Manuela, Bili, Leticia.
“Sobador,” says the hand-painted sign beside me. It gives a phone number.
1857 Logan Avenue, San Diego
This is on Logan Avenue. I’m standing in the line, as you always do here. Yes, even in these tough times, Las Cuatro Milpas (“The Four Cornfields”), is still hauling ’em in. OK, line’s a little anemic compared with PC (Pre-Covid). Still mostly anglos, like always. I notice they haven’t put tables and chairs outside.
One reason I’m here is I know they give good deals, and right now I’m a little tight o’budget.
“Only 2 Go,” says the hand-drawn sign scrawled on the stickered door. Thousands of stickers, from “Working Class Coffee” to “Slappy’s Garage.” One’s a combo of the US and Mexican flags: “We the people,” it says. “Together we stand.”
Finally get inside.
“Yo tengo hambre!” says the lady from among the bubbling pots and fryers. She’s deep-frying rolled tacos and tortillas. “I’m hungry!” All the other counter ladies laugh. “Have a tortilla!” says one.
Now it’s my turn. The three ladies are waiting for me to decide. It should be simple. I swear the pegboard wall menu hasn’t changed in the five years since I was last here. Except an “L” is missing from the word “Tamales.” Maybe prices have inched up, but only a little.
“Rice and beans,” it says, “$3.50, $4.50; rice and bean and tamale, $5.75; chorizo con huevo, $4.00, $5.75, $9.75. Burritos, $5.50.”
Saturdays, they have menudo ($4.00, $5.75, $9.75), but that’s about it. “Cash Only,” it still says. Bili and Leticia the counter ladies wait. So does Manuela at the cash register. Oh yes. I remember her from last time. Looks as if she has never shifted from her chair. She’s a granddaughter of Petra and Nati, who opened this place in 1933. They look down from their portraits on the wall.
The quick-deep-fried flour tortillas: Tasty belly-fillers.
Meanwhile, I’m checking. Not sure about the sizes, so I order two: rice and beans, small, and chorizo con huevo, also small. The ladies snap into action. They scoop, pluck, wrap, stuff into plastic bags, and assemble it all in a cut-off carton.
“Rice and beans, $3.50!” calls Bili to Manuela.
“Chorizo con huevo, $4!” calls Leticia.
Manuela enters the info and hands me a slip for $7.50.
I pass over a Hamilton. “How hard has it been since covid?” I ask Manuela.
“A little bit,” she says. “We have to wrap everything in plastic. It costs more money. It takes twice as long per customer. And people can’t eat here any more. But our customers keep coming. Still 80 percent white people! They come to the barrio from the courts, from the city government downtown, from police HQ. But we may have to raise prices next year.”
Manuela, granddaughter of the founders, commands the register while Bili wraps food.
A little further down Logan Avenue, a couple of people have sat down on the ledges at the base of La Luz Del Mundo church. They have opened up their boxes, unfolded their tortillas, and are having at it right there. I almost join them, but then decide to cross Cesar Chavez to Chicano Park under the bridge. They have green grass there, and tables. I head past the mural on the bridge leg that says “Varrio Si, Yonkes No!” (Which doesn’t mean “Yankees no;” it means “Junkyards no.”)
When I get into the park, I see tables painted in the colors of the Mexican flag. One’s free. I drop my box on it, look at what I’ve got. And wow, there’s a lot. The two polystyrene containers are packed to the lid, one with beans and rice, the other with chorizo and egg and rice. Then there’s squished-up paper twists of fresh chopped onions and cilantro, other wraps of big, fried flour tortillas, two per person. Man, this is a lot. Actually, this is too much for one person to handle.
I hear a dog whine. I look up, and there, on a red tartan rug laid on the green grass, is this lady with a black pup. Part pit, I’m thinking. She’s tossing some dog biscuits into a bowl. “Agora! Wait!” She’s hanging on to it by the collar. “Sixteen months old. She’s getting to be a lot to handle.”
Huh. I suddenly think. I’ve touched the chorizo, but not the rice and beans. “Would you like this?” I ask the lady. Name’s Darlene. I hold up the container.
“Sure,” she says. “I’ll eat it.”
I bring it over. “Agora!” she says, and holds the pup back while I set everything down. Because there’s the rice and beans, the toasted tortillas, the hot sauce, the onions and cilantro.
Darlene leans over and starts mixing her food up. “I’m always here. I sleep down by the last pylon. Then I’m up here. People know me.”
I go back to the table, start plowing into the chorizo. I mean yes, mild, but its umami comes out when you add the beautiful, dark-red house hot sauce. Specially with the nicely burned tortilla, it all brings out the chorizo flavor. And it works well with the cold coffee I’ve been hauling around.
So we chomp on in a kind of covid-distanced companionship under these awesome bridge legs, and somehow the traffic above and around us doesn’t intrude on this green oasis. It’s nice. And luckily, Agora doesn’t get jealous. She just settles down to sleep. But what gets me: this entire, filling meal I’m eating cost...four bucks! And Darlene’s was $3.50. And filling? I swear, how do you beat that? Honestly, why would I eat anywhere else? OK, you might get a little tired of chorizo and rice and beans after ten days, but what a back-up!
I get up to go, then remember to ask. “Do you know what a sobador is?”
“Oh yes,” says Darlene. “A curandera, traditional healer. But you need to be careful who you choose.”
I suddenly wonder: am I talking to one right now?
- The Place: Las Cuatro Milpas, 1857 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan, 619-234-4460
- Hours: 8:30am-3pm, daily (Saturdays, it opens 6am); closed Sunday
- Prices: Tacos, $1.95; rolled tacos, $1.25; tamales, $1.95; rice and beans, $3.50, $4.50; rice and bean and tamale, $5.75; chorizo con huevo, $4.00, $5.75, $9.75. burritos, $5.50; menudo (Saturdays only), $4.00, $5.75, $9.75)
- Buses: 12, 901
- Nearest Bus Stops: Logan Avenue and Cesar Chavez Parkway, (#12); Cesar Chavez Parkway and National Avenue (#901)