‘Cher was born here,” says Sonny. “Right, Lawrence?”
Lawrence lifts up his aristocratic, bloodhound-wrinkled face and nods. “Her dad was a truck driver.”
We’re standing in the muggy heat of an El Centro Greyhound depot. Sonny and Lawrence pretty much run it. Even with a/c it’s hot.
But Sonny? Cher? It takes a moment. What are the chances? Except this Sonny helps with the baggage and passengers and loading the Greyhound when it hauls in from Calexico, or Yuma, or Phoenix, or San Diego.
It’s late morning. I’ve been asking Sonny and Lawrence where I can go to get something to eat without evaporating on the sidewalk — this was just before the cool finally rolled in with the rains — or missing the San Diego-bound Greyhound.
So now I’m walking, trying to keep in mind a name: “Letty’s Authentic Mexican Food. Letty’s. A little yellow house on the left side of South 4th Street,” they said. I walk one, two, three blocks down. Starting to wilt. Then I see the little yellow house. Except, guess what? Right next to “hand made tortillas,” it says “closed.”
Great. Now what? Lucky for me, just back across West Heil Avenue, I passed “Las Conchitas Bakery.”
So OK, only a bakery, but any port in a sunstorm. I know conchita means “shell,” (think “conch”), among other things, and is also a very sweet, eggy bread. Inside, everyone’s huddling in the cool, trying to get away from the punishing heat outside. Me too. I spend five minutes just cooling down in the aircon and staring at racks of brightly-colored baked goods. Powdery-handed cooks bring out trays of cookies with names such as cono con crema (cream-filled cones), polvoron amarillo (yellow shortbread), corico redondo (round, sweet cookies), canasta de crema (“basket” of cream), elote de pasta (cream, eggs, and corn in pastry), all beautifully done. All sweet, though. I need something savory, some breakfast to help me last the three-hour trip back to San Diego.
Also, I’m noticing a bunch of guys, mostly, munching away at tables to my left. They look like agricultural workers from their boots and hats, plus one or two townie business types in shirtsleeves, and their food looks savory.
“We’re a bakery, but we do have some savory things,” says Cathy, one of the few ladies not racing around. She’s at the order desk, keeping the line moving. She, like everyone, is dressed smartly in red shirt, red cap, and red apron.
She points to a plastic banner on the wall with all their offerings. For starters I’m trying to figure out what “dona” are (they’re 85 cents each, $9 a dozen). I’m thinking a kind of kebab? Then I get it. Donut. Ojaldre (puff pastry) is 85 cents, muffins are $1.10. But now we’re starting to hit the savory. Birote (like a bolillo, or mini-baguette) comes with cheese for $2.25. A torta is $2.90, and $3.75 with ham. Chorizo and frijole tacos are $1.30, but you have to get here in time. They only make them between 5 in the morning and 10, or “while supplies last.”
Same goes for molletes, also like birotes, or bolillos, and stuffed with chorizo, for $2.85. But it turns out molletes have much more.
“We make it with potato, chorizo, tomatoes, onion, and a chile verde,” says Cathy.
“I bet they’re popular,” I say.
“Oh yes,” says Cesar the baker. “Just like our menudo rojo.” That’s $5.75, or $6.75 for a large bowl (but weekends only). Cesar is Cathy’s husband. And right next to him is Berta Jiménez, the owner. “We started this 16 years ago,” she says. “Nothing has changed.”
Cesar says there’s no eggs in the traditional mollete, but just about everything else has them. “I went through 97 eggs last Friday. Today it’s only been 40. Slow day.”
So I ask for the mollete with chorizo. And a coffee. I get a large cup for $1.35 (only 10 cents more than the small) and make for the small row of tables by the front window. You can feel the warm radiating against your back, fighting to get in. Cathy brings my mollete, and boy, for $2.85, I have to pinch myself. It’s a lot. Nice wide bolillo, split in two, probably with the middles gouged out to make space for the fillings, toasted and spread with a thick layer of frijoles. And on top of this, a crunchy mixed fry of chorizo, potato chunks, cheese, by the taste, tomatoes, and onion. I pick the first one up in my hand and start chowing. So-o tasty. Partly because I’ve been up since early and am starved and am getting revived by the cawfee and the a/c. Also, they’ve got a big fat green chile verde, or serrano, leaning over the edge of the red plastic basket. Those things are bursting with vitamins. The poor man’s energy supplement, they call them. A nip every now and then gets your buds snapping to attention.
Pretty-much all the conversation’s in Spanish. Héctor, right next to me, starts talking proudly about the irrigation system the pioneers started way back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s. It’s still going strong, and makes this desert valley shockingly green. “The All-American Canal feeds sixteen thousand miles of canals,” he says. “And how do we deliver it? Gravity. No pumps! They found out that the Imperial Valley is slightly tilted towards the north. So the water just runs through the farms by gravity. These guys were brilliant. And now, we supply the whole nation with greens.”
I was going to have one of their pan dulces, but no time. I arrive heaving back at the depot just as the Greyhound bus pulls in off West State Street from Calexico.
“You had us worried,” says Lawrence.
“We wondered if you’d gone looking for the house Cher was born in,” says Sonny. “You wouldn’t be the first.”
The Place: Las Conchitas, 619 S. 4th Street, El Centro, 760-336-2751
Hours: 5am – 9pm, daily (Sundays, 6am-8pm)
Prices: Donuts, 85 cents each, $9 a dozen; ojaldre (puff pastry), 85 cents; muffins, $1.10; birote with cheese, $2.25; torta, $2.90, $3.75 with ham; chorizo and frijole tacos, $1.30; molletes with chorizo, $2.85; plus countless buns, cookies, cakes
Nearest Greyhound Bus Stop: West State Street near South 4th Street