Chaca-chaca, the tamarind and chili candy that sweetens up the tostilocos. Japanese peanuts hiding underneath.
"Siempre doy gracias al cielo de ser/ Tan afortunado!
The Queen of Chiquibaby belts it out with Joan Sebastian. (“I always give thanks to heaven to be/ So fortunate!”)
Everybody belts it out with her, Joan (pronounced like “Juan”) Sebastian’s “The Fortunate One.”
Manuel, George, María
Maria, across the table with Manuel, has some voice. A powerful, passionate voice.
“Wow,” I say at the end. “Are you a professional?”
“I only sing on karaoke nights.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” says George, who’s nearby playing pool. “Maria is known as ‘La Reina de Chiquibaby’s.’”
Elvira and George
I met Maria and Manuel when they told Elvira the mesera to pour me a pint of Bud on their tab. That’s the sort of bar this place is.
317 Dewey Street, San Diego
Chiquibaby’s was the only light on this whole street when I came up from the 25th and Commercial trolley stop. I was just expecting a drink and maybe a game of pool. But when Elvira says, “Yes, we have some botanas” (appetizers), I realize how hungry I am. And when she points to Maria and Manuel and says, “The couple at the table, they have invited you. They want to welcome you,” man, I feel so good.
Not only that, but Maria gets up and sets a couple of Anglo songs, like Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” on the jukebox. Just to make me feel comfortable, too.
Because all conversation’s in Spanish here. You come in and ranchero music’s pouring out of the jukebox, just behind where a bunch of guys are playing pool, some with Stetsons on their heads, others with baseball caps, but all — like when a chorus comes up on Freddy Fender’s “Rancho Grande” — big-voice singers.
My tostada, with avocado on top
I head for the bar, take a stool. Elvira passes me this little list of botanas. Tacos, of course, asada, adobada (pork), chicken, and chicharron (usually fried pork rinds), $1.99 each. Cueritos (“little leathers,” pig skin pickled in vinegar) go for $2.99, tostadas de ceviche, basically shrimp tacos on a crisp tortilla, are $3.99, and tostilocos, the cut-open Tostito bags you see stuffed with everything from cueritos to avocado slices ($4.99). Oh, and for $9.99, “alitas de pollo,” chicken wings.
So, I start off by ordering a tostada. And after Maria and Manuel buy me the drink, I turn and toast them, thank them, then have at my tostada. Crunching into its beautiful mess, it reminds me of how important fresh-cut veggies are to daily eating in Mexico. Apart from tons of camarones, I’m getting cucumber, jicama, tomato, cilantro, avo, and also squelching into cueritos, the slightly rubbery pickled pork skin. I also splot on some “México Lindo” habanera roja salsa. And now we have a meal. Well, almost.
I can’t resist ordering the tostilocos (“Crazy Tostitos”), along with beers to return the favor to my new friends.
Tostiloco costs $5 and is plenty filling
Why tostilocos? Mainly because it’s that or chicken wings at twice the price. Plus, tostilocos were invented right next door, in Tijuana, back in the 1990s.
’Course, when you look at the menu’s picture of tostilocos, you see the cut-open packet of Tostito chips loaded with hot sauce, jicama, cucumber, chamoy, cueritos, Japanese peanuts, a mess. But mine comes out far more elegant because it’s not in the Tostito package anymore but in a nice curved ceramic dish. Hey hey! Civilized tostilocos.
This dish is also a food messenger from the south, with flavorings like chamoy, a sauce made from pickled fruit, usually apricot, plum, or mango. (Actually, chamoy’s a Japanese idea. They say Mexicans copied umeboshi, Japanese pickled ume fruit. And “Japanese peanuts”? These are a Mexican invention, technically. Okay, it was this immigrant guy Yoshigei Nakatani, who came from Japan but invented them after he got to Mexico, back in the 1940s. Whatever — dee-licious. They’re peanuts deep-fried in a wheat-flour dough with soy sauce. So crunchy!
Chiquibaby's taco adobada
“And...ooh...chaca-chaca,” says María. We’re kinda splitting the tostilocos. Way too much for me. And cost me all of $5. Chaca-chaca is basically chili-laden tamarind candy chunks scattered over the dish. It makes for a tasty, healthy combo, all sitting on a bed of tortilla chips.
We’re just finishing it off when Elvira arrives with a bunch of chocolate bars called “Carlos V.” Wow. She’s just giving them out to everyone.
“This is very traditional,” says Maria. “Every Mexican knows this chocolate. Because we invented chocolate, the Aztecs, 4000 years ago, right?”
Turns out Carlos V was king of Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor. More important, the guy introduced the Aztecs’ chocolate to the courts of Europe. After Carlos, chocolate was in.
So, have to ask: has the Trump deportation threat affected business in a Mexican bar like this? Is everybody running scared?
“It’s hard to say,” says Elvira, “because everybody comes here to forget their worries. If they have them, they don’t show it.”
“The Trump thing?” says George. “People aren’t panicking. Yet.”
And then the jukebox throws up a polka, with those crazed Mexican trumpets and tubas playing a wild intro. George looks at Elvira. He grabs her and whirls her off two-stepping around the pool table. They dance this beautiful jig, tight together.
“You should come back for karaoke,” says Elvira. “Mondays, Thursdays. Everybody applauds you, even if you’re not great! And you should come back for Taco Tuesdays: $1 tacos! And Saturday, 25th of March! That’s our eighth anniversary. It’ll be a party.”
Las Jilguerillas (“The Little Goldfinches”), two famous country-singing sisters from Michoacán, come on the jukebox. “Un Puño de Tierra” (“A Fistful of Earth”) breaks out. By the time they’re through, the whole bar’s singing it.
“When I die, all I’ll take is a fistful of dirt.”
The Queen of Chiquibaby picks a beer out of the bucket. Holds it high.
“A la tierra!”
By the time I leave, I’ve had or shared a tostada, an adobada taco, and the tostilocos. The food cost: $11. The night’s experience? I feel like singing the Joan Sebastian song:
“Siempre doy gracias al cielo de ser/ Tan afortunado!”
317 Dewey Street, San Diego
The sign outside
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10 p.m., daily (till 12 a.m. Friday, Saturday)
Prices: Tacos, $1.99 each. Include asada, adobada, chicken, and chicharron (usually fried pork rinds); Cueritos (“little leathers,” pig skin pickled in vinegar), $2.99; tostadas de ceviche, on crisp tortilla, $3.99; tostilocos, ($4.99). “alitas de pollo,” (chicken wings), $9.99
Nearest Bus Stop: Ocean View Boulevard and Commercial
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest trolley stop: 25th and Commercial