Norteño Lights

El Norteño is the Jekyll and Hyde of Mexican restaurants. By day, the popular joint courts business types and office workers craving authentic Mexican food at a good price. On weekend nights, the place transforms itself into a true Mexican street scene, enlivening the corner of Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt just south of I-10.

By 7 a.m. on weekdays, the regulars are lining up for daily breakfast specials like huevos rancheros and chilaquiles and eggs for only $2.99. There's a covered area beside the tiny restaurant for those willing to brave the midday heat. At lunch, most people are picking up orders to go. Realtors and attorneys stand outside in the scorching heat for their prized machaca and green chile burros, then pull away in SUVs parked in the small lot next to the glorified taco stand.

Yes, the place is a bit of an anomaly, more taco truck than restaurant. Traffic whizzes by and the diehard regulars all know Sergio Bedoy, the affable 27-year-old behind the counter who has a mustached grin for everyone he meets. But to get a smile, you have to peek through a window or walk inside into an area the size of a small closet.

And peek is exactly what two professionally dressed ladies do one recent weekday as they pick up a big order they've phoned in. "How much do I owe you? Mucho dinero?" Lupita Gonzalez asks with a big laugh. The thirtysomething credit analyzer hints at picking up a little more than just a burro from Bedoy. "He's my prince. Every time I call in, he's so nice," she says.

"And we call a lot. Breakfast, lunch, everything," pipes in Gonzalez's co-worker, Pauline Garcia. When asked what they like best about the place, Garcia first points to her friend and then inside to Bedoy. They scream, slap each other on the arm and leave giggling like schoolgirls.

Daytime customers like the credit duo don't venture too much toward exotic eats like cow tongue or cow head, which are exclusive to El Norteño's weekend menu. "We have carne asada, tripitas [tripe], lengua [tongue] and cabeza [head]," says Yutvani Lucero, Bedoy's 18-year-old relief cashier. Lucero says the place rocks. "Oh, they get busy, man. Until 1 a.m."

"They" would be Luis and Angel Gamez, the taquero brothers who roll in on Fridays and convert the place into a backyard barbecue, Mexican style, until Sunday night. They set up large picnic tables with vinyl covers and hordes of plastic chairs. One brother cooks frantically while the other takes orders next to the back door.

It's something El Norteño has been doing for the past eight years. But there's been a dip in sales since this past spring when the health department yanked the restaurant's popular asadero, or grill. The salsa bar has been relegated indoors where it's all but invisible.

Bedoy talks of renovations, and, true, a fix-up would be nice, but that would change the vibe the owners didn't have to work hard at creating. They set up some tables and cooked outside and people came -- just like in Mexico.

Families still wander in and order. Unlike the daytime crowd, these folks don't phone it in. Instead, they use the wait time to walk across Seventh Avenue to Circle K to buy essentials. Water, milk for the babies and eggs for the morning. You get the feeling the lunch bunch buys groceries at AJ's, not Circle K.

It's Saturday night and all three picnic tables are packed with families, tattooed twentysomethings and folks from the Roosevelt arts district. There isn't any loud music or flashy lights to draw the crowd to the makeshift patio outside the small taco box -- just word of mouth.

Odilon Organista has come here with his wife and kid, his wife's two sisters and their kids. The family from Guerrero, Mexico, likes it because it reminds them of home. "It feels better here. More communication with the people," Organista says in Spanish.

What the place lacks in decor, it more than makes up in basic human interaction. Lucero likes to tease the elder Gamez. "Luisito, we call him pelon [baldy]. They call me flaco." The skinny taco pusher says they like to have fun with each other and with the customers. "They make jokes and sometimes play tricks with us. We play tricks on each other," he says. It's all in the name of customer service, he says. "It's a business. You have to keep your customers. You can't have a face of a dog. I'm not always happy . . . but I try."

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Dan Cortez