Like many a Californian, I have precious teen memories of Tijuana: The thrill of getting my car tuck-and-rolled, of buying a real switchblade knife, of being shaken down by a cop for possessing a switchblade and consequently not having enough money for the bullfights, so I just got sick on tequila for the first time.

Golden memories I wouldn't part with for the world.

At the southern end of Orange County (appropriately enough), there are two small restaurant chains that celebrate the mystique of our good neighbor to the south.

Baja Eatery No. 1 in San Juan Capistrano has an authentic Baja California look, as bare as the famous Hussong's bar in Ensenada. (It's smaller, less colorful sister is located in the Mission Viejo Mall.) It is one big room with a sloping floor--which feels like about a 2% grade--and no decor, just some crooked paintings and a couple of pinatas shaped like beer bottles hanging from the ceiling.

In short, it's not the right place to go to impress your boss. But the food is vivid and authentic. When you sit down, you get pico de gallo, a rough-and-ready salad of orange, apple, pineapple and jicama chunks startlingly dosed with red pepper, in place of the eternal tortilla chips. This is the sort of place where you actually have to order chips; on the other hand, tortillas come automatically with the entree.

And what entrees. The chile relleno is made with a dark green, distinctly hot pepper stuffed with funky Mexican queso blanco . Tacos in the taco plate are the sort you get at real taco stands, each made with two miniature tortillas. Above all, there is the luscious barbacoa--not barbecued beef, as you might expect, but an impossibly rich and dark stew flavored with peppers and cumin, mostly tasting of braised beef.

This happens to be a Mexican place where you can find a couple of seafood dishes, including not only ceviche, but a fish taco and the exotic caldo de camaron , a soup of shrimp (whole shrimp, legs included) with potatoes and something sweetish and grainy, possibly yams, and, of course, hot pepper. There are actually several soups here besides caldo de camaron and the usual albondigas. The authentically misspelled frijoles de la hoya (de la olla, that is: "from the pot") are plain boiled beans that have not yet been made into refritos .

The carne asada , topped with onions and great fried, medium-hot pepper rings, is pretty tough; and although my waitress said her favorite dish was chile verde , it's rather heavy on tomatillos and tastes to me mostly like stewed tomatoes. Otherwise, everything is extraordinarily good.

At Baja Eatery No. 1, all dinners are $4.95 to $5.95. An exception is the family serving of carnitas at $14.95. At Baja Eatery No. 2, which serves nothing fancier than burritos, items run $1.50 to $3.95.

The two Tijuana Willies in Mission Viejo are distinctly fancier, featuring the traditional Mexican baroque decor and heavy happy-hour action, with the one in the Gateway Center being somewhat newer and brighter. And the food is often better than you might expect.

I am a firm partisan of soft tacos, but the crisp taco here is made with an honest fried tortilla, rather than the sort that is fried in a shaping device. They use shredded beef for their fillings, and the rice has a good nutty flavor (all sorts of vegetables are thrown into it: corn, carrots, peas, lima beans, suspiciously like a frozen vegetable mix).

This is the sort of place, though, where they put a sauce on the burrito, making it not a real burrito, but a soggy enchilada with beans in it (and a nice red sauce, though, heavy on the paprika).

They are also obsessed with deep frying. Besides chimichangas , there are flautas and taquitos --thin-rolled, deep-fried tacos, the former made with flour tortillas, the latter with corn--and sauced with guacamole and sour cream.

Other than that, it's a pretty familiar Mexican menu, prominently featuring good fajitas , served on special trivets to protect the tables. One dish completely caught us off guard, though. Carne tampiquena, "marinated in our special spices," is probably marinated in red wine vinegar, then rolled in bacon. It is so startling to find a sort of sauerbraten served with the usual Mexican accompaniments that we at first thought the meat must be spoiled. Sorry for making such a fuss, Willie.

Dinners run $5.50 to $6.95, apart from fajitas and carne tampiquena , which are $8.55. BAJA EATERY NO. 1

32261 Camino Capistrano

(San Juan Plaza)

San Juan Capistrano

(714) 661-2604.

Open for lunch and dinner daily except Tuesday; breakfast served during lunch hours and all day Sunday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. BAJA EATERY NO. 2

27000 Crown Valley Parkway

(Mission Viejo Mall)

Mission Viejo

(714) 364-6532.

Open for lunch and dinner daily. No credit cards accepted. TIJUANA WILLIES RESTAURANT & CANTINA

27567 Puerta Real

Mission Viejo

(714) 582-8775.

Open for lunch and dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. TIJUANA WILLIES RESTAURANT & CANTINA

23692-2 Alicia Parkway

(Gateway Center)

Mission Viejo

(714) 458-7160.

Open for lunch and dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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