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Baja Betty's

1421 University Avenue, Hillcrest

I still can’t believe it. My buddy Frankie. He’s gone. Checked out. Died. Had half his life to live, still. And my hands aren’t clean. All those Delicado Ovalado cigarettes I always got for him down in TJ. It was lung cancer.

We’d been going up to Sharp Memorial for all the usual treatments. The nurses up there really dug him. Heck, six foot five, could play the Strat like a Strad, who’s surprised? After last time, we passed this place with the crowded patio in Uptown. Baja Betty’s. “Check out those señorita babes,” said Cisco. “We’re going. Next trip, okay?”

So this particular morning, when I knocked, he didn’t shout the usual “Come on in!”

And today — so soon, so surreal — I’m taking him home. Mahogany cremains box, inside a black cloth Vons bag, aboard the Number 2 bus.

And then, where 30th meets University, I suddenly decide. Grab the bag, jump off, and head west. We’re going to Baja Betty’s, buddy boy. One last lunch. I owe you.

It’s a staid, ’40s-looking building outside. But inside, we’re talking fantasy Baja: yellow-tiled countertops with palm-frond palapas, creamy yellow-washed walls, Spanish-looking chandeliers, black wood ceilings with heavy timbers, and rows of Picasso-style paintings of Baja beach scenes.

I make a quick check of the menu, and — whoa — main dishes ain’t cheap. “Coochie coochie” carnitas are $13.25, shrimp fajitas $15.50, and there’s even a taco platter going for $61.95. But, okay, that’s for six people.

Then I realize I’ve started at the back. I flip to the front of the menu and see two bits of good news: “$6.95 express lunch, Monday–Friday 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.” That includes things such as soup and salad, vegetarian salad, and taco salad. Then they have “Papi hour, Monday–Friday, 2:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.” “Papi” hour means $3 appetizers and quesadillas, well drinks, bottled beers, sangrias, and house margaritas. And “featuring Paco’s $1 fish tacos (at the bar only).”

I sit up at one of the solid-dark-wood stools at the bar, ’cause don’t want to miss “Paco’s tacos.” I put Cisco on the stool next to me. Okay, this is crazy, I know, but we’ve had some crazy times together, from the Owl in El Centro to the Long Bar in TJ to the Samoa Cookhouse in Eureka...

Can’t go crazy today, though. Have to work this afternoon. I order a coffee from the barista, Jeff ($1.25). I’m sure he’s looking at the Frankie stool and wants to ask, “What’s in the bag?” But he doesn’t.

I try to think what Cisco’d have. Tacos were always his thing. And now I see the $6.95 special includes a bunch of “one-item entrées,” such as hard or soft tacos with shredded chicken or beef, carnitas, carne asada, or ground sirloin. That comes with rice, beans, Caesar salad, and buñuelos (the folded, fried flour tortillas made delicious with shakings of cinnamon and sugar). They also have other standard taco-shop items for the same deal, such as flautas, taquitos, enchiladas, chile rellenos, and tamales. Sounds good. Then I see Jeff hand this guy and gal under the corner palapa two plates. The guy, Brian, gets two hard tacos and a house salad ($11.95), and the gal, Brianna — what are the chances of that? — has a vegetarian salad (the lunch express version, $6.95). Hers looks interesting and rich, not the usual cucumber-and-lettuce pile. “It has so many veggies in it,” Brianna says. “You ought to try it.”

But I end up ordering a different salad, the taco, because Cisco and I had a long-running bet on that. I thought taco salad was, you know, traditional Mexican. He said the thing is a Tex-Mex dish that a franchise-restaurant guy named Glen Bell invented. Who was Glen Bell? He started Taco Bell, in Downey, California, in 1962.

So, Cisco, this salad’s for you. For $6.95, it’s a big plate. I could have had shredded chicken or beef, ground sirloin, or carnitas. I took the ground sirloin. The dish may or may not be traditional, but it’s interesting. Lettuce, cucumber, a lake of almost-crunchy beef under cheese, with baby corn, black olives, shredded cabbage, chips of jicama that crunch and taste like water chestnut, black beans, carrot shavings, purple onion, guacamole, sour cream, a bowl of vinaigrette, and corn chips. ’Course, Frankie would be insisting on a beer by now. Me, I make do with coffee.

Sigh. I sit for a couple of minutes appreciating the cheery atmosphere. I need this.

Then, I can’t believe it, but right as Frankie and I are leaving, I swear, the ’70s group War comes on.

“Cisco Kid...was a friend of mine…”

The Place: Baja Betty’s, 1421 University Avenue, Hillcrest 619-269-8510
Type of Food: American
Prices: “Coochie coochie” carnitas, $13.25; crab quesadilla, $9.95; shrimp fajitas $15.50; taco platter (for six), $61.95; $6.95 express lunches (Monday–Friday, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.) include soup and salad, vegetarian salad, taco salad, hard or soft tacos with shredded chicken or beef, carnitas, carne asada, or ground sirloin (all with rice, beans, Caesar salad, and buñuelos); “Papi” hour specials (Monday–Friday, 2:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m., and 11:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m.) include $3 appetizers (e.g., Baja fries, crispy cheese tortilla, mini tacos), quesadillas, and well drinks, bottled beers, sangrias, and margaritas; also bar-only special: “Paco’s $1 fish tacos”
Hours: 11:00 a.m. till late seven days (open from 10:00 a.m. Saturday–Sunday)
Buses: 1, 10, 11
Nearest Bus Stops: University at Herbert (1, 11, eastbound); University at Normal (1, 11, westbound); University at Richmond (10)

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