specially in the mornings." Nights, they have things like "San Diego's only bilingual open mike."

Ildi says the most popular coffee is their "Meximocha" ($2.50 for the small; $3.50, large) with "fresh-ground Mexican chocolate, espresso, and milk." Mmm. Sounds sinful.

Getting dark. The problem for me right now is food. Ildi points across the road. "Delia's," he says. "Real down-home cooking. We go all the time."

"Tamales! Ta-maales!"

Man, it can damage your ears if you're close. The lady stands with her hands on the railings of Delia's veranda, shouting it out to Imperial Avenue.

She's selling them right here, next to the main restaurant door. A buck each. Pork, beef, chicken, pepper strips and cheese, or pineapple. Champurrado, the drink that always seems to be offered with tamales, is $1.50.

"Their champurrado is the best," says a guy waiting for his. Ricardo. He says it's usually made from chocolate and corn-tortilla dough, with cinnamon. "But what's in this is Delia's secret."

That's Delia inside, stirring a huge steaming pot.

I pop in. Lord! She's got a whole rack of fuming chafing dishes loaded with meats, moles, and caldos. Pozole, pigs' feet in ranchero sauce, caldo de res (beef soup), birria (stew) with chivo y res (goat and beef), cactus on shrimp torta, albóndigas, chicken mole, on and on.

I savor the smells. Rich, sometimes sweet, chocolatey. Delia stands there with ladle, hovering.

"How much?" I ask.

"One is $5.50," she says. "The combination is $5.95. That's two items with rice, beans, and tortillas."

Hmm. But first I've gotta check out the wall menu. There's, like, chunky beef soup with rice and tortillas, $5.79; caldo siete mares (seven-sea soup), $7.79; and, uh-oh, "hamburgers." Haven't eaten all day, man. Need something comforting. They're only $3.99. What the heck. I order one, plus chicken mole ($5.50). (I'll take that home to Carla. She loves the stuff.) Plus, I go for a champurrado.

The guy ahead of me is asking for something with beans and tortilla. I notice no cash changes hands. He plunks himself at a table by the counter.

"Sit here," he says when I get mine.

Bright-faced guy. Alfredo. "Delia, she gave them to me," he says. "Free. People are good here. Tortillas, frijoles. That's all I've been living on for years. But know what? It's healthy! This is what Mexico's peasants live on. America is exploding because it eats too much. Too rich!"

Still, I cut off some of my burger for him and add a few of the fries that came with it.

"Now, see these fries?" he says. "They're real. Delia cuts the raw potatoes here. Fast-food places, they get fries from potatoes that have been powdered and pressed back together again in the perfect shape. See? These dangle. They're real."

Meanwhile, think I'm making a discovery here. I can't resist dipping the fries into Carla's chicken mole sauce. Deelish. Chocolatey. And with that cinnamoney champurrado, wicked.

Pretty soon I'm getting dip-mad. Carla's going to get mad, period, but this is beyond my control.

When I get up to leave, finally, the tamale lady has stopped calling. She's packing up her things. "Don't forget," Alfredo says. "Beans, tortillas. All you need."

He's probably right. Still, think I'll mosey back up to Chicano Perk and try that Meximocha, while I'm in a chocolate mood.

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