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Café Français La Belle Claude

7th Street #8186-A, Baja

I can’t believe it. Here I am on deepest Revolución, when I spot that black hat, that gray-red beard, that loping walk.

It can only be one person.

“Willy?” I say.

Willy Clauson has stuck it out here in Tijuana all through the bad times. I think of him as Our Man in Havana, except he’s a singer, the charro guëro (the “fair-haired cowboy”), as he’s known, the guy who brought “La Bamba” up from Veracruz and, with a little boost from Ritchie Valens, made it a worldwide hit. Since then, he’s settled in TJ, because he loves Mexico, and, well, the hits aren’t coming quite as they used to. He’s growing old gracefully and modestly, sometimes touring places like Nicaragua and doing summer stints in Sweden, where his family’s originally from. There he acts as a singing sheriff in a Wild West fantasyland called “High Chaparral.”

I haven’t seen him for a year. Now, here he is, heading down Calle 3a, Third Street, toward his little museum in Pasaje Rodríguez. I bet he’s coming from his daily swig of cactus juice, which he drinks to keep his diabetes at bay.

“You caught me just in time,” he says. “I’m off to Sweden on Sunday. No money worries for three months! All I have to do is wander ’round the High Chaparral and sing when I feel like it.”

I ask him about the economy and violence in TJ. “The economy’s bad, sure enough,” he says. “But violence? The only thing I’ve seen was when two drunken sailors — American — killed a prostitute at a hotel across Revolución.”

We wander up Revolución. The bar touts call out half-heartedly. We stop in for a coffee ($1.10) at La Placita, an open-to-the-sidewalk eatery that’s surprisingly busy, maybe because so many others have closed. “The publicity about the violence makes it sound much worse than it is,” says Salvador. He’s one of the longtime waiters here. “Americans have completely stopped coming. Revolución is dying. I’ve been in the restaurant business for 30 years. This is by far the worst. Business is down at least 80 percent.”

Willy has eaten already, and he has to go. So I head up Revolución. Man. Boarded-up stores and bars and eateries are everywhere. Even the venerable La Especial is gone, except for the original streetside taco counter they started out in business with about 60 years ago.

I get up to Calle Galeana, 7th. The Spanish paella place, Chiki Jai, is still open, thank God. But I’m looking for something a little more plain and simple, so I cross Revolución and head a few yards up 7th, looking for one of my favorite places. There’s the sign: “Café Français.” But, uh-oh. I pass the heavy, coat-of-arms-embossed wooden doors of its sister eatery, the Nica-Oh Steakhouse. Closed down. Then, ah…right next door, La Belle Claude is open. TJ’s little piece of Paris. Last came here five years ago. Nothing’s changed. Inside, you’re enveloped by sweet-smelling, varnished-wood, coffee-aroma’d arty ambiance. Cabinets are filled to bursting with decadent cakes and cookies. Glazed fruit tarts, éclairs, truffles, and the shelves are loaded with cheeses, teas, coffees, jams. Right now (nearly 4:00 in the afternoon), the place buzzes with office-worker types seated at the half-dozen little tables, drinking coffee and eating paninis or pastries. Guess we’re talking Mexican lunch hour.

In an arch between rows of teas, “La Belle Claude” herself looks out at us from her portrait painted on the wall. She’s the daughter of the owners. And, hey, belle she is.

I ask the guy behind the counter, Jesús, if they have lunch specials.

“Anything on the menu,” he says. There’s a chalkboard menu full of ciabatta and sandwiches, much like a U.S. deli, with chicken, ham, beef, and all in the $4 range. Yvonne and Janet, who say they are on their lunch break from the department store where they work, are eating empanadas con queso (with cheese). The little stuffed pastries look oozy and flaky. Hmm...make that my second course.

Meantime, I check for something savory. They have tempting French-like plates, such as jus de veau lié, a kind of French dip, for $5, but I settle for a ciabatta with ham, cheese, lettuce, and tomato and a coffee. Something simple. Hey, a man needs comfort food in these dodgy times. Ciabatta means “slippers” in Italian, and that’s what it is, a wide loaf of bread that kinda looks like a slipper and feels like it too — soft inside a crisp, thin crust. It’s loaded with tasty cheese, ham, lettuce, tomato. Nice coffee choices, from places such as Chiapas, Veracruz, Cuba. It’s 52 pesos ($4) for the ciabatta and 15 pesos ($1.15) for the coffee.

Then I spot this guy and gal, Ivan and Sandy, ordering postres, dessert pastries. Their empanada rellena is stuffed with apple. I order one of those ($1.50), and, while I’m about it, a pear one as well — pera rellena. They come with cinnamon, nuts, raisins, cream, and sugar crystals on top. Dee-licious.

Jesús says that La Belle Claude’s father died recently, but her mom still runs the place. Claude herself married a French chef. “We are small,” he says, “and have mostly local customers. We’re harder to kill off than big, costly-to-run tourist places.”

The Place: Café Français La Belle Claude, 8186-A 7th Street (next to Nica-Oh Steakhouse, just off Revolución Avenue), Tijuana
Type of Food: Mexican, French, American
Prices: Jus de veau lié (French dip), $5 (depending on exchange rate); ciabatta with ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, $4; chicken panini, $4; beef ciabatta, $4; empanada stuffed with apple or pear, plus cinnamon, nuts, raisins, cream, $1.50; empanada with cheese, $1.50; coffee, $1.15
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., seven days
Bus: Red Border Bus (Mexicoach)
Nearest Bus Stops: Avenida Revolución, at 7th Street

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