"How come Juan's Place wins Best Mexican in the Express Readers' Poll every year?" my editor wondered.
Several days later, my cousin called to ask where she should take her roommate for a surprise birthday dinner. The catch? Twelve to fourteen of her roommate's classmates wanted to spend $15 a person. I named a few places that might work, but it took some thinking. "Someone recommended Juan's," she told me. I told her to go for it.
Sure enough, when I met a couple of Express staffers for drinks and dinner, who was sitting at a long table in the next room but my cousin and twelve of her friends. They weren't celebrating alone: In the ninety minutes my friends and I sat at our table, tucked among parties of four, six, and ten, the lights dimmed three times and the canned strains of the happy birthday song filled the restaurant.
A funky, slightly run-down Mexican TGI Fridays, Juan's Place has occupied the corner of Carleton and 9th since 1972. By now Juan Mejia and his family have served generations of Berkeleyans, Cal students, and writers hungry for big food on tiny budgets. The restaurant's old-school charm comes from sombreros, vacation pictures, and Corona signs on the walls; bustling waiters ("I've never seen them be so nice," said one tablemate, after our server made the rounds asking how everything was); and throngs of festive diners of every stripe.
We ordered standard-issue tamales and enchiladas and tostadas, and they all came on huge platters -- the kind you can't touch since they've just spent a minute under the broiler -- lacquered with melted cheese. I gained new respect for my coworkers, dainty editorial types, as I watched them clean their plates and then keep snacking on the freshly fried chips. The pitcher of wine margaritas (Juan's doesn't have a liquor license) slowly emptied, soaked up by the saturated fat in our bellies, leaving only the faintest buzz.
My cousin's birthday party was a smash. It was another reminder to me -- a necessary one -- that the pleasure of dining out comes from much more than the spectacle of the food. "There's a place for the Césars and the Olivetos in the East Bay," mused one coworker as she scooped a puddle of refried beans onto her tortilla chip. "But there's also a time for the Juan's Places."
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