Not melted cheese, not sour cream

Fonda Don Diego casts cold eye on border food

Nopales in salsa verde and griddled queso panela
  • Nopales in salsa verde and griddled queso panela

Guy sits at a bar, staring at a bull. Or is it a pig? Or is it a man?

Fonda Don Diego

120 Orange Avenue, Coronado

The bull’s part of a fresh-painted wild-colored mural on the wall behind the Negra Modelo and Green Flash beer taps.

Okay, I’m the guy staring. Have been drawn into this new “authentic Mex” place.

Alebrijes. Is it a bull? Is it a pig? Is it a person?

Alebrijes. Is it a bull? Is it a pig? Is it a person?

Gal behind the bar sees me looking at the painting. Name’s Zitlali.

“It’s an alebrijes,” she says.

Wait. Alebrijes? Zitlali? Information overload!

“Zitlali’s an Aztec girl’s name,” she says. “‘Star goddess,’ my mom said it means.”

And alebrijes?

Chef-owner Alejandro Martínez also owns the French-style Chez Loma.

Chef-owner Alejandro Martínez also owns the French-style Chez Loma.

Alebrijes is like fantastical art,” says Luís, the guy who’s just served up my Pacifico pint ($5.50). “See this creature?” He’s pointing to the painting. “It has the horns of a bull, the nostrils of a pig, the eyes of a human. It’s a kind of magical Mexican thing.”

Is it a steak? Bite to find out.

Is it a steak? Bite to find out.

Huh. You think of magical realism in novels, but in art, too?

“The artist’s known as El Norteño. His name’s Alonso Delgadillo. He paints border art. Very famous in Tijuana.”

Taco cochinita

Taco cochinita

These people opened two months ago, and now I look, they have a kinda fantastical mix of old and new in here, too, from the brand-new equipales (chairs made of rosewood and pigskin like the chairs Aztec lords sat in) to the bejuco vine-rope lamp shades. And we’re in this old building that used to house the Mexican Village, the island’s famous Navy flyboy party place and the original gringo-Mex food scene.

Mushroom quesadilla

Mushroom quesadilla

Kind of appropriate that this is where these new guys have come to take a stand for “real” traditional Mexican food.

But at my kind of prices?

Maybe not. When I sauntered past the Fonda (word means “inn,” or small eatery), the menu outside featured entrées like braised lamb shank birria with rice and tortillas for, uh, $25. Or ribeye asada, $25. Or fish of the day, $24.

Zitlali and Luis

Zitlali and Luis

Then I noticed the quesadillas. Oaxaca cheese quesadilla with epazote (an herb, sometimes called Mexican tea), $3. Three bucks? In Coronado? They have chorizo quesadilla with potato for $4, mushroom quesadilla ($4), and chicken tinga (braised chicken) quesadilla ($4). And for a buck extra you can get any of them fried.

So, suddenly, this could be my first all-quesadilla dinner.

First off: get the thirst off. For a place three doors from Coronado Brewery’s HQ, not a great selection of craft, so I go for the pint of Pacifico ($5.50). Then I start making instant decisions. Uh, too many instant decisions. Pretty soon I’m surrounded by — man, oh, man — four red and white plates. I had ordered up the papa (potato) chorizo quesadilla, the chicken tinga quesadilla, and the mushroom quesadilla, fried, plus a cochinita taco (which should cost $9.50 for a minimum two, but Luís lets me get just one for $5.)

Oh, and a plate of grilled nopal. Because, I tell myself, it’s only $7, and need to test it for Carla. Coming for a monthly hairdo tomorrow.

But, man, these quesadillas are like pregnant super tacos. Little bellies bloated with chorizo, mushrooms, and chicken stew. The two fried ones make it a cruncher’s heaven. I kinda like the chicken quesadilla, I really like the chorizo quesadilla (though it needs some hot sauce to bring the chorizo to life), and totally love the mushroom quesadilla. They’re all helped by the covering of shredded lettuce, cream, tomato, cotija cheese, and the tangy roasted green tomatillo sauce. As well as the tomatillo salsa verde, which is raw and tastes more like mown grass. But it adds heat. Whatever, this has to be the first time I have ever attacked three quesadillas at once, and it couldn’t have happened to nicer quesadillas. For maybe the first time, Cheesy Qs are interesting.

“We’re nearer to Mexico City cuisine,” says the chef-owner, Alejandro Martínez, who’s just come in from his other place, the upscale French-style Chez Loma, further up the road here. “We’re trying to get away from border-Mex California cooking. We don’t do melted cheese and sour cream. We don’t do nachos, which isn’t a Mexican dish. We don’t use canned tomatoes. We do use black beans. We make all our own sauces and salsas. We didn’t even do burritos till our customers complained. So we now do a couple we call ‘burrito gringo,’ one roast pork, the other braised pork [$10 each].”

You can see, this new place is Chef Alejandro’s bid to show true mexicanismo. And maybe the dish that shows this off best — among the cheapo items, anyway — is my $7 plate of grilled nopal. Does it look like a steak? Yes. Does it taste like a steak? Uh, no. But its cactussy taste is mellowed by the salsa verde and mostly by a slab of salty-sour queso panela, a cow’s milk cheese that always seems to accompany quesadillas or cactus salads. I can see they seared it up a little on the griddle. (That’s another thing about panela: it doesn’t melt easily.) I add some very hot red arbol chile that Luís brings out, and we’re rockin’.

Zitlali says one of their biggest times is breakfast. Oh, yeah. Menu lists healthy “jars” of tropical fruit, açaí, almond-chia pudding from $9 up. Standard omelets and divorced eggs (a pair covered with different sauces) all run $11. Most of the menu is $10, $12 stuff. Heck, even a plate of guacamole and chips costs $12. And then there are those $25 entrées.

But if you’re careful, you can find the real Mexico here, done beautifully, and still cheap. Just like in El Norteño’s crazy mixed-up alebrijes paintings, surprises like the mushroom quesadillas and these nopales keep popping into the picture.

And what these guys do with cactus, the ultimate poor man’s food in Mexico, I guess you could say, is magical

Fonda Don Diego

120 Orange Avenue, Coronado

Hours: 8 a.m.–9 p.m. daily (closes 2 p.m., Monday)

Prices: Breakfast jars (fruit, açaí, almond-chia pudding, others), $9 up; divorced eggs, $11; chorizo quesadilla, $4; chicken tinga (braised chicken) quesadilla, $4; mushroom quesadilla, $4 (fried, add $1); cochinita (marinated pork) taco, $9.50 for two, $5 each; spicy shrimp tacos (two), $11.50; pozole (pork, hominy), $11; four tuna tostadas, $12; braised lamb shank birria, rice, tortillas, $25; grilled cactus, $7

Buses: 904, 901

Nearest Bus Stops: Orange and 2nd (904); 3rd and Orange (901)

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