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Barra Barra

4016 Wallace Avenue, Old Town

The shiver. Down my spine. Can’t help feeling it every time I walk into Old Town. Honest. Something happens when you saunter up that dusty path from the trolley-bus depot, around the wooden fences, and into the big ol’ plaza. You expect Judge Roy Bean to come waddling out; you expect a bunch of silver-haired dons to ride in on horseback with silver spurs.

Anyway, today I’m just here by default. Carla was supposed to have margaritas with her buddy Ria, who has Spanish-Irish roots too. But Carla has her Italian class tonight. So I’m the stand-in.

It’s 4:00 p.m., at Old Town trolley station. There’s Ria on the platform. Those big Spanish eyes.

“Where to?” I ask.

“Follow me,” Ria says. “There’s only one place on Thursdays in Old Town at happy hour.”

So, it’s across San Diego Avenue, up the back path where the cactus grows, and into the plaza. “Uh, Ria, kid,” I say. “Gotta tell you. Don’t have a whole lot of dinero…been a hard week.”

“Don’t worry.” She laughs. “That makes this the perfect destination.”

And she leads me toward that long, low wall that, last time I looked, held in the Jolly Boy Saloon. Now it’s Barra Barra, and it’s kinda Mexican again — before the previous makeover, it had been Rancho El Nopal. And before that — like, in 1838 — when this was still Mexico, this site was the home of a corporal in the mission guard, José del Rosario Aguilar. Funny to think of him sleeping here. They have the little courtyard lanterns and tables and leather chairs and a whole bunch of people knocking back margaritas. And at the entrance, Bob, standing with a bottle of 1800 tequila in his mitts.

“Thank you, Bob,” says Ria, like she knows what’s up. She looks at me. “It’s Thursday, free tequila-sampling day. Oh. Quick! Grab those two equipales.”

“Those two…what?”

“You take the drinks.” She strides over to where two people have just vacated a pair of round, leather, split-stick Mexican chairs in the courtyard. I’ve got the two tiny half-inch tequila tasters Bob has poured for us. We sit at the low table. “Equipales,” Ria says. “Cortés had them built for his nobles, his captains. But the Aztecs had been building them for thousands of years before that. This may be the oldest leather-chair design in the world.”

Huh. I glug my tequila, then pick up a menu to check out what we can afford — what I can afford. The happy-hour Indian flatbread tacos are $2. That’s cool. Prices go up from there. Erica the waitress stops by to help us out. Tortas are $6.95, tuna salad’s $8.25, achiote pork…

“That’s the shoulder,” Erica says, “with garlic, slow roasted. Beautiful. You can have it as a combination platter. All combination platters are $7.95.” Two chiles rellenos, stuffed with cheese, are $5.50, or $7.95 as a combo, with rice and beans.

There are specialties, such as the enchilada de puerco en salsa verde ($7.95) or sea bass Veracruz rosada (but that’s $13.95) and chile colorado, a beef-based stew dish in rich, red chile sauce, $12.95. “Our most popular specialty is chicken mole Oaxaca,” Erica says. “It’s $12.95.”

To parry that thought, we order happy-hour margaritas. Ria gets the “best margarita in California” for $5, with Herraduro blanco tequila. Mine’s $3, in a nice triangle glass, but with El Jimador blanco tequila in it. The difference means something, if you know tequilas, I guess.

So, here’s what happens next: We order two of the Indian flatbread tacos, a chicken and a carnitas (pork). Chicken’s fine, the carnitas is great. Ordinary flour tortillas and these Indian flatbreads seem pretty similar, but Drew, the manager, claims the flatbreads are softer, thicker. “Less pressed,” he says, “so they puff up. There’s a bit of yeast in there.”

Main thing is, this food is filling. And just as we’re through with the tacos, out come appetizers — free — for the tequila-tasting crowd. That’s us. One plate’s crispy chicken flautas, the other’s boneless chicken wings. I love them both.

We don’t even have to hoard. They have plenty left by the time we’re full to the brim. It’s been so cheap, I get me a second margarita (another $3 one, natch).

“This,” Ria says, “is the life.”

We look up at where the Casa de Bandini is being turned into the Cosmopolitan Hotel, at the other end of the plaza. “What do you think about them making the old square more Anglo?” I ask.

“My great-great-great-grandmother fled to Mexico when the U.S. Marines arrived,” Ria says. “That was 1846. She thought the gringos would destroy everything. If she could see it now, she’d be astonished, thrilled.”

“Let’s drink to her. One more margarita? I can afford this.”

“Ooh. Rich gringo.”

“Rich on Thursdays.”

The Place: Barra Barra, 4016 Wallace Avenue (in Old Town Plaza, between San Diego Avenue and Congress Street), 618-291-3200
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: Happy-hour Indian flatbread tacos (beef, chicken, carnitas, carne asada, bean and cheese), $2; Thursday tequila-tasting appetizers (e.g., jalapeño poppers, quesadillas, chicken flautas, chicken tenders), free; “locals’ specials”: choice of seven dishes in fixed menu, plus “best margarita in California,” $10; tortas, $6.95; tuna salad, $8.25; achiote pork combination platter (with rice, beans), $7.95; chiles rellenos, $5.50 for two, or $7.95 as a combination platter; enchilada de puerco en salsa verde, $7.95; sea bass Veracruz rosada, $13.95; chicken mole Oaxaca, $12.95
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Sunday–Thursday; till 10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday; happy hour, 4:00–7:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; free tequila-tasting and appetizers, Thursday 4:00–6:00 p.m.
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 14, 28, 30, 35, 44, 105, 150
Nearest Bus Stops: Old Town Transit Center, Taylor Street and San Diego Avenue
Trolleys/Trains: Blue, Green Lines (trolley), Coaster
Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town Transit Center

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