Lord of the Tacos

"Go," says Carla. "I trust you." Uh-oh. Warning flags. You know the rule: Never trust a woman when she says she trusts you.

But I'm being straight with her here. I want to learn the quebradita, the Mexican break dance that, from what I've seen, is a better workout than a couple of hours at your fanciest gym. Somebody told me the other day that down at the southern end of Chula Vista there's a, like, lobster place where they also have dancing, traditional Mexican stuff. So I suggested, all cards on the table, that we go down, right? Together, tonight, to dance.

"Bedford! I'm still limping from the damned broken leg.... Hello? Anybody there?"

But...then she says to go.

So here I am, around 11:00 p.m., outside this cream-colored stucco place surrounded by palms and banana-type trees. The sign says, "Baja Lobster. Dancing Nightly." Inside's plush, red leather, long bar. Looks good, except nobody's dancing. Guy sings onstage, not too well. Karaoke. In Spanish. "Come back Friday, or Saturday," says the guy behind the bar, Herman. But when I explain I want to learn the quebradita, he says, "Try the Marisol, on Main. They have girls can teach you there."

Ho-kay. Need time to think. Back outside, I spot this cone-shaped, grass-roofed place on the corner. Looks brand-new. Very Baja. Irony is, going in, two glass doors swish open automatically, and there you are -- outside. A half-circle of tables, with a half-circle black marble counter and half a dozen cool stools, a single pipe curved up to hold a footrest and the padded seat. Also way-cool, a mural of the Baja desert on the back wall, with buzzards, cattle skulls, saguaros, and the words "Baja Taco Shack" daubed in, plus, above your head, a Baja 1000 VW maxing out on its shocks and a half-moon ceiling painted with more buzzards, cruising the air currents this time, along with gulls and pelicans. But coolest of all is the feeling of being inside a massive palapa...

"Señor? Sir. You have to order at the counter."

Uh, oh, right. This is an über-cool gal named -- Lord! -- Carla. She walks me back to the cashier's counter at the entrance. They have a list of tacos posted above.

It's fairly basic, but good prices. Mostly from $1.50 to $3.00. Carne asada (beef), al pastor (pork), or tripa (tripe) are all $1.50. Then they have mulitas -- little mules. Carla here says mulitas are two crispy corn tortillas with meat, cheese, and guaca. If it's done right, the bubbling cheese cements the tortillas together.

Then again, I could get a crispy taco dorado deshebrada, with its shredded beef, $1.50, or a taco "à la New York" (with unsliced carne asada, says Carla), $3.00.

But now a couple of people are waiting behind me, so I just go for whatever tickles my fancy: an al pastor, 'cause I know I like that, and lessee, a taco dorado de papa, 'cause a crispy taco with potato sounds good, and, uh, okay, elote asado ($2.00). I embarrass myself by having to have Carla remind me that elote is grilled corn on the cob with butter. "You've lived how long now in this border town?" I mumble to myself.

I go sit at the counter on one of those cool stools, while Tony the manager brings out the food, plus two salsas, limes, spiced carrots, and red onions. The potato taco I could wolf a dozen of. It has a creamy, cilantroish sauce with the potato. Tony says he sells more of these than anything. The pork is beautiful in the al pastor, and the corn comes with its husk still attached, so you can hold it while you eat. I grab a bottle of Sangría, a nonalcoholic but winey-tasting drink in a winey-looking bottle ($1.50). I ask Tony which is the best salsa to put on the corn. "Neither," he says, and brings me a bottle of Tapatía hot sauce. "This is what you want." And the man's right. Just a little gives the corn the kick it needs to make it, well, Mexican.

Now, of course, I have time to look at the list without pressure. Here's what I regret not picking. (Sigh.) For starters, the Combinación Baja, a three-taco combo (carne asada, tripe, and pork) plus a chile pasilla con queso, smoky Oaxacan pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and grilled, all for $5.50. Then the mulita. And last, taco de lengua, today's (Wednesday) special, just because I'd like to someday learn to enjoy tongue without picturing it in its old job.

It turns out that Baja Tacos is only around three months old. That VW in the mural belongs to Marcos, the owner. (He and his family run both this restaurant and the Baja Lobster dance outfit next door.) "He wanted to make this look like a real Baja place," Tony says, "so he brought an artist up from Mexicali and had him paint a Baja Mil scene -- with Marco's car in it. He competes."

Man, I'm reluctant to leave. I'd party here, even though there's no grog. It's hip, it's Baja, it's -- hey -- Baja-hip.

But now -- drum roll, please -- el momento de verdad. This quebradita thing. Should I go down to Marisol on Main for lessons? I can still hear Carla's voice: "Go. I trust you." Right, until I come back with my teacher's scent all over me. That's how it'd be with the quebradita.

Oh God. Decisions, decisions.

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