Carne Asada, 24/7

Clad in a tight white tank top, his wiry body adorned with tattoos, Jesus "Chuy" Chavez looks every bit of the gangbanger he claims to be -- except for the fresas con crema the 19-year-old Phoenician is spooning into his mouth.

Even the Valley's most hardened residents have a soft spot for La Salsita, a 24-hour Mexican restaurant smack in the middle of one of Phoenix's most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

"I come here at least once a week," Chavez says, sitting with his homies in the patio overlooking the intersection of 24th Street and Van Buren. "We go out cruising for girls, but after a while, our mind shifts from pussy to food."

To be specific, strawberries with cream.

After midnight, La Salsita attracts a curious mix of (apparently) prostitutes, pimps, cops, gangbangers, transients, migrant workers, teenagers breaking city curfew and nightclubbers -- including English-speaking hipsters and Spanish-speaking norteños.

La Salsita's $1 carne asada tacos cross all ethnic and social barriers.

"It's so cheap and good, you can't beat it," says April Bojorquez, 23, who spent the night partying with friends in central Phoenix. "It has a lot of personality, a very real environment."

Sitting behind Bojorquez, with a group of girlfriends, is 17-year-old Ana Chavez, who apparently is unaware of the city's midnight curfew. This is her first visit to La Salsita, she says.

"When I saw where we were going, I said, 'We're going to get shot,'" she says, half-joking. "But it's actually cool here. I'm not scared."

Then there is Preston Higure, a 27-year-old from Tempe who prefers to party in central Phoenix.

Despite being a vegetarian and knowing minimal Spanish, Higure is a regular at La Salsita. He avoids several house specialties, including tacos filled with cow head, tripe and tongue.

"I come here about three times a week and tell them what I want, and they make it for me," he says, munching on a burrito containing potatoes, eggs and cheese, along with other condiments he can't pronounce.

Higure's companion, Tawe Townsend, 21, says La Salsita is so authentic that it reminds her of the places at which she eats when she travels to Rocky Point.

Occasionally, a police siren drowns out the salsa music booming from the restaurant's speakers, which is already competing against the ongoing Spanish chatter emitting from the hoisted television set in the patio.

But at La Salsita, that's just life in the big city.

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Carlos Miller

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