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La Tapatia offers cheap, spirited food and a nourishing sideshow

Bigger shrimp swim in a straightforward, brick red soup to doctor with cilantro, minced onion and (by request) fresh lime. It's decent enough, but no match for the fragrant, restorative caldo de pollo brimming with rice and tender chicken on the bone.

Forget the appallingly sweet chicken mole enchiladas. Shun the refried beans, which fly wildly between soupy and stiffish, in favor of the heady frijoles a la charra stocked with big old bacon and pork flaps. Don't try to order the lemonade, because for some unfathomable reason, they don't serve it anymore. And be advised that breakfasting after 11 a.m. will add one dollar to your modest bill, an interesting custom that seems more civilized, somehow, than discontinuing breakfast altogether once the sun gets too high. The need for a Mexican breakfast can strike at any hour.

One more thing: consider the brains. La Tapatia serves this outre delicacy in various forms -- taco-ed, torta-ed, burrito-ed -- and they're fresh enough to make the experiment worthwhile. Wrapped in a double-tortilla envelope, they have a deep, mysterious softness you either love or hate. La Tapatia's green sauce plays against the satin-smooth texture; so do chopped cilantro and onion. These may not be the celestial brains in green sauce once found at the Paso del Norte in Juarez, but they'll do nicely for an everyday version. And you're almost guaranteed to get a gratifying rise out of your tablemates by ordering them.

You pay up front, along with the superannuated hippies, the guy with the half-bleached hair sticking three inches straight up and the ponytailed Aztec prince with the teeny-tiny sunglasses. Nobody charges you for the sense of belonging to a city that is still in the stimulating process of making itself up.

Taqueria la Tapatia, 1749 Richmond, 521-3144.

La Tapatia:
torta al pastor, $2.25;
torta de pechuga, $3.35;
shrimp taco, $1.50;
banana licuado, $2.00.

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