Breakfast with the Birds

Don Félix Café

143 W. San Ysidro Boulevard, San Ysidro

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

I hear birds a-twittering. Is it in my head...or that old barn of a building?

It's coming from the building, all right. San Ysidro Feed and Supply. Curiosity killed the cat, but I have to go see. Inside, it's a sight any cat'd go ape for. Cage after cage of birds. Parakeets, budgies, squawkers, all in cages swinging between the bags of feed, hay, fertilizer.

"Lot of folks hereabouts love birds," says Tom, the owner. His mom started this store in 1934, but the actual structure was built in -- whoa -- 1885, to house horse-drawn carriages for U.S. Customs agents. That's San Ysidro all over. Half the houses going up the hill date back a century. "Little Landers," California's first Back-to-the-Earth commune hipsters, built them around 1910. I swear, it's the Brigadoon of San Diego.

"How can I help you?" says Tom.

"Uh, know a breakfast place?" I ask. I've just walked up from the border, and that's a good mile.

"You're nearly there," he says. "Don Félix. Keep going another half block."

So a minute later I'm passing under a huge pine tree that shelters the old (1850!) San Ysidro hotel. Then, almost next door, here's this little tile-roofed cream stucco place with a red-and-yellow sign. "Don Félix Café." On the windows, they've painted "Family Restaurant." It has that same small-scale, country feel as the San Ysidro hotel.

Inside is cream walls, black chairs, blue-topped tables. Ten of them. Families fill up two, little old lady sits sipping soup alone at another. Two Border Patrol officers also sip veggie-filled broths nearby.

I sit down at a window table. Sun's filtering through the lettering on the pane. Guy hurries up and hands me a menu, then heads off. He's a one-man band, dropping off menus, menudos, soups, chile rellenos, tortas.

I'm checking the menu when a handsome woman sits down at the table next to mine.

"¿Caldo?" asks the waiter guy.

"Caldo," she says.

Hmm. I see caldo de res (beef soup, with rice, chips, and tortillas) is $5.95. Could maybe manage that. But I've gotta watch it, 'cause I've just come from Mexico, where I spent about 12 bucks on a carton of cigarettes for my buddy Franky. That's limited my funds, like, critically. The good news is that the most expensive item on the menu is $7.50. Most dishes are around four, five, six.

I ask the guy for a coffee ($1.25). He brings it out with creamer and sugar. Sweetener? Forget it. Not the Mexican way. I see they have a $2.99 breakfast special, but only between eight and ten on weekday mornings. Like, ham and eggs, or chorizo, which I love, or cactus, which is good, and good for you.

The standard desayuno ain't bad either. Machaca and eggs with rice, beans, and corn tortillas is $5.50, ham and eggs is $4.25, eggs with nopales -- the cactus -- is $3.95. Among the lunch items, burritos run between $2.25 and $3.50, a chicken enchilada is $4.75, and a chicken ranchera quesadilla is $6.95.

The on-the-run waiter guy -- I never do catch his name -- is back. "The caldo is pretty good," he says. But that $5.95 price tag is pushing it. Gotta keep trolley money alive. Even so, I almost fall for the other soup on the menu, a merequetengue, which is like caldo but with cactus added. Maybe that's what the Border Patrol guys are eating. I'd have it just because of the name, which -- I ask -- various people think means, like, "you deserve what you get," or "mess of potage," or "whatever's to hand."

But I play it safe and order the chorizo -- spicy pork sausage meat -- mixed in with scrambled eggs. It comes with beans and cheese sprinkles and rice, and three tortillas, for $3.95. Right after, natch, the guy brings the caldo out to Raquel, the gal next door. Oh man. Huge. Steaming, in a traditional three-legged pot, a molcajete, bulging with chunks of beef, corn on the cob, onions, green beans. That would have stuffed me and then some.

"They're famous for this," says Raquel. "I have it every time. That's every week, for ten years!"

An older guy, Carlos, is chowing down on nopalitos con huevos. "Yes, the caldo is great," he agrees. "I've been having it for 20 years. But they've been serving it longer. Don Félix has been here 30 years."

Sigh. While I'm waiting for my food, I get up and cruise the walls and check out the historical pix they have. Funny thing is, right above the Border Patrol guys' table, a 1927 photo shows two old jalopies halted by signs saying "US Border Patrol. Stop." "US Officers check equipment," says the caption. Another shows the actual border. A big sheltering tree, a single border pole, and one lonely car. "Simpler times," says one of the officers.

My chorizo comes and I dive in. Way good. Spicy dark flavor, but it doesn't set a wildfire in your mouth. Still, with the hot tortillas and beans and rice, and a nice drip of hot sauce, it does the trick. And, at $3.95, what a deal.

I ask Raquel what work she does. She says she has a stall at the San Ysidro swap meet. She arranges everything for girls' quinceañeras. "I decorate gift pillows for them, engrave their scepters, their ceremonial cups, and I dress the quinceañera doll -- their parents' last gift of childhood -- in a dress like the one she will wear...it all costs anything from $350 to $650. It is very important for Mexicans."

Huh. Love it.

I swear I'll be back for the caldo, and for a merequetengue -- just so I can say I have.

Up the street, a lady is reaching up with a sucker-tipped stick to change the peso rate outside a bureau de change. "Up or down?" I ask. "Down," she says. "But tomorrow? Who knows?"

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