White Transition

"Go forth!" yells Carla from the rehab place next to the Coronado Hospital. She's stuck here with her mending broken leg. "And don't come back till you can bring me honest reports. Have the Anglos destroyed it all? Is there nothing left of our patrimonio?"

I can see there'll be nothing left of our matrimonio if I don't. Carla has this bee in her bonnet about "what's happening to Old Town," 'cause some new guys ("from Buffalo, New York!") are changing the name of where her great-great-whatever used to live, like, 175 years ago. The Casa de Bandini. It's now gonna be "Hotel Cosmopolitan."

So here I am at Old Town plaza, early evening on a Wednesday. Just starting to cool. Sun's at, oh, about four fingers off the horizon -- Interstate 5, that is. I wander into the Casa de Bandini. Or is it the Cosmopolitan already? Actually, it looks pretty much the same, except I guess the bright colors are gone. Maybe it's the servers, dressed in modest Victorian dresses. People sit 'round in varnished judges' chairs under cream canvas awnings. Just looks a little...duller. My problem is that most of their food costs way more than the jingle I have in my pocket. So I head out and down toward what used to be Bazaar del Mundo. I'm thinking maybe I can create a picnic in the plaza. I stop in first at Alvarado Provisions, one of the throwback stores packed with things like traditional candies. Maureen -- she's wearing a long, sweeping Victorian dress, too (come to think of it, women look nice like this, graceful) -- doesn't do the kind of foods I might eat, like meats. But I buy a scrumptious-looking orange-and-cranberry muffin ($1.50) from her anyway. I'll have that with a coffee, later.

First, I've gotta eat. I walk into the old Bazaar del Mundo. Signs up everywhere say this is now the Plaza del Pasado. Square of the Past. Huh. The shops and cafés here, too, seem, well, less colorful. More planned. Sober. Emptier. Not of people, but of stuff, mainly those crazy-colored things from South America the shops used to have.

I end up back in the main plaza at what had been Rancho El Nopal. Now it's the Jolly Boy Saloon and Restaurant. Basically the same patio, though, with white columns, old bougainvillea and cactus. Alexis the hostess leads me to a varnished table. I notice that the round judges' chairs and the cream canvas awnings are just like the ones in the other places. Juan the waiter brings a big solid menu book. Inside it says that this place reflects the "transition" period between 1846 and 1856. Traditional Mexican food, plus new-style American seafood from the fishing industry that was starting up back then.

I scan it all. Uh, I'll be having something from soups, salads, or, at the top of the budget, an hamburguesa. Most entrée-size stuff's in the teens. But a few make the single-figure list. Tacos de Pollo Verde are $7.95, fish tacos are $9.95, torta de pollo is $8.95 with fries, and the half-pound "fire-roasted" burguesa with fries is $7.95. Chicken Caesar salad is $10.95.

What brought me in here was the albóndigas. Meatball soup. It has an asterisk beside it, which means this is the same soup they were serving back in 1854 when the original Jolly Boy started up. Huh. And, only $4.75.

"Would that be enough, like, to fill me?" I ask Alexis.

"I think so," she says.

"A classic 1850s meatball soup," the menu says. "Chayote, turnips, potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cumin, and oregano, garnished with mint leaves."

Chayote is that Mexican squash veggie you can put in just about anything.

Juan brings the chips and salsa. Ooh. Salsa's got bite. 'Course these are going to save the day. Can keep chomping them down till I'm full. Plus, I just order water. I chat with Oscar the violinist, one of the two musicians sitting out his break nearby. "They don't have mariachis in the new setup," he says. "Just two or three musicians wandering around."

And it seems like they play "transitional" music. He and his guitarist buddy Ramon launch into "Novillero," a bullfighting song, then hit "Roll Out the Barrel."

Juan brings the albóndigas. Three big meatballs with tons of diced veggies in the soup. Nicely seasoned -- that mint leaf's great -- and I just keep taking chips to add solids. When all's said and done, and the rising tide in my gut leaves me feeling less whiny, this is still a great place. No traffic, beautiful violin playing, folks sauntering -- and that funny-peculiar knowledge that dons, merchants, ruffians, and ranchers all probably sat exactly here, 150 years ago, chomping and slurping on the same-recipe albóndigas, thanking the Lord they'd escaped the Bad Olde World, or grizzling about what a hick pueblo this was, or how those danged gringos just seemed to keep coming and coming.

Light's fading. Grass in the plaza's getting luminous green. I pay up my -- heh heh -- $5.12 and go look for a coffee. Want to sit down in the plaza, where they had all those bullfights and hangings and Judge Roy Bean, uh, hung out, and enjoy Maureen's orange-and-cranberry muffin. Oh, and think of something to get Carla, to soften the blow that, yeah, the gringos have taken Grandpaw's casa back.

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