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Fidel's Little Mexico

749 Genevieve and 607 Valley Avenue (two entrances), Solana Beach

La Colonia? Ah, yes. The story comes back as I sit up to the old tiled bar. “1697–1997,” says a weaving hung on the wall. “Celebrates the 300th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Baja California,” says an old geezer sitting at the table next to it.

Feels almost like 1697 in here. We’re in the low-ceilinged Mexican house that, mid-century, used to be Fidel Montañez’s home. Also his barbershop. Also the kitchen where his wife Martha prepared lunches every day for field hands and gardeners and domestic servants. Right now, I’m slurping on a really delicious Dos Equis Amber beer (happy-hour price is $3.75; they have others for $3), kinda listening in as customers talk about the place.

Seems that, once upon a time, the good folks of Rancho Santa Fe decided they needed someplace where all their Mexican workers could live, close enough to easily man the kitchens and adjust the sprinkler systems, but not so close that the kids would go to the same schools as the offspring of Rancho Santa Fe’s elite.

And so Eden Gardens, La Colonia, was born, just above the San Dieguito River sloughs. This was back in the day when Mexicans — you feel ashamed even to say it — were expected to ride in the back of the bus. Just ask the old-timers here.

And then something funny happened. First, some wives started making to-go lunches for their husbands, and then for the single men of the colonia too, until houses like Tony’s Jacal (“shack”) and Fidel’s turned into regular eateries for the whole colonia. And Fidel started cutting hair.

Then folks from the Del Mar racetrack discovered Fidel’s and Tony’s, just up in the hills. The two places (plus the now-closed Bluebird, and Market) became like Fernando’s Hideaways for the racing crowd. Suddenly, Fidel’s, ’specially, was the place to go for those in the know.

Over the years, they’ve gotten pretty swank and a lot less cheap. Lucky for me, today we’re smack in the middle of happy hour. Yes, you have to sit in the bar area, not in the rooms and gardens of the rest of this rabbit warren of a house. But who cares? Not the Del Martians here. You can tell, because they’re filling this upper part, no problem.

I sit at the bar in front of a brick-and-cement arch that shelters rows of tequila and liquor bottles, munching on great tortilla chips that I dip into a pretty interesting hot sauce. “It’s Fidel’s own invention,” says Tom, the barman. “He made it sweeter, less tomatoey.” The room has a white-plaster, heavy-timber Guadalajara feel, with a brick fireplace, blue-and-white paper flags strung around, and a tropical garden outside the windows. Nice. I start reading through the happy-hour menu. Skip the basics like bean dip ($4.50), guacamole dip ($5.65), chips and cheese ($3.95), and queso fundido (melted dipping cheese, $4.80). From the ordering going on around me, sounds like the tacos are it. They’re all $2.70 at this hour, including carne asada, mahimahi, milanesa, and carnitas.

I start off with a carnitas taco, and, now I’ve drunk the Dos Equis, I go a little crazy and order up a house Chablis ($4.75). While I wait for that, I look over what else they’ve got. Nachos, natch ($5.90, $7.90, with beef, chicken, or pork), and quesadillas for $3. But the thing that really catches my eye is the “pachanga,” a sampler collection of everything from deep-fried flautas to quesadillas to crispy tacos and chimichangas, all for $7.75. I order that for my main course, with beef (could’ve had chicken). That’ll make it a $10 meal, plus drinks.

Trouble is, I didn’t reckon with my carnitas taco, two corn tortillas overstuffed with carnitas, guacamole, and bean dip. This little squelcher is a meal in itself. The carnitas is excellent. (Tom reminds me that carnitas is slow, deep-fried pork, whereas pork al pastor — “shepherd-style” — is pineapple-flavored and sliced off a roasting spit.)

I finally chomp through it, just as Adonis — yup, that’s his real name — the taco-bar cook, brings the pachanga.

Aargh! Huge. The tacos, quesadilla, shredded-beef chimichangas, and flautas sit scattered like spokes on a wheel around piles of sour cream, guacamole, and salsa fresca.

I make it through maybe a third before I raise the white flag and ask for a to-go box.

“People do usually share one of these,” says Tom.

Don’t worry, people will share this, Tom. I get this back to Carla, it will disappear within minutes.

So, okay, Fidel’s has become the kinda cliché, old-line place that North Coasters take their friends to for a “safe” Mexican experience. But don’t blame Fidel (who still comes in every day). He’s just a onetime barber who — you’ve gotta hand it to him — turned lemon into pretty damned fine lemonade.

Fidel's Little Mexico

749 Genevieve and 607 Valley Avenue (two entrances), Solana Beach

Type of Food: Mexican

Happy-Hour Prices: bean dip, $4.50; queso fundido (melted dipping cheese), $4.80; tacos (including carne asada, mahimahi, milanesa, carnitas), $2.70; nachos, $5.90 (meatless), with beef, chicken, or pork, $7.90; quesadillas, $3; pachanga (sampler plate including flautas, quesadillas, tacos, chimichangas), $7.75. Much more extensive (and more expensive) main menu

Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily (till 10:00 p.m. Friday–Saturdays); happy hour, 4:30 p.m.–7:00 p.m. Monday–Thursday

Bus: 308

Nearest Bus Stop: Stevens at Genevieve

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