2543 Congress Street, Old Town
It’s one of those hot-summer-night things. Just feel like following the crowds.
This is in Old Town. Tuesday night. I swear, you’d think it was Cinco de Mayo. San Diego Avenue is packed. Those ladies slapping the tortillas throw them from hand to hand like they were red hot. I cross over to Fred’s Mexican Café because, well, unlike Carla who hates the crowds, I love them. The courtyard with Fred’s tables and umbrellas and señorita babes is totally packed.
“Forty-five minutes,” says the gal. “That’s the wait. Want to put your name down?”
“Uh, no, thanks.”
So, then I have the idea to go down to Rockin’ Baja Lobster. Yeah, cliché, but, one, cliché is what you need once in awhile. Two, what’s wrong with clichés? Three, anywhere down here is already special. I try to remind myself of this every time I’m here: this is the oldest community in California. Sacramento? ’Scuse me. Frisco? For crying out loud! L.A.? We laugh! Old Town ’Diego beats them all, by far. Bar none. Okay, I’m excluding the Kumeyaay, who had been living here for 10,000 years before the rest of us came barging in. But, still, this is a special place.
Anyway, hunger pangs to attend to. Heading down Harney, past Harney Sushi...that’s got a crowd outside waiting, too. I swear, Tuesday night. Turn right on Congress, about to hang a left on Twiggs. Can see the lights of that beautiful old hacienda that Juan Francisco López built in 1835, which has somehow survived 180 years to become — and I love it — a big, spreading Rockin’ Baja Lobster in its old age.
So, yes, Rockin’ Baja’s lights shine up Twiggs through its archway, saying, “Come on down!”
Except, well, blame the Alamo. ’Cause, right here on this corner, this big ol’ kinda Cliff May ranch house of the ’40s is suddenly the Alamo Mexican Café. And it’s advertising Taco Tuesday all-day $2 tacos.
And, oh yeah... Last time I saw the Alamo, it was housed in the little Taco Bell–style adobe on San Diego Avenue. Turns out they decided to move off the main tourist avenue and get more space here. Brave decision.
Has it worked? This place is packed! And with happy people. They’re rocking. I mean, not just buzzing, but ringing with laughter and toasts and ribbing and jokes. And men keep going, “Whoop! Whoop!” Seems like about five birthday parties going on.
Barman says the Alamo has been up and running in this new location only a month. But it sure seems to be working. Above the noise of the crowd you can just barely hear music like “La Bamba” or the Police’s spooky stalking song, “Every Breath You Take” playing somewhere.
I drift in with the crowd, check out the new-old surroundings. Huh. Notice wooden doors. “Mine Shaft,” reads the hand-painted sign. “Miners Only.” I end up at a great, rough-planked but polished bar jutting out into the woody room. I sit up and check the menu. They have the whole panoply of Mexican dishes. Quesadillas, tortas, salad tostadas, burritos, tacos...
But here’s the thing I suddenly see: for Old Town, these prices are incredibly low. The tostadas are around $4.75. Tamales with rice and beans, $5, tacos, okay $4.25. But burritos start at $3.49 (for bean and cheese) and average about five bucks. A chicken quesadilla’s $5.75. Carne asada plate, with rice, beans, and flour or corn tortillas, runs $8.49. The most expensive: the shrimp fajita ($8.99), but mostly, we’re talking five, six bucks. Pretty good for Old Town. Guess the rent one block off the Golden Mile is low enough that they can do this. I mean, the food is totally retro, standard stuff, but border food is still exciting to the party on my left. They’re from Wisconsin, I think they said. They keep ordering plate after plate.
Me, I stick with the Taco Tuesday offer. The two-dollar taco. I order one chicken, one shredded beef, and one carne asada, and a glass of Sprite in ice. I could go for a beer, but Tuesday night: work. So, Sprite it is. Because he gets lost serving a bunch of other customers, Derek throws in my glass of Sprite (and a couple of refills) for free.
The beef taco ain’t that great. Just no flavor. I order up some salt and hot sauce. That helps. The shredded chicken is okay, but the carne asada’s the standout. It has been marinated. You can tell. Tourist fare or not, this one has what it takes to make a great taco.
A lot of the tourists want to know about Old Town. Whether judge Roy Bean served time here (he did). If this was a Mexican town (it was). I surprise myself at what I know. And, yes, you do feel a little proud that this oldest settlement is “your town.” Plus, you learn things. That alamo is Spanish for cottonwood, or poplar tree. Bunch of them grew near the Franciscan mission near San Antone, Texas.
I stagger out onto Congress at ten on the button. Got to catch the 10:08 Green Line. I look down Twiggs. Rockin’ Baja’s still shining out from the bottom there, under the freeway. I guess with the “Cottonwood” doing so well here, Señor López’s hacienda is finally getting some competition.
- Prices: Taco Tuesday, all-day $2 tacos; Thursdays, $2.50 tacos; standard taco, e.g. ground beef, sloppy-Joe style with lettuce, cheese, rice, beans, $4.25; large flour bowl tostada with carne asada salad, $4.75; flat steak salad, $6.95; hamburger, $5.75; cheese fries, $2.99; tamale with rice and beans, $4.99; chicken quesadilla, $5.75; carne asada plate (rice, beans, tortillas), $8.49; shrimp fajita, $8.99
- Hours: 10:00 a.m.–close daily (around 10:00 p.m.)
- Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
- Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest trolley stop: Old Town Transit Center