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I made that mistake one night with my friend Jeanne, who nearly screamed when the pale-green, creamy puddle arrived. "That is not guacamole!" she said, shoving it back in the direction of the waitress. The discombobulated server explained that we had mistakenly ordered the guacamole dip, made, she said, with "lots of sour cream." Jeanne waved it away, laughing at my comment that it looked like a recipe my mother might have clipped out of Ladies Home Journal in 1964. We got the real stuff -- unadulterated by sour cream -- and it's vastly superior.
I'm only guessing here, but that hypothetical issue of Ladies Home Journal might have been the place where Ruben Campos found the recipe for his distinctive dipping sauce for the basket of corn chips. Not exactly a salsa but a vibrantly flavored cilantro-and-tomato soup served in little plastic cruets that can be poured into individual china bowls. My Guatemalan-born friend Carmen found the sauce to be "perfectly ordinary." She went on: "And served cold, right out of the refrigerator! I mean, really! And the chips should be warm!"
Carmen was not entertained by the restaurant's funky charm (or our server's highly dramatic painted-on eyebrows), but after glancing at the menu, her interest was piqued by the pineapple-jicama slaw that accompanies many of the dishes.
I was curious, too, and when our dinners arrived, I eagerly snagged a forkful of the crunchy, slightly vinegary cabbage-and-jicama creation, dappled with bits of chopped, fresh pineapple.
"Too sweet," Carmen said, pursing her lips. "It needs more vinegar and salt. Then it would be perfect."
I was more enthusiastic about the dish, which was a nice counterpoint to the peppery Santa Fe Chicken Burrito I'd ordered for dinner, a hefty stuffed tortilla crammed with chopped chicken breast, roasted corn, peppers and onion. Carmen liked her chile rellenos, which "had a kick to it," she said, poking her fork into the nicely seasoned ground beef under the dark-green poblano chile coated with an almost invisible papery egg batter.
Jeanne and my friend Bob had ordered combination plates, the kind you request by number rather than by name. Though they'd ordered different things, both dishes looked exactly alike, covered with bubbling cheese and accompanied by mounds of orange-colored "Spanish rice" with green peas and corn kernels mixed in. It was colorful, but Bob detests rice. Jeanne, after giving the stuff a wary once-over, at least made a brave foray at sampling it. I'm not pea-phobic, so I ate a lot of it, though it was as flavorless as any Chinese fried rice (which is also typically riddled with defrosted peas). Not that I cared, since in my opinion rice and refried beans are little more than starchy plate fillers. Happily, the dinners at Chelly's don't come with refried beans but a big pile of flavorful, off-stewed pinto beans, which are fabulous eaten solo or scooped up with a corn chip.
The following week I returned to Chelly's with my chain-smoking friend Greg, who cast a cool eye around the restaurant and its clientele. "Too many kids, too many bad perms," he said, blowing smoke through his nostrils. He took a swig of Tecate beer and ordered a cheese quesadilla. Before the waitress could step away from him, he coughed and snapped at her: "Does your rice have peas in it?"
She nodded, and he went ballistic. "No rice, damn it. I hate peas."