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Cantina Mayahuel

2934 Adams Avenue, North Park

The straw in my Coca-Cola sinks for the third time.

That's it. It ain't coming up. I'd forgotten about this. As you suck out more from the bottle, the straw sinks, and then you can't get to the straw anymore.

I'm drinking a bottle of Coke from Mexico, the old-fashioned sort.

"They still sweeten it with cane sugar in Mexico," says Larry.

We're in Normal Heights, in a long room with wild yellow walls and ceiling and a scattering of paintings that make you think of Aztec times.

Larry Auman, the owner-chef-artist, has named his place after the Aztec goddess of the agave plant, Mayahuel.

This is one cool place. I wandered in off the street just out of curiosity around five and...blat! The glare of that yellow wash hits you. You hoist yourself onto one of the stools that faces the open kitchen. You're surrounded by big skulls, small skeletons, devils riding donkeys. The effect of all these wall figures is as if you're in a southern Mexican place, or down in DF (Distrito Federal, Mexico City) maybe, in a dive where the arty set meets. Like, I can't help overhearing the conversation of a table of women behind me. They're all designers, each with her own company. And there's a prosperous-looking family of three generations having a bottle of wine and a spread of shared dishes. And to my right on the stools, these businessmen Walid and James, drinking Dos Equis beers.

Two guys work behind the counter. The chef, with a ponytail and bandanna and jeans and black sweatshirt, is Larry, the owner. The other guy is Toño, a cool-looking dude from Venezuela. He brings me the yellow menu... Aha! I see it's happy hour (Tuesday--Friday 4:00--6:00 p.m.). Those beers Walid and James are drinking cost $2.25, a dollar off the usual price. I'd have one myself if I wasn't working tonight. Dammit.

Instead I have that Mexican Coke -- and yes, it does taste different, a deeper, sweeter taste, I reckon. It's nice to hold the old full-size, bosomy glass bottle again.

I check the menu. It's pretty simple. They list beers and wines, and then an appetizer or two, like guacamole ("mashed avocados, white onion, garlic, chili powder, lime, salt"), $4. They have an "original César salad" for $6, $7.50 with chicken, $8 with mahimahi or shrimp. Not bad. And there are four tacos -- mahimahi, shrimp, chicken, and "tasajo-style," which is marinated jerked beef: the beef is cut in thin strips, marinated in lime juice and salt, and then seared.

Larry also does tortas with the same fillings, except for shrimp. And there's the "Alegría ("Cheerful") Bowl," chicken ($7.50), fish, shrimp, or beef ($8) served over rice, beans, and salsa. And I see they have some pretty delicious-sounding daily specials. Today's is chili Colorado ("slow-cooked beef in a California ancho and guajillo pepper sauce, $11"), and Saturday's is Yucatán seafood stew, including mahimahi, shrimp, scallops, calamari with salsa, habanero, and ginger, on black beans and rice ($12.50).

But I go for tacos: the shrimp and the beef.

Oh man. I have to say: these were probably the two best tacos I ever chomped. 'Course just watching and catching savory whiffs as Larry puts the shrimp and shredded beef on the griddle was half the fun. He juices them with pineapple and chipotle sauce, prepares double tortillas for each taco, adds shredded white cabbage, carrots, cilantro, salsa, then artfully squiggles Mexican cream and ancho mayonnaise on top, along with a hot sauce he makes himself and calls "a la diablo."

That tangy combo, with the mild jack cheese and the Mexican cream, is just great. And the shrimp have a smoky flavor that's beaucoup seductive. But it's also the presentation on rough brown clay plates. It feels, well, Mexican.

"The one thing you don't dare do here is ask for bottled hot sauce," says Walid. "Larry makes everything. He's making edible art here."

"On Tuesday, I make the mole," Larry says. "It has 39 different ingredients in it, 13 peppers. It takes me two days." He uses it for the Friday special, mole con pollo ($11).

Now he tosses some Caesar salad up in a stainless-steel bowl, adding chicken and croutons and drizzling liquids onto them. One big plate goes to Lance, the other to Debby, who designs clothes called "Blisswear." "I can honestly say," she says, "I've had Caesar salads everywhere, in many cities, and this beats them all."

The art on the wall behind us is by a friend of Larry's from Oaxaca, Gerardo Bonilla. And wow, from the prices for his paintings ($1000--$5000) this guy has to be a famous painter.

"I want to make this place as much an art gallery as a restaurant," Larry says.

The irony is Larry isn't Mexican. He's not even Californian. He's an artist from New Jersey who worked for 20 years as a bartender and has made jewelry. But it was his travels in Mexico that made him ambitious to run his own place. "I spent one year going to 30 cities in Mexico. I'd learn traditional recipes and write them down. I wanted to bring the real Mexico to San Diego," he says.

"Just one complaint," I say.

"What's that?"

"You need longer straws. How do I get this thing out?"

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