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Authentic amigos at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant 

Wednesday, Jan 20 2010

Lately, to my delight, there's been a spate of incredibly crappy busking goin' round various BART and Muni stations. Don't get me wrong: I like the good musicians, too, but the bad ones really make my day. There are two guys (to my knowledge, they don't know each other) who sing loud and proud and strum their guitars. They seem to perform original material, and from the sounds of the melodies, they make up each song right there on the spot. They are godawful — flat, tortured, clueless.

One of the guitarists was in the Montgomery BART station across from Peet's, pushing one out, so to speak, and I started to feel sorry for the baristas who had to hear hours of his stuff. But then I saw another group dead in front of him, and I had to laugh. The Scientologists had set up their stress-o-meters a few feet from where he had decided to plunk himself, and they had to listen to his entire set. Heh heh.

But my favorite is a mentally challenged homeless guy at the Civic Center BART who must've stumbled upon a discarded, bright-red violin one day and thought, hmmmmmm. He plays it in herky-jerk movements, sawing away at the strings in big, bold scrapings. He is full of energy and smiles, and obviously thinks he is fantastic. His, er, music fills the hall. There are probably composers trying to sound like this guy in the Mills College master's program. His work reminds me of Penderecki.

These guys put me in a good mood because they are somehow more authentic than established songwriters. In a town full of so much talent and culture, it's downright refreshing to hear pure shit.

Speaking of authentic (how's that for a segue?), have you been to Tommy's Mexican Restaurant on Geary Boulevard? It's known for making amazing margaritas, and you can choose from dozens of tequila varieties you never even knew existed. The place has long been a favorite for tequileros, well before Sammy Hagar got into the mix and helped put the spirit on the map. Each drink is made with hand-squeezed limes, which has to be a pain for the bartenders, but it is muy auténtico, only not in a shitty way. I'd been meaning to go to Tommy's for years, and the other night I made good on that desire.

If you talk to bartenders who really know their trade, many of them name-check Tommy's because it's known for its knowledgeable staff. Though Tommy's bar is pretty small, everyone manages to squish in pretty well. The setup forces conversation, which, as you know, is the kind of situation I like. Plus, if there isn't anyone to talk to, I enjoy the idea that I have a captive audience in the bartender. He or she is forced to talk to me, or at least acknowledge me every 20 minutes or so. I am the bad busker; he or she is the Scientologist.

I sat down and perused the tequilas. Tommy's claims to have the largest selection outside Mexico. This might have been true at some point, but I have a hard time believing it now. Tequila has exploded over the last decade, becoming just as boutique as some whiskeys. I abstain from the stuff, but I looked at what the people around me were drinking.

"Um ... I don't know ... " said one of the women on my right. She was part of a group drinking a pitcher, and they'd asked for the cheapest one. On my left, a man who was all by himself was nursing a white tequila. He didn't look interested in talking, so I didn't bug him. Or at least, I thought, I'd wait until the booze hit.

The bartenders were squeezing away, and had the arms to show for it. With the tight quarters and somewhat rough edges of Tommy's, the place started to remind me of a saloon from ¡Three Amigos! All we needed was a big bad bandito busting through the door and demanding our pesos.

The movie is about three actors who are hired to rid a town of bad guys. The actors don't know that the town thinks they are genuine badasses, not movie stars. And the funny thing is, they actually are genuine badasses until they find out about the mixup. Then they lose all of their "bravery." It's like in Road Runner, when Wile E. Coyote runs too far off a cliff and sits in midair, relieved to have gotten away. He floats there until he realizes nothing is holding him up, and then he falls to his doom. ¡Three Amigos! is like that. It's also sort of postmodern, with the idea that a substitute can be just as authentic as the real thing, depending on how you look at it.

"Whewwwheee," said one of two oafish sorts at the end of the bar. The guy had just finished off what was probably his 19th shot. What is it about tequila that makes people look particularly glassy-eyed? He was laughing at something while his friend was staring at the ass of the hostess — which was sort of interesting, since she appeared to be in her 60s. The guys were definitely less inhibited than they would have been if they were sober, so I ask you: Which is real? If the Native Americans said that our dreams are reality and our awake time is the illusion, then maybe we are authentic only when we're drunk, and sobriety is a construct. Jesus, I hope not. Because that would mean that the "authentic" me is a cheap slut who loves Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

My friends showed up, and we moved to a table for dinner. The service was terrible and the food was just okay — in short, I loved it. When I walk into a tiny S.F. favorite like this, I don't want things to go smoothly. It adds to the charm. It's the bigger places, with big investors backing them, that I expect to run like well-oiled machines. As for Tommy's, nobody's perfect. And that is what makes it real.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair

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