Calle 6 (Flores Magon), between Revolución and Madero, 2, Tijuana, BC
It’s 11:00 at night, downtown TJ. “Only, only Marcelino, Only, only pan y vino…” Carlos Ubario Macias sings merrily away. He’s sitting on the stool next to me, out on the street at Marcelino’s tiny counter. “That’s from a popular Spanish movie that came out in 1950,” he explains.
“Marcelino hasn’t been around that long, have you?”
Marcelino laughs. But he doesn’t lift his head. He’s busy at his cutting board, making up a torta.
I’m in a good vibe here. Spent the past hour in El Dandy del Sur, two steps down the hill, just past El Chez, a nightclub that does rock on Friday and Saturday nights, hoping to lure American kids back.
Dandy and Chez may not have the gringos yet, but this Friday night, it feels like all tijuanenses are cramming into this little section of Sixth Street where it plunges down between Revolución and Madero. It’s just a bunch of off-Broadway bars, eateries, dance places, and a couple of cheap hotels, but now — no question — something’s happening.
I’d never noticed Marcelino’s place till tonight. Saw a crowd in a pool of light around this hole-in-the-wall called “Tortas de la Sexta.” It’s small but smart, with red-tile frontage and a narrow yellow mosaic counter jutting onto the street. Guy with flying hands was slicing big telera buns (like hamburger buns, but wider, softer) and laying out avocado slices and peppers and meats.
Only thing was, I was thirsty. “Which bar?” I asked the guy behind the counter. Marcelino. “El Dandy,” he said. “You’ll be happy there. Then come and I’ll make you a torta.”
So, I did. Walked down past El Chez, then squeezed between a woman cop and an elderly doorman, into El Dandy del Sur. Oh, man. What a scene. After all the depressing emptiness of Revolución, this is great. It’s, like, “So this is where you’ve been hiding out!” Tables and stools were filled with men, women, oldies, kids, all talking, drinking, flirting, cracking shells of cacahuates — peanuts — while some of the great rock music from the ’70s set the tone. I grabbed the last stool, got a Dos Equis Amber for about $1.50, a bowl of unshelled peanuts, watched a Mexican soap on TV, chatted with the neighbors.
Couple of bottles later, I’m ready for my close-up with Sexta Torta. On my way out of El Dandy I stop to get my bearings. Ask Laurentino Solorio García, the elderly gent on the stool, if the bar is new.
“El Dandy del Sur?” he says. “It wasn’t always at this location, but it has been going for maybe 50 years. People know it. We don’t have trouble here.”
We start talking food. Officer Solis, the woman security cop, says best eats are at a no-name place next to the Salon de Baile La Estrella dance hall, across the street.
I’m tempted but feel loyalty to Marcelino now. Besides, a torta will go down easy. So, a moment later, I’m back two doors up, at Tortas de la Sexta, flopping down on one of Marcelino’s two stools, right next to Carlos, the guy who’s serenading him. “And now you’re hungry?” Marcelino says. “Only thing is, you must eat it while it’s hot, or the bun goes flat. Okay?”
“Fine,” I say.
“There’s your choice,” says Marcelino, pointing to a list on the wall. They’re about 35 pesos, maybe $2.60 each. Main selection’s between ham, beef tenderloin, vegetarian, and portobello, meaning stuffed with mushrooms. Or, “La Especial,” which is ham and beef tenderloin and cheese.
I get the special and an agua fresca — orange — (12 pesos, $1). Marcelino is right: the torta’s so light and the insides are so liquidy, it’s almost a drink. “The secret’s in the steaming,” he says. “It makes the bun tender.” I put some chipotle salsa on it, and that heats it up and makes the beef and ham and cheese more interesting.
“You can thank the emperador Maximiliano for that telera,” Carlos says. “The emperor brought French bread here in the 1860s. My family was French, too, but they came earlier. My ancestor, Juan Carlos Ubario, landed in 1788. But to this day, with 160 million people in Mexico, there are only 16 people with the name Ubario. It is very rare.”
“Wow,” I say. “You are one in a million.”
“One in ten million, my friend.”
Carlos says his family raises fighting bulls in Agua Caliente. “I’m up here to be near my sons, who are studying in the U.S.,” he says. “I prefer Mexico, but I want to be near them.”
“Eat,” says Marcelino, “or it won’t be any good.”
“Only, only Marcelino, Only, only pan y vino…,” sings Carlos, again.
I chow down.
“No rush,” says Marcelino. “I am here till 7:00 tomorrow morning.”
“Ever see any trouble?” I ask.
“Not really,” he says. He brings out a little digital video camera. “But if there is, even if I see the police not behaving well, I take pictures. It was the city that supplied me with this camera.”
Uh-oh. Cinderella time. Midnight’s gonna chime, and I’ve got that last trolley to think about. I could have downed one more of these tortas. Can’t tell if it’s the atmosphere or the taste. The cheese — okay American cheese — the tomato, the avocado…there’s nothing all that Mexican about it, except for the steamed telera bun. But, just like TJ’s street hotdogs, it feels special. When I get back up to the corner with Revolución, I turn. I can just hear Carlos, still singing in that pool of light.
The Place: Tortas de la Sexta, Calle 6a (Flores Magón), between Revolución and Madero
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices (approximate): La Especial torta, with lomo (beef tenderloin), ham, avocado, American cheese, tomato, mayonnaise, 36 pesos (about $2.70); ham torta, $2.60; beef tenderloin torta, $2.60; vegetarian torta, $2.60; portobello (mushroom) torta, $2.60
Hours: Noon–9:00 p.m., Monday–Tuesday; noon till 2:00 a.m., Wednesday–Thursday; noon till 7:00 a.m., Friday–Saturday; closed Sunday
Buses: Mexicoach, San Ysidro to Tijuana
Nearest Bus Stop: Mexicoach terminal between Sixth and Seventh Streets, on Revolución