1786 National Ave.
A dude in a baseball cap, wife-beater T-shirt, thick silver chain and baggy jeans climbed out of a banged-up little Japanese car. He left the windows rolled down and the radio blasting, a throbbing bass shaking the room. He looked around for a few minutes, and then glanced in the doorway. I nodded, one stereotype to another.
"Hey man, didn't we work together in Trading Places?"
I saw an M&M-sized hole in the window, just above my head, and immediately thought, "bullet hole," and then chastised myself for being such a naïve little suburban milquetoast.
I looked closer: it really did look like a bullet hole. At least, what I thought a bullet hole might look like.
The dusty, one-room restaurant on National Avenue was clean by virtue of sparseness, with no food visible, anywhere. A sign on the counter, "No credit. Please don't ask," suggested that regulars would surely get a tab if they asked long and hard enough. More customers trickled in, looking like they had stepped off a Gaslamp brochure. The only Mexican faces were behind the counter, where husband and wife-brother and sister? father and daughter?-darted between an oversized grill with a solid black top, an old stove, a kitchen table and a big empty cooler announcing, "El Porvenir, since 1919."
The no-frills menu hanging from the ceiling said 1918. The menu also disagreed with itself, listing chorizo and eggs (no price), chorizo and huevos for $1.75, and chorizo and huevos for $5. (Alas, they were out of chorizo, stymieing my attempt to distinguish between the three.) Besides chiles relleño, machaca, carne con chile, carnitas, burritos and tamales, they also offered flour and corn tortillas by the dozen ($1.75 and 75 cents, respectively). Plates came with rice and beans. But when I ordered burritos a la carte, for half the price, they asked if I wanted rice and beans anyway.
When I was done ordering, the cashier-cook-owner said, "Ten dollars."
I repeated my order-pork tamale, a chile relleño, a carnitas burrito, a carne con chile burrito and a bottle of water-and had him check his math.
"Ten dollars," he repeated.
I swallowed the urge to offer to pay for a new window. Instead, I slipped $5 into the tip jar. He pulled a foil-covered pot from under the stove.
"Only one more," he smiled, and pulled out a stubby pork tamale. Using scissors, he snipped off the ends and carefully husked the tamale, draping it in a dark red chipotle salsa. I ate it with my hands as I stood at the counter waiting for the rest of my order. He retrieved a clump of carnitas from one foil-covered pot, and a pile of carne asada from another, as she warmed tortillas. The burritos are not enormous, as with some other chains. But they are also bargain priced, at $2.00 to $2.75.
I brought my red plastic baskets to one of the three booths, and slid into the kind of bright orange plastic benches that you usually see in public-transportation projects. The chile relleño became an even guiltier pleasure than usual, wrapped in rice and beans and a fresh, dusty tortilla, but made palatable by the thin breading and the sweetness of the roasted pepper. Then I unwrapped the carnitas burrito, the apex of my meal-and, perhaps, my carnivorous life. A pile of impossibly tender meat, combined with rich refried beans, dripped grease into the tortilla and onto the plate. The bullet hole behind me, salsa dripping down my chin, I devoured one after another, only occasionally coming up for air.
The smoldering carne con chile burrito lit a shot-of-hooch burning in my stomach (I mean this in a good way-nay, the best way). Hours after my lunch, the feeling still brought a huge smile to my face. El Porvenir's food is like a jalapeño-flavored ever-lasting gobstopper. Were I not such an incorrigible glutton, I probably could have survived for a week on the feeling of satisfaction from one of my three burritos. As I write this days later, my hunger has still not returned to pre-Porvenir levels (again, a compliment).
I would say I walked out of El Porvenir happy, but "stunned," "elated," "gloriously bloated" or "ecstatically spent" come closer to the truth. I waddled to my car, all but nodded off on the way home and crawled into bed. I took a long siesta, dreaming, as always, of cheap burritos and gunfights. ©
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