Chile relleno
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Andres the bolero: fifty years shining shoes

The tuba player sweats as he wiggles into his tuba — sousaphone, more accurately. It sends evil glints into the café crowd. But it’s so hot, he wriggles out again, and goes to sit under a fresno, an ash tree, in the plaza. An acordeonista weaves among the tables, flicking out a few bars of a love song, but abandons it when nobody even gives him a glance. It’s that time of day. Too early for the sunset hour, too energy-sapping hot. Only Andrès the bolero — the shoe shine man — keeps working out in the glare. He bends double, swiping a big man’s shoes.

“Been doing this for 50 years,” he says.

Musicians wait for the heat to subside

This is all outside Lolo’s café, in the main plaza of Tecate, Mexico, the Parque Miguel Hidalgo. It’s just a trot down the hill from the US border. First thing you come across is the clump of men and women under the fresnos, playing cards. “Game’s called Conquian,” this tall guy told me. “Like the ancestor of modern rummy. Like Full House.”

Paul Hart and friend

His name is Paul Hart. American. Has lived here for 30 years. “At two hundred a month rent, how can I not?” he says. “I came from Wisconsin. No way I could afford to live back there now.”

He says the plaza is the only place in town you’ll see people out, this time of day. “The trees cool things a little. But then in the evening, and all through the night, people are here in droves. Too hot in their apartments. That’s when you get the music, the food, the dancing, bike races, contests, whatever.”

Wow, I’m thinking, if only we had a square like that, back in ’Diego.

Haidi and Heliodoro (“Lolo”)

Paul points out Lolo’s, through the trees, along from the Palacio Municipal — City Hall. So, five minutes later, I’m there, sitting in a red plastic Coca Cola chair, at the folding table Heliodoro has just set up. “Lolo” is the nickname for Heliodoro. He’s put me in the shade by the front entrance. I swear, being surrounded by this forest of big old ash trees makes the heat bearable. Specially with the little breeze. Still, nobody’s moving fast. Haidi, one of the servers, brings me a nice frosty bottle of Tecate Original. Heck, I can see the Tecate HQ where it was brewed, just beyond the square.

Main thing that strikes you here is the quiet. Conversations of friends and couples at the other tables is the main sound. The tables are on what is officially a street (Calle Lázaro Cárdenas), but cars don’t seem to use it. Half the tables are across under the fresnos.

But now I remember. This is Friday. I can’t screw around too much. There is only one bus back to El Cajon between now and like Monday. The 894. And it leaves at 3:30 from the U.S. side, Tecate, California.

Haidi brings me a menu. Wow. Good value. Most expensive item is aguachile (pot of spicy shrimp with seasoned liquids and peppers, avo, onion, and other veggies). Says the cost is: “$150?” But Haidi says no, the dollar sign means pesos. Whew. So we’re actually talking eight bucks.

Hmm. I’m also looking at green sauce fajitas (US$4.86), or cheese fondue with mushrooms or chorizo. They go for around $4.50. Sonora-style machaca’s about the same.

They also do the Gringo thing with burger and fries going for $3.50, and ham, chicken, or egg sandwiches, like $1.50. Such a deal! So-o tempted, until Heliodoro tells me how the combinación Mexicana is a plate of chile relleno, beef enchilada, and chicken tostada. All for US$5.41. I can’t turn that down.

Except, darn it, a moment after ordering the combination, a plate-load of camarones a la diabla, hot fried shrimp ($120, meaning US$6.50) passes by. Ooh. Looks so delish.

But when my combinación turns up, I see you get a lot. The tostada is basically a big crisp chicken taco. The enchilada has that flavor of the beef with the enchilada sauce baked into it, and then there’s the chile relleno: a nice big green chili pepper stuffed with cheese inside, and wrapped in a cheesy, beany, golden-brown blanket also topped with queso fresco.

Lolo comes out to check on the meal. It’s definitely standard Mexican fare, but delish and filling. Turns out Lolo’s been running this eatery for 25 years. “I haven’t changed, but Tecate has over this time. We have over 100 maquiladoras now, and the Tecate brewery has doubled in size.”

Talking of which, I could so-o do with another beer. But Lolo reminds me. “If you’re catching the bus, you haven’t much time, my friend.”

So yes, I ask for the check. “Uh, do you take cards?” I ask. Then, disaster.

Heliodoro shakes his head sadly. “No, we don’t.” OMG. I check my wallet. It has $11 in it. Watch says 3 o’clock. No time to go back to the States, find an ATM, come back, go back, get bus. “How much do you have?” says Lolo. I show him. “Give me five,” he says. “You need something for the bus.”

I get a flashback, to when I got stuck without a dime in Popotla, near Rosarito, one midnight. Public taxi driver took pity on me. I can’t believe I’m doing this again. I’m just the kind of turista the people of Tecate don’t need. “Trust me, I’m coming back,” I say to Heliodoro. “I need to anyway, for those camarones a la diabla.”

As I dash across the square, the thump of music comes out of another of Tecate’s institutions, Diana’s, the 60-year-old bar across the square. “Don’t dash!” it seems to be saying. “Bring cash! Cash! Cash!”

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