-- Behind the counter at El Tecolote Mexican restaurant, one refrigerator sits fully stocked with cans of American Coca-Cola. Next to it, a refrigerator with frosted glass bottles of Mexican Coke is half empty.

"It was full this morning," said Mari Rodriguez, a waitress at the restaurant. "It outsells American Coke 5 to 1."

Up and down Chicago's West 26th Street, where ranchera music thumps and street vendors hawk pork rinds called chicharrones from gallon pickle jars, residents take nearly as much pride in their imported Coca-Cola as they do in flying red, white and green national flags.

The neighborhood is one of the nation's largest consumers of Mexican Coke, a sweeter -- some say -- version of the American soft drink shipped north in heavy glass bottles. The U.S. Coca-Cola Co., which does not make money from Mexican Coke, has taken notice and is trying to win over soda drinkers in this economically bustling area, known to locals as la Villita.

The import typically costs a little more than American Coke, but residents are willing to pay extra to be reminded of home.

"It has a way different taste, better than American Coke," said Tomas Rios, a customer at La Chiquita canteen.

His lunch companion, Edgar Flores, added, "When I was a baby, my mom used to feed me Coke in a bottle."

Although Coca-Cola is seen as part of the American ethos, it takes on an iconic stature in Mexico.

"A lot of products that Americans think are quintessentially American, Mexicans think are quintessentially Mexican," said Chris Boyer, a professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Coke is part of the Mexican cultural landscape."

Last year, Mexico consumed 55.2 billion cans of Coca-Cola products -- 526 servings of Coke a year for every man, woman and child, making it the largest per-capita consumer of soda in the world. (Americans consume 414 eight-ounce servings per year.)

The brand's influence even reaches into politics: President Vicente Fox once was an executive for Coca-Cola's Mexico division.

The soda is trucked 1,500 miles twice a month from bottling plants in Mexico, with the majority of Midwest shipments going to businesses in the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods of Chicago. Mexican Coke already is a staple in cities with large Mexican populations, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Antonio.

At La Casa Del Pueblo supermarket in the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago's near South Side, cases of Mexican Coke are stacked five and six tall.

Ordering manager Eladio Corral said the soft drink consistently sells out by the time the next shipment arrives. He estimates the store sells more than 1,000 bottles of Mexican Coke a month during the summer.

Coke was sold out on a recent day at Morelia, a candy store selling Latin American sweets and soda. Regular customer Francisca Villegas said Mexicans drink Coke the way Americans drink coffee.

"You make eggs, bacon, pancakes for breakfast, and they want Coke with it," Villegas said.

But what is so different about Mexican Coca-Cola?

Some describe it as sweeter -- closer to Pepsi than American Coke -- because it uses cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener found in the domestic recipe, Coke spokesman Mart Martin said.

There is also the rustic charm. There are no fancy labels or bottle cap promotions with Mexican Coke. The glass bottles have a worn, hand-me-down feel, and they are reused again and again in Mexico. It is a one-way trip for most of the bottles that come to the United States; they typically are not shipped back to Mexico to be refilled.

The bottles are like coins -- the date on the label shows how long each has been in circulation. Some bottles date to the 1980s.

Some residents believe it is not just a drink, but a cure-all elixir.

"When you have a stomachache, they give you Coca-Cola with lemon," said Maria Lopez, a clerk at Chicago's Delray Farm supermarket. "And your stomachache, it's gone. I don't know if it's mental or if it's real."

Eduardo Campos, 69, remembered the days when he worked for a Coke bottling and delivery plant in his central Mexico home town of Aguas Caliente. In 1950s Mexico, Campos recalled, Coca-Cola was revered for its charitable efforts in the poorest of villages.

"They would give gifts to the kids, helped the churches, sponsored baseball games," he said. "And they would put up these big, beautiful signs for no charge."

For four years, Campos worked at the plant. He remembered when a co-worker invited him inside the secret Coke blending room, at a time when everything was manually mixed and the resulting product, he believed, tasted better.

"They poured everything in big, stainless-steel containers," Campos said. "It was beautiful."

Then there were the children along Campos's delivery route, who would get excited at the sight of his truck.

"Most of the kids, they'd go crazy for Coca-Cola," he said.

The robust economy in Little Village -- it is one of the largest generators of tax revenue in Illinois -- coupled with the imported cola's popularity, has caught the attention of the U.S. division of Coca-Cola Enterprises.

Because the beverage is produced by Coke's separate Mexico division and imported through a third party, the U.S. division of the company does not profit from Mexican Coke sales.

U.S. Coca-Cola said it is aggressively promoting its American-formula Coke in the area. Recent partnerships include bottles commemorating the Mexican national soccer team.

"We're concerned about having the products . . . show pride and embrace the community," said John Rosales, vice president of corporate affairs for Coca-Cola. "It reminds them of the old country, regardless if it's Mexican-bottled Coke, and it reminds them of where they grew up."

But for residents in Little Village and Pilsen, the nostalgia of that distinctive Mexican Coke flavor just is not in the American Coke formula. They say there is no substitution for the homegrown product.

"They like to taste a little bit of home," said Lupita Martinez, manager of La Casa Del Pueblo. "This is the way Mexicans see it: Everything made in Mexico is the best."

Jose Godinez, 18, left, and cousin Israel Godinez, 23, of Mexico City drink Coke bottled in Mexico while at El Tecolote restaurant in Chicago.