744 Market Street, East Village
I'm the one who insisted on this. Do something, anything to add fuel to the yule. Anything affordable. Hank and I meet around six at the Gaslamp trolley stop. But we're not stupid. We head East, away from Fifth Avenue's RUF (Rich Urban Folk) traps.
I have an ace in the hole. We cross this huge multiblock parking lot toward a light that shines in the dark of Market Street.
"Like following the Christmas star," I mutter.
"Yeah, right, and we're the two wiseacres," Hank says. Guy's suspicious. We cross Market. Sign says "Padre's Ballpark Pizzeria."
"This is it?" he says. "A pizza joint for a Christmas treat?"
"I like to think of it as Mediterranean."
Hank grunts. One hardy guy sits outside, chewing on a slice of pizza, but most folks are inside this warm-feeling yellow and red and green place, with chunky wooden chairs padded with velvet. Gal waits at the cash register below the big menu.
"Dude, order whatever. It's yours," I say. Safe bet. The most expensive thing on the list is fettucine Alfredo with shrimp or chicken ($9.99).
"They've got a slice of pizza and a glass of beer for $4.99," Hank says. "That's your kind of thing, ain't it?"
Depends. The pastas all look nice and winter-warm. Spaghetti with meat sauce is $5.99. With meatballs or sausage, $6.99. Lasagna's $6.99. Hmm. Getting hungrier.
"I'll have the Greek salad," Hank says.
Sigh. Even Christmas can't derail his cholesterol crusade. On the other hand, the salad's only $4.99. Me, I peruse on. Pizzas go from six to nineteen bucks, but pizza for Christmas? Hank's right on that one.
"How about trying our shawerma?" says the girl, Bianca. "It's very good."
"Remind me what that is?" I say. "I know I've had it before, at a Chaldean...Ah. You guys are Chaldean?"
"Yes! We came here last December, a year ago."
"No, from Michigan."
Bianca's mom and dad left Baghdad for the U.S. before Saddam even came to power.
"It's chicken marinated with our secret herb combination," she says.
Hmm. Bound to involve olive oil, garlic, lemon, yogurt. The menu has a Chicken Shawerma Sandwich for $5.99 and a Chicken Shawerma Plate, with rice, hummus, salad, and pita bread for $7.99. I see Hank could have had a Mediterranean Veggie Plate of salad, hummus, "babaghanooge," dolma, and pita for $8.99.
"Think I'll have the Chicken Shawerma Plate," I say.
"I'll have to check about the rice," Bianca says. "We just sent a big order to go."
It turns out they're out. That gives me an idea. "What about if you put the shawerma on spaghetti?" I say.
"Well, we haven't done that before, but..."
Hey hey. Let it be noted. In December 2004, a new dish was born. Bianca brings out this way-big plate of spaghetti with clumps of heavily marinated chicken meat on top. Next to it, she sets down a beautiful brown-and-green ceramic bowl of golden hummus with feta and an olive on top. Next to that, a plastic plate with pita in paper, and next to that, a salad of romaine lettuce, pepperoncini, tomatoes, and feta cheese. Good deal!
Dammit, I want a beer. Draft's $1.99. Hank takes one look at my hummus and orders a bowl for himself (right there, that's another $3.99).
The chicken is delish. Garlicky, nutmeggy, perhaps. Goes well with the spaghetti, washes down fine with the beer.
"Uh-oh. Look outside, man," says Hank. "Is there a back door?"
The place is being surrounded by cop cars.
No worries -- they're all here to eat. Half a dozen or more. "I come at least once a week," says Ed, a sergeant. "Because of this." He chomps into a gyro (comes with French fries or salad, $6.99); the gyro sandwich alone is $4.99). "It's truly the best I've ever had. Plus, we just like it here. The owner's a very good guy."
His buddy Jim, off-duty, or else he's plain clothes, is here for the first time. Eating a torpedo. Another whole table is filling up with with cop talk. But the place buzzes with all sorts. A tall guy chats with Hank while he waits for pizza. He lives upstairs. Pays $500 a month. Works at a swank hotel in the Gaslamp. "Car? Downtown?" He waggles the skateboard under his arm. "This is my car." Studio musician named Rick, who's originally from Switzerland, is swearing by the Philly cheesesteak ($5.99).
"He's right," says Nasser, Bianca's brother. He's cooking tonight. "If I could only have one thing to eat for the rest of my life, this Philly's what it'd be."
A woman comes in. Beautiful, blonde, with a clipboard. "Would you like to make a donation for 'Toys For Tots?'" she says.
I'm about to shake her off when Hank says, "Sure." He peels off a Washington. "Christmas spirit, dude. What's wrong with you?"
Outside, he adjusts his belt. "Good place, but..."
"But what?" I say.
"How long can this last?" He looks across 8th to ye olde Barry Hotel, where my pal Cisco once lived for six roach-infested months. It's already looking smarter. Across Market, "The Mark" is going up. Condos "from the mid $400,000s to over $3 million."
"How long before these people get an offer they can't refuse?" Hank says. "Wanna bet by next Christmas it'll be 'Bianca's Wine Bar and High-Priced Tapas Joint'?"