Sonora Style

Los Troncos

10356 Paseo de los Héroes (at Diego Rivera), Baja

Ten at night. I'm walking up the Paseo de los Héroes, Tijuana's Rio district. Man, this is an avenue. Quadruple rows of trees, giant statues of the héroes of Mexico, like Zaragoza on his horse (beat the pants off the French, on -- what else? -- Cinco de Mayo, 1862),Cuauhtémoc, Moctezuma's nephew, just a kid, who put up awesome resistance to the conquistadors, and, wow, Abraham Lincoln, a guy Mexico just admires, I guess. Kinda nice.

Which is all in contrast to this little ol' brown timber shack. It sits alone on the edge of spare land they're using as a parking lot. 'Course you think straightaway of the shack in Lonesome Dove, the one that the guys occupied in Larry McMurtry's novel, before Jake Spoon started sweet-talkin' them into a cattle drive to Montana.

It's chocolate-brown timber, with a nice clunky plank floor veranda and a couple of young cactuses in front of it. And wrapped around the timber posts that hold up the veranda, where you'd hitch your hoss, is nice fresh rope. Nothing like the smell of fresh rope in the evening.

Also, the smell of meat grilling. The smoke from the carne asada on the grill spit behind the counter on the veranda goes straight up my greedy nostrils. So now I'm at the counter with maybe a dozen other folks. Some sit on stools, some are munching away at the wide wooden ledge on the veranda, facing the street. Another group leans over the railing, chatting. Behind the counter, a guy peels off thin, raw-pink steaks and lays them hissing over the black bars of the asador grill. He looks up.


"Uh," I say, "menu?"

He nods toward a hand-painted plaque on the corner post. Five items. Carne asada taco (17 pesos, say $1.50, or, with cheese, 23 pesos, $2); Carne Classiqueada, same prices; a Pechuguita ("little chicken breast") al Mezquite (same prices); a burrito con machaca, 25 pesos (about $2.30); and the quesadilla this gal Nory Paránco is eating, from her high stool at the counter. It's a cheese-only Quesadilla Sonorense (quesadilla, Sonora-style), 21 pesos ($2).

That's it, apart from sodas ($1.25) and a postre (dessert), a sweet cookie called a Coyotita del Pueblo ("Little Town Coyote," 9 pesos, say 80 cents).

Interesting that they don't have pork, like "Tacos al Pastor." Just beef, chicken, or cheese. And I have to ask what that Classiqueada is. "It's beef in our own marinade," says the guy behind the counter. Moisés. "Most people go for it."

Well, why not? I order one.

"¿Con queso?" he says.

I nod.

Should know this, but does that make it a quesadilla? It's meat, and now cheese, on a tortilla, flapped over. I guess it does.

The railing is one nice broad plank. You can sit, splay your elbows out, and watch the world go by. Seems this place was started just three or four months ago by the people who own El Rodeo, a rancho steak place on Agua Caliente that, come to think of it, looks like a bigger version of this.

Three people come up, gather around the counter, and start ordering. The first guy, George, orders a quesadilla Sonorense. Sergio orders a carne asada taco, and Paola his wife orders the chicken breast taco. "We're here two, three times a week," says Sergio. They all come and sit along the railing.

"Lalo?" calls Moisés. Oh yeah. That's me. "Lalo" is the Spanish nickname for Eduardo. I go get my Classiqueada. The beef has had a rich marinade, all right. And it's stuffed with onions and chunks of avocado and this delicious wall of grilled cheese.

"I'm having the same thing but without meat," says George. "I'm vegetarian, so I always find it hard to have interesting quesadillas or tacos. I'm disappointed they don't have beans -- frijoles -- with it here. But the thing I do like is they are cooking Sonora style. So we get nice flour tortillas, and their salsas are Sonora style, with carrots and peppers and onions and mustard. Or potatoes and peas and carrots and mustard. You can taste the difference. That's great fillings for a vegetarian like me."

Huh. The challenges of being vegetarian in Mexico. Those Sonoran salsas are big slices of carrots and peppers and onions, and potatoes, as opposed to a bowl of salsa mexicana, which is chopped up small. I take a couple of tastes. Oh yes. I could eat that mustardy potato salsa all night. Both salsas have heat, but the flavor's generous, not sharp. Just gimme a plate of chips, baby. These are veggies I can handle.

George turns out to be an architect. Sergio turns out to be his brother, and a real-estate developer. They design those developments you see carpeting the hills as you head to Rosarito. Paola is a quality-systems engineer at Toyota's Tijuana maquila.

María, another employee here, comes around and gives us each a little cupful of au jus. Wow. Free. I think they're the drippings from the grilling. Makes for one dee-lish beefy gunk-filled drink. I knock it back.

"So how much for a new house?" I ask Sergio.

"That depends," he says. "The smallest, say 30 square meters [around 300 square feet], might cost about $17,000. Bigger houses would go from $30,000--$100,000."

My giddy aunt. This is ridiculous. We're a mile from the border. People here are paying a tenth of what we pay for houses, because of a line drawn in the sand in 1848?

I chew down the last of my Classiqueada and sit thinking about getting another, as I watch the traffic. We're a little lit-up island of chattering humanity here at the troncos -- "the Logs," it means. Feels good. Really, can't think why those boys at Lonesome Dove ever wanted to leave the borderlands and head for Montana.

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