What $12 buys: garlic shrimp dish
  • What $12 buys: garlic shrimp dish
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Sunday night. I’m practically the only person in the carriage, and the shrimp are jumping in my mouth.

Hernan’s at the next table munching on chicken tacos. And next door, laughs from Queendom Tribe’s henna party echo out into the night.

The tribe that teaches henna

The tribe that teaches henna

What’s up? Serendipity is what.

Here I was, heading up through Chicano Park toward Logan Heights. At South Evans Street, the Don Diego VFW was alive and noisy. “Active military welcome,” said a banner. Somebody was wailing out “I Did It Myee Way.” “Now let’s hear it for combat veterans!” said a guy with a mike. Cheers and claps. “And don’t forget, hot dogs going for $1.50. We’ve got plenty!”

That stopped me. Except I was hungry for more than dogs, even if they did let me in.

So I carried on. Next door, a guy and two gals sit on a sidewalk bench outside Por Vida, the coffee place in a restored craftsman house. But the guy shakes his head. “We closed at four,” he says. “Got a little event going.”

But, my good: five yards on up, the event’s written on a sandwich board. “Henna Workshop, $5 all-you-can-eat brunch. Mimosas, Micheladas, Moscow Mules sold separately. San Diego Vintage Company.”

Huh. Bit late for brunch, but I follow a pathway beside Por Vida’s house, and at the end, music, people, dancing, and, oh yeah. Food! Most people are standing, drinking, talking around a table under the banner “Queendom Tribe.” They have photo books of henna art laid out. And right here against the fence, I spot plates of food, cups of chopped jicama and tomato next to cucumber chunks and baked bread with cream cheese on top, and a plate of fruits.

There are also racks of clothes, paintings, crazy-beautiful hand-made ukuleles for sale. Scene feels totally arty.

I go to the counter and haul out a Lincoln.

“The brunch?”

“Don’t bother,” says the gal, Karina. Karina Zuniga. She’s a photographer. “There’s not enough left. Just take it.” Then she heads off to join a dance with a circle of guys and gals.

So I give my $5 to a guy and ask for a michelada. He mixes the beer, lime, some peppers, Worcestershire sauce, and chile powder around the rim. Mmm. While he’s making it, I grab some of the baked bread and cucumber with the cream cheese on top.

I sit down between the weaving bodies, grab my michelada, and spill the danged thing all over my plate of food.

Oh, man. Except the combined flavor turns out to be pretty great.

Ashley and César

Ashley and César

César’s Quetzacoatl carving

César’s Quetzacoatl carving

Now a guy named César Castañera shows me a sculpture of Quetzacoatl, the serpent god, which he carved out of a huge tree stump. It’s really good. “We’re trying to make an arts district here,” he says. “Right now the fight is to keep the money people out. They want to buy up, develop, bring in the condos. Price us out. But I swear, man, we’ll go down fighting.”

I leave them to it, totally inspired. But, still kinda hungry.

A streetcar named El Nuevo Carrito

A streetcar named El Nuevo Carrito

And guess what? Right next door is this ancient streetcar named El Carrito, an eatery. Open till seven. Fifteen more minutes.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Came here five years ago. It’s the actual trolley car that used to ply up Logan Avenue from downtown, as early as 1889, till Detroit killed trolleys everywhere in the 1950s. But this is Barrio Logan: nothing goes to waste. Folks here just lifted this carriage from where it stopped and moved it sideways into this front garden here and turned it into a restaurant. Guess it’s still operating.

But different? The sign says “El Nuevo Carrito.” Now I’ve got to try it.

It still feels like a streetcar inside. Brown, cream, curved roof, maybe nine tables, kitchen at one end, old emergency side exit still only half sealed up.

“‘Nuevo’?” I ask the lady, Carmen.

“New owners,” says Carmen, “same food.”

They have all-day breakfast, including huevos rancheros or carne asada with chilaquiles for around $6. Funny thing, though: they’ve put stickies over the top of the prices so you can’t really tell. Ham omelet with rice and beans still shows $4.75. But, 15 minutes to closing. Carmen’s already sweeping. So I don’t screw around. Yes, tempted by the menudo ($8, looks like), which they have Saturdays and Sundays. Or tortas, like the machaca for $3.75. But, natch, I have to go for the most expensive item on the menu, the camarones al mojo de ajo, grilled garlic shrimp with rice and frijoles and salad. Costs $12. And now I see a drink I always crave, licuado de platano, mushed-up plantain. Costs $2.

El Nuevo Carrito's chicken tacos

El Nuevo Carrito's chicken tacos

Turns out I needn’t have felt bad about the time. Hernán, a gent from Nayarit, comes in and orders two chicken tacos ($5). We talk as Carmen slices up my raw, gray shrimp, throws them in the frypan with the garlic. Then, oh man. Sabroso smells! She also stirs the giant olla of frijoles, and the other of golden rice. When she finally ladles it all out, those shrimp taste as good as they smell. Plus, the frijoles and rice and salad make great fillers. And the thick plantain drink takes care of any spare corners.

Maybe it’s the michelada, but I swear, you catch glimpses of ancient passengers holding onto straps as this carriage trundles along. We’re back in, like, 1896.

Of course I have to embarrass myself. Because it’s seven already, I stand up to pay, even though I’m not through eating yet. I check my wallet. Erk! Don’t have enough cash.

“They have an ATM in the VFW,” says Hernán.

“Don’t close. I’ll go,” I say.

“No!” says Carmen. “Finish first. You will eat my camarones hot.”

Now that’s a true chef. I’ll be catching this trolley again.


El Carrito

2154 Logan Avenue, Logan Heights

Hours: 9 a.m.–7 p.m., daily

Prices: Huevos rancheros, rice, beans, $5; carne asada with chilaquiles, $6; ham omelet (rice, beans), $4.75; menudo (weekends only), $8.88; machaca torta, $3.75; grilled garlic shrimp (rice, frijoles, salad), $12; carne asada tacos (3, with rice, beans), $6.25; chicken tacos (2), $5; plantain drink, $2

Bus: 11

Nearest bus stop: Logan Avenue at Sampson Street

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