Gaslamp in the morning. It's like waking up with this lady you met last night. Then, she was glamorous, funny, dazzling. Now, in the harsh light of dawn, you're noticing pimples, lines, her raspy voice.
That's the Gaslamp right now. It's about ten. People wander dazed past restaurants where waiters clank out heavy tables. Cooks in white tunics shout to each other across the street. Backpackers trudge on, kicked out from some hostel at ten, for sure. A guy outside a Starbucks asks everybody, "Say, could you spare a couple of bucks for a Frappucino?"
Heck, they even have spare parking spots. Not that that's my problem. My problem is finding somewhere that's open for breakfast. Then, past F, I see this place where tables are out and people seem to be eating. Sun-glint aluminum chairs crowd beneath a cream-and-red striped awning.
"Alambres," it says.
Oh man. Do I want Gaslamp Mexican? That has to mean turista food, right? And turista fees. But, surprise! The breakfasts are more like I.B. prices. Four, five, seven buckaroos. Two eggs, spuds, and sausage are $4.95. Or with nopal (cactus), $4.75. Burrito stuffed with chorizo, spuds, and eggs is $4.95. California omelet with sausage, bacon, mushrooms, bell peppers, cheese, plus potatoes and toast is $6.85.
"Good morning!" says this bright, middle-aged guy in a red golf shirt with the "Alambres" logo in yellow. This is Gustavo, the manager. He guides me to a table in the shaded second row. Waitress named Nancy comes up. "Have you decided?" she asks.
Well, I had told myself I was eating gringo. Omelet or eggs and sausage. I order a coffee (a real deal: two bucks with endless refills). Trouble is, I love chorizo. And I know the burritos will have plenty in them.
I go for the chorizo burrito. While I'm waiting, I suddenly realize how cool it is to be sitting out here, on San Diego's nearest thing to the Grand Boulevard. You can tell it's getting nearer lunchtime. More rico-suave people are appearing. Gucci gals being hauled along by newly shampooed red Irish setters, bodyguard-types trailing yapper dogs as big as your kitten, the cell-phone brigade with regulation two-day-old beards, talking loudly to New York, Paris, El Cajon.
Young guy and his girlfriend turn up at the next table to have breakfast. Peder (his family's Norwegian-Swedish) talks metalwork art and orders carne asada tacos ($6.75) and orange juice ($2.75). Katie his girlfriend orders a strawberry French toast ($5.00).
"This is our first time," Peder says. "I came in because I saw crêpes for $5.00, and I wondered what Mexican crêpes would be like. But then I guess I changed my mind."
It's the TV inside. Soccer. In Spanish. Guys in there are throwing their hands up.
"We show lots of football, soccer," says Gustavo. "We try to be like a Mexico City café-bar, where people use it as their social center. That's why we keep the kitchen open till 3:00 every morning."
Actually, I'm starting to like this place. It's not just a tourist trap. They have nice brass 'n' glass hanging lamps, and a clubby feel among the guys watching the soccer.
Nancy brings my breakfast on an oval Bakelite plate with frijoles and sautéed potatoes and onions, plus a little cup of salsa and a bottle of Tapatío hot sauce. It's tasty, and yes, there's plenty of it. Gustavo says the chorizo is made from longaniza pork.
Now Gustavo turns up with what looks like a golden scroll. It's a foot long.
"This is grilled cheese. Chicharón de queso. Try it." He offers it to everyone around. We rip off bits and dip them in salsa. Deelish. He also has a plate of cebollitas, small grilled onions in "Maggie's sauce," mainly Worcestershire sauce. "Not scallions, but small onions," he insists. "Appetizers." We try them, too. Man, beautiful. He says these appetizers are "about $4.00" each.
"So many of our customers are from Mexico City," he says. "That's why we're named 'Alambres.' That's why we have Alambres."
The word alambre means "wire." But it turns out alambres are a Mexico City--style of taco. They're beef, chicken, pork, or fish on corn tortillas loaded with bell pepper, onions, and bacon. I see on the lunch menu that five of them cost $8.65 for chicken and $10.30 for carne asada.
"The Mexican consul himself comes here, two, maybe three times a week," says Gustavo. "He always has alambres with rib eye [$12.69]."
But Gustavo says the real action here starts late, maybe midnight. "You ought to come by, say one o'clock on a Friday night," he says. "Then you'll see the crowd we get from both cultures. It's something. We get many Jewish Mexicans. They are a sophisticated crowd. And before, we used to have good numbers of young Muslims. Saudis, Lebanese. Like us, they socialized late. And they liked Mexican girls, too. But since 9/11 they have stayed away."
Who knew there were cross-cultural currents ebbing and flowing here?
"Uh, is it, like, okay," I say as I pay up, "to just come, buy a coffee or beer, and hang out? Not eat?"
"My friend, no problem. That's what we're here for."
Huh. Suddenly I'm not feeling such a stranger here in the Gaslamp. Now I've got somewhere to drop anchor and watch the Avenue turn back into that glittering, saucy gal she was last night.