In Plaza Viva Tijuana (near Yellow Cab parking area), Baja
You ask, what do I like about Tijuana? This is what: I’m jes wandering down Fourth, heading toward Constitución, when I come across an impromptu clump of guys sitting around a shoeshine booth, “Bolería El Shorty.” Huh. They’re singing. One guy has a guitar, another maracas, a third rattles a tambourine. Some song about “Calle Cuatro y Constitución, de mi querida Tijuana…” (“Fourth Street and Constitution, of my beloved Tijuana”). It stops me in my tracks: that’s exactly where we are. Sophisticated voices, beautiful guitar work, right here with people passing all around them. Then they all swap instruments and start in on something about el caballo viejo (“the old horse”). “From Paraguay!” one shouts over to me when he sees me staring.
’Course I have to ask what’s going on. “We’re just friends,” says Gabriel, who’s still shucking the maracas after “Old Horse” has ended. “A couple of us used to gather here to chat with our friend Shorty, and he had a guitar and we just started up a couple of songs one day. Guys from the neighborhood would stop by, find a crate to sit on, and join in. Juan there,” he’s pointing to the guitarist, “Juan Richo. He’s a composer. He made up lots of our songs. They’re about our lives, about Tijuana.”
He hauls out a crate for me to sit on and introduces Juan, Javier, Fernando (a dapper gent in a tweedy sports jacket and cravat), and “El Shorty” himself, Chaba Salvador. Fernando keeps bustin’ out with Argentinean tangos, Cuban rumbas, and even American songs like “Cotton Fields.” The last line, “in them old cotton fields back home,” becomes Busca amor, nada más que amor (“Look for love, nothing more than love”). Couple of older gents passing by stop and sing along. It’s beautiful.
“Would you care to have some lunch with us?” Javier asks.
Gosh. Actually, I was looking for a late breakfast. Missed again this morning. But with all that walk from the border, I’m hungry, and I appreciate the offer. Chaba has some fried chicken and a bunch of tortillas sitting in his booth. Gabriel opens a large plastic lemonade bottle and passes around plastic cups. I grab flesh off a chicken leg, wrap it in a tortilla, splash on some hot sauce, and chomp in as Juan launches into “Caliente, Caliente.” It’s another of his compositions. And then Fernando sings, “Fue en un café…” and damn, I know I recognize the tune. Fernando hits the chorus in English: “Under the boardwalk, down by the sea...”
That chicken. It’s one of the most delicious eats I’ve ever had. Yes, I know why. It’s the company that makes it so.
Now it’s an hour later. I’m heading back to el norte. Cross the footbridge over the Rio Tijuana, and before I have to join the line at la linea, can’t resist stopping in at a gazebo-looking place. One more snack. Except, man. What a difference a bridge makes — musically, anyway. Led Zeppelin’s blasting out on this place’s sound system with “Whole Lotta Love.” Other places in the square blast rap. This is Plaza Viva Tijuana, a big expanse of buildings meant for shops and restaurants that mostly never happened. But ye olde gut is still whining. And I see this bunch of tables and chairs set under a big blue “Chargers” canopy. Looks new. Don’t see a name, but it has colored pennants waving in front of a gazebo-type place. And its waiters all seem to have shaved heads.
Inside the eight-sided gazebo, furniture’s green. Most of the walls are windows, so there’s not much art. But someone’s put up a pencil drawing of Al Pacino as Scarface. In the back, it’s all a big, broad, clangy, traditional Mexican kitchen. On the sound system, the music continues Anglo-angry. But some’s okay: Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law,” Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
Bouncy blonde kid — hey, her name’s Carla, just like my truly beloved — is standing at the counter talking to Ana the cook. She comes up to see if I want a margarita.
“No,” I say, “but how about a coffee. And I need breakfast.”
Dunno. Always hooked on breakfast. Meal of hope.
“Anytime,” Carla says. Whew. ’Course, the menu she brings has all the standard non-breakfast meals: mariscos, shrimp dishes and fish soups, around $9 each; steak ranchero, $6; and fajitas, $6–$10. Tacos go from $1 (for chicken or carne asada) to $1.50 (fish) to $2 (shrimp).
Pretty much everything in the breakfast section runs around $5, like cheese or ham-and-cheese omelets, or huevos rancheros. But what catches my eye is something I can honestly say I’ve never had before, ’specially for breakfast: chilaquiles. They’re $6, and that includes a thin steak. Carla says it sits on top of chilaquiles — tortilla chips doused in cheese. You also get frijoles and rice, chips and salsa, and coffee, and, hey, Carla says I can have a house salad too, all included in the price. Wow. This is turning into a deal.
I know that traditionally in Mexico, chilaquiles have always been a kind of “leftovers” dish where you use up all your stale tortilla chips (soak them in red or green salsa) along with eggs and cheese. When mine comes (in red salsa), all I can make out is a helluva mess of good-tasting grub, mixing the savory thin meat with the soft tortilla chips somewhere inside all that good cheesy gunk. And though I never thought I’d be caught eating salad for breakfast, the fresh shredded lettuce with avocado slices and tomatoes do help as a kinda mouth-freshener between attacks. The cawfee’s instant and the sweetener’s sugar, but hey, it’s just fine.
“What’s this place called?” I ask Miguel, the serious young buck who turns out to be running the place.
“ ‘Happy Face,’ ” he says.
I’ll come back for chilaquiles. They were good. And such great value. Plus, the thing about this place is it’s a quick Mexican fix without having to walk all the way to downtown Tijuana.