The Place Goes Mad

Casa Don Diego

1199 Third Avenue, Chula Vista

Slap, slap, slap. Joanna’s whipping those dough balls into tortillas. “Busy day today,” she says.

She’s working right here with her tables and pans, out on the Astroturf entrance to Don Diego’s, a red, orange, green, yellow, and brick place with arches everywhere and mature, Pecos Bill–style cactus growing around it. Old-school Mexican.

But I don’t linger outside. Gotta get a seat before the place fills. Everybody’s coming for food and fútbol. And not just any game: Copa Mundial, México-Francia.

It’s 11:30 in the morning, Thursday, and there are plenty of people in the suavecito dining area, but the real fans cluster around the 12-stool bar with a big flat-screen at either end. At least half are wearing green Mexico soccer jerseys. Fernando Fiore, Univisión’s famous sports anchor, is blasting away in Spanish on the TV, live from South Africa. Pablo and Magdalena Peña, the restaurant’s owners, along with a crew of a half-dozen waiters, are already running back and forth, schlepping drinks, plates, chips, and salsas.

I get the last tall barroom table. Just in time: the teams are coming onto the field. Kids lead the players out, holding their hands. I like that.

I like this, too, how it’s so cozy in here, with red and orange walls, a low, swamp-green ceiling, carved red rafters, and a couple of murals. One shows a guy whacking away at agave, the plant tequila comes from.

“There’s a $10 minimum today,” says Pablo, who’s bringing me a menu. “People come in for the World Cup and sometimes don’t buy anything. So we had to start this rule.”

That’s fine. Hmm…see they have everyday lunch offerings, like a taco, rice, and beans, or an enchilada, rice, and beans, for $5.95. “Amigo” daily specials for $6.65, served from 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. Today’s special is picadillo, a kind of ground-beef-and-veggies combo with rice and beans, plus soup of the day or a small salad, and a soda. Wow. Bargain. (Tomorrow’s looks good too: garlic fish.)

Signs say they’re open at 7:00 a.m. all through the World Cup, June 11–July 11. But even now, at nearly noon, I need breakfast. And, yes, menu says they do breakfast all day. Great. All breakfast dishes except one are just under seven buckeroos. Pretty standard fare: eggs with chorizo, Spanish omelet, huevos rancheros (fried eggs on a tortilla, doused in ranchera sauce), and Baja eggs with chilaquiles. They all come with rice, beans, and tortillas and cost $6.95. The cheese-and-shrimp omelet is two dollars more ($8.95), but, hey, it’s shrimp. That’s what I order, along with a coffee.

By the time it comes, everyone is hooting. Each time the Mexico team almost gets a goal, cheers, claps, and horns erupt in the bar. These horns sound like the South African vuvuzelas on TV. Jeez. I could do with a beer, like everybody else. They even have Negra Modelo on tap. But coffee’ll have to do. Besides, it goes well with the shrimp omelet. The yellow-and-pink mess sits in its sea of frijoles and red Spanish sauce, next to an island of golden rice.

Gal with long blond hair sits at the bar nearby. She’s wearing the green Mexico team shirt, drinking a Dos Equis, and eating a chile verde burrito (with “diced pork cushion meat” — the tenderest, leanest, according to Pablo — cooked in tomatillo sauce, $5.95). Whenever the Mexico side is looking good, she waves a red-and-white-striped soccer shirt. “It’s the Chivas from Guadalajara,” she says. “I lived for five years in Mexico.”

By the time the first half’s over, my green platter’s clean. Thing I liked best was the red salsa. It had a strong, fruity tang, as well as some heat, which helped things a lot because without it the tastes are pleasant — camarones, frijoles, and all — but not that punchy.

Second half now. A cheer rips out. Nobody’s scored, but the Mexican side has brought in Cuauhtémoc “Temo” Blanco, one of Mexico’s oldest players. And with him, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, one of the youngest. “Now,” says this guy, Albert, at the bar, “watch out.”

“Alberto should know,” says Pablo. “He’s been to four World Cups.”

Wow. And guess what? One, two. Bam, bam. Chicharito slams one home, then Temo kicks a penalty in. The place goes mad.

Suddenly, I feel hungry again. Is it all this joy and jubilation? I find myself ordering the $6.65 Thursday lunch special. The picadillo ground beef–veggies combo with rice and beans, tortilla soup, and a soda. Magdalena says the coffee can count as the free soda. Deal! The picadillo is delish, with lots of corn, carrots, and onions…but the tortilla soup...man. Da bomb. Beef, chicken stock, that strong ranchera flavor, corn, cheese balls, and crunchy fried tortilla strips criss-crossed over the top — scrumptious. In the madness all around me, it disappears without a trace. Man, I’m stuffed. Next time I’m getting a large tortilla soup ($5.25), period. I know it’ll be filling enough.

“This place is 41 years old,” says Pablo. “Magdalena and I have had it for 21 of those.”

“But who is Don Diego?” I ask.

“Haven’t you heard of Zorro?” he says. “By night, he is saving damsels and stealing from the rich. By day, he is…Don Diego.”

I look at him. For a moment. Nah…or…?

The whistle blows. Game’s over. Mexico has slain the mighty France. Horns blare, people high-five each other. Outside, Joanna flails her arms, holding her tortilla roller. “México!” she shouts.

It’s like Cinco de Mayo all over again.

Which, come to think of it, was the last time Mexico sent France packing. Back on May 5, 1862. ¿Verdad?

The Place: Casa Don Diego, 1199 Third Avenue (at Oxford Street), Chula Vista (619-426-6131)
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: Breakfast eggs with chorizo, rice, beans, tortillas, $6.95; Spanish omelet, $6.95; huevos rancheros, $6.95; Baja eggs with chilaquiles, $6.95; shrimp omelet, $8.95; lunch specials, e.g. taco, rice, and beans, $5.95; picadillo (ground beef, rice, beans, soup or salad, soda), $6.65; chile verde, rice, frijoles, tortillas, $10.95
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Monday–Tuesday; till 9:00 p.m., Wednesday–Saturday (Friday, till 10:00 p.m.); 9:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Sunday (during World Cup, opens 7:00 a.m., daily)
Buses: 929, 712
Nearest Bus Stops: Third and Oxford (929, closest); Third and Palomar (712)

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