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Why do I love San Diego? Half of the reason is being able to get away from it to Tijuana. Two worlds for the price of one! Right now, I'm waving hi to Gino, the waiter at Tradición, the café that sticks out into Plaza Santa Cecilia from the orange-colored Hotel Las Americas.

I'm having all these good thoughts while waiting on my border-shy buddy Cisco. He's graciously agreed to come down this time and pick up his own danged cigarettes. We're supposed to meet right here at Tradición.

Yes, it's a tourist trap, but the fact is that most days so few turistas come to hang out that the café, the plaza, the whole Avenida Andador Santiago Arguello, with its candy-colored buildings and ban on traffic, feels like a genuine piece of ye olde México.

"You know we have a special deal going now," says Gino. "Buy two 99-cent beers and get a free shot of tequila." I've known Gino since he worked at the now-closed Los Norteños. But I settle for a coffee ($1.00). Cisco should be picking up his cigs about now, from the Mercado La Voz del Pueblo. The Voice of the People Market. It'll cost him about ten bucks for a carton. U.S. Customs allows you to bring back one a month, duty-free.

It's around five in the afternoon. The sun's slanting in, lighting up the statue of Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. She stands with her harp under the "old" city wall they put up a few years ago. This is where Tijuana really did get its start, about where the Hotel Nelson meets Revolución. So they say.

I settle back with my coffee and chips and salsa, wait and watch the world go by. The knife-sharpener man, the photographer with the old Agfa bellows camera, the hostess-ladies coming out of the Long Bar, blinking in the sunlight, the little Mixtec woman at the yellow-and-red kiosk, hauling down her serapes and ukuleles for the night. The huge arch that hoops over Revolución glows silver. In front of the café, a couple of drunks think about duking it out but cool off when a blue-and-white police car cruises through, the only traffic allowed in here.

I like Tradición because, okay, the name's kind of heavy, but the patio is a lighthearted people-watching place, with its wrought-iron fence, tiled-roof shelter, blue plastic Corona chairs. A bright little serape is thrown over each table. Inside, even better. It's beautifully crazy, like a Salvador Dalí set, with ladders, desks, and upside-down bikes all hanging on the walls, and ice buckets for lampshades. Half the people here are sharing buckets of ten Pacifico bottles for nine bucks, and getting snacks too. Man, the longer Cisco takes, the stronger is that temptation to bust down and get quaffing too.

"You could look at the menu," says Gino.

What the heck. Maybe I could do with a little snack before the evening gets underway. I see they have breakfasts like hotcakes with eggs for around $3.00 (depending on the exchange rate); omelets with, say, chorizo or vegetables ($5.00); or a plate of fruit ($3.50). They have the full array of standard Mexican dishes, like rolled tacos with beef and cream ($3.00); chicken enchiladas (three for $4.00); tostadas, sopes and quesadillas, tortas (around $3.00); and burritos ($3--$4.00). I see the fish starts off at around six bucks for a fillet of fish au gratin and goes up to around $30.00 for a kilo (about two pounds) of peeled shrimp.

In the end, I get hooked on the idea of pork chops. Only problem is I meant to ask for the grilled ones, gringo all the way. But somehow I end up with the pork chops in ranchero sauce. It's 50 pesos, say $4.50, with rice and frijoles and tortillas. Gino brings it out on a blue-and-white china plate. The two large, thin-cut pork chops are drowned under a tide of peppers, onions, and tomatoes in sauce. And guess what? This garlicky combo gives the chops kick and flavor.

At the next table over, Joe, who's from Michoacán, has signaled to a group of four musicians. He wants to hear music from his home state. The four -- a drummer, bass player, guitarist, and accordionist -- gather 'round and launch into "The Roads of Michoacán." Lovely.

I think the music's getting to Gino. Turns out his own road started right here on this avenida. He sits down. "When I was seven, eight, I'd catch the yellow-and-green bus right here to go to school. They hadn't blocked traffic from this street then."

He ended up qualifying as an accountant and worked for decades in Mexico City. Then he came back to TJ because his father was dying. He had to take waitering jobs to make ends meet. "If you're not 35 and connected, forget it," he sighs. He and four relatives share his three-bedroom house and split the rent: $300.00.

Man. I know how tough it is to earn good money this side of the line, but $300.00 for a three-bedroom? That would pay for, what? Carla's closet space? I don't know which of us has it worse.

So I'm just cleaning up and paying up when I spot Cisco coming out from La Voz del Pueblo. "I'm starved," he says. "Let's eat first and then knock back a couple of cervezas."

"I know just the place," I say.

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