Chance Encounter

Chance Bistro

926 Orange Avenue, Coronado

I guess it's those bright blue-and-red Cinzano umbrellas. "Oh, Ed," says Carla. "How European! Let's see if they do lunch."

I was gonna pop in to Danny's saloon, home of Coronado's famous Slamburger, for a snack. After all, it was voted "best burger" for years, right? But, what the heck, we cross the street. Yes, Carla's hauled herself back from that horrible compound leg fracture she had over a year ago to almost normal walking. We stop outside this little place with four streetside tables. A five-foot-high cylindrical drum that's pasted with menus is set on a stand. Very Paris. The tables are covered in white cloths, with paper on top that you can scribble notes and draw pictures on. Very Paris. Add the umbrellas and you practically want to sing the Marseillaise.

Or is it Mexico City? I check out the menu pole. There's a mix of American and really interesting Mexican stuff. Along with burgers, they've got dishes like rasurado -- shaved abalone with serrano hot peppers and "rasurado sauce." Nice. About twenty bucks, though.

Carla glances inside -- creamy walls with big poster-type art. "Let's sit out here," she says. "More bistro-ish. Ooh. Nice springy stretch-string seats."

A pretty girl comes out with menus. Federica. The owner's daughter. Carla and I order a coffee ($1.75) while we look over the possibilities.

One side of the menu lists some very enticing starters, but they're expensive. Like steamed mussels for $18.75 and mains like French-style entrecôte and pommes frites, $18.75. I'm getting worried. Then I see they have sandwiches from $5.75 to $9.75 and all-day breakfasts from $4.75 to around $7.75. Whew. And other dishes. The Spaghetti Carbonara is $8.25, and Spaghetti Alfredo's $8.75.

Carla has her finger on "Gourmet tacos."

I do a double-take. "Ten-fifty for tacos?"

"Yes, but look what you get: 'Medium-rare grilled beef rib-eye over sautéed green onion and sesame [seeds] covered with green salsa, served on flour tortillas.'"

Uh-huh. Me, I've shifted focus to a pear and blue cheese salad with candied walnuts ($7.75). Or Swiss fondue for two, $17.75. Nine bucks each.

"Damn," Carla says. "Steak Tartare. Raw. With capers."

I shake my head. It's $17.25 for one. I ain't that loaded.

In the end, Carla gets a bacon cheeseburger ($7.25 with fries), and I ask for the Mexican dry noodle soup ($5.25), with grilled chicken strips on top ($3.25 more).

But here's the funny thing. They're both interesting. My "dry" soup is a bowl of spicy wheat noodles called fideo seco, with, looks like, chorizo mixed in, and chipotle sauce, and chopped chicken on top. It's tasty, almost Asian, 'specially when you dunk forkfuls into slightly sour Mexican-style cream.

I'm slurping these things up happily, head down, when Carla says, "Ohmygod. You've got to taste this. Look at the size of it. Here."

I take a bite of her burger. Oh Lordy. J-u-i-c-y, way big, pink inside. Yet the flavor isn't naked-meaty, but spicy, garlicky, wonderful.

"This is the best damned bacon burger I've ever had!" Carla says.

"It's a half-pounder, it's organic, and it's filet mignon," says José Guitian, the owner, Federica's dad. "The supplier I found was throwing away the extras from all the organically grown filet mignons he was cutting. I persuaded him to grind them up for me instead. That's how we've got the best hamburger meat available."

Carla's so blown away, she insists on coming all the way back next morning for breakfast. I ask Federica's cousin Yahel for one of their omelets. For $7.75, you have a choice of ham, bacon, cheese, mushrooms, tomato, or avocado.

"Or," says Yahel, "have it with everything."

"Same price?"

Yahel nods.

Wow. So, heck, I do, and it comes out bulging and dee-lish, with a fresh-heated chunk of baguette that's free, after I ask for it. But, actually, Carla gets the more interesting item, a plate of enfrijoladas. Two cheese-stuffed corn tortillas doused in a slurry of black beans, then topped with that slightly sour Mexican cream and queso fresco, crumbled Mexican cheese.

"In Mexico City, where we come from, we don't use fava beans or pinto beans, like in the north," José says. "They're too sweet."

José, who used to run Señor Frog's in Tijuana in its glory days before 9/11, says this restaurant was Federica's idea. "She was only 20. I said, 'It's long hours.' But she really wanted to do it." The whole family runs the place now, including Norma, José's wife, who originally didn't want any part of it.

The most popular item, José says, is the tortilla soup, and then the pear and blue cheese salad. "We do a lot of dishes from Mexico City. Like the 'Pepito sandwich' [$11.25]. That's filet mignon slices with refried beans. We even have the 'corn-poop' soup. That's what the Aztecs jokingly called the black mold that grows on corn. Huitlacoche. You'll have to try it next time."

He says it's around $6.50. Damn. That's the second time I've heard about this dish in six months. First time this side of the border. "We're coming back," I say.

"Yeah, but not to eat a fungal disease," says Carla. "We're back for burgers, babe. Danny's Slamburger's just met its match. They think they can beat organic filet mignon?"

"Fat chance," I say.

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