3401 First Avenue, Bankers Hill
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
1010 Universtiy Avenue, Suite C-103, Hillcrest
Heading for Hillcrest. Number 11. Climbing Banker's Hill. See a red, yellow, blue corner-place that's been eye candy these many moons.
"ROYAL FOOD MART, since 1902."
It's written in that "modern" 1930s lettering. Below, a big round window is cut into the frontage. On the south side hang two canopies, one blue, one yellow. The yellow says, "Caffe Carpe Diem." Huh. "Seize the Day Cafe." There's a little patio with two or three tables.
But I head under the blue canopy, into the Food Mart. We're foraging for food here. Now I see the subtitle. "Joe's New York-Style Deli at the Royal Food Mart." It's a time machine. A cavernous concrete-floored deli with high ceilings, acorn-shaped hanging lights, big old-fashioned cooler-counter packed with cheeses, hams, sausage meat. Old display cases are loaded with deli delicacies like olives, pâtés, Ryvitas. Bottles of wine fill the shelves along the wall. A sawn-off wooden barrel bulges with a bunch of Hungarian wines. An ancient wooden walk-in cooler takes up half the other side.
For a moment I stand still, thinking about that date, 1902. Who-all has come through these doors in the last 103 years? Old vets of the, like, Civil War? Possible. Charles Lindbergh? Possible. The original bankers of Banker's Hill? Probable. Whoa. Feeling those ghosts crowding 'round.
"First thing I thought, when I walked in, was 'East Coast,'" says this guy Michael. He's sitting at one of the three tables scattered between the shelves, munching on a big turkey-breast sandwich with a cup of soup. "There's something about it. The old feel, not dressed up, real. Neighborly. Could be back in Queens."
Behind him, an ancient poster for 7-Up reads, "You like it. It likes you." Next to that, carelessly placed, sits a portrait of Elvis. Signed! "To my friends at the RFM. Love me tender, Elvis."
"That can't be..."
I'm talking to this walking head that's been moving to and fro behind the cooler-counter. Aaron. He laughs.
"Not exactly," he says. "Customer gave it to Joe, the owner. He signed it, not Elvis. We don't mind."
Aaron says this place is an all--East Coast affair. "Joe comes from Queens. I'm from Brooklyn. We get a lot of East Coasters. They like our cheeses, our meats -- we use Boar's Head. There's a generosity, too, about East Coast style, the portions."
I see from the list that we're talking mostly sandwiches here, along with soups, salads, and sliced cheeses and meats. Oh, wraps, too, different flavors for $5.25, "whole rotisserie chickens" ($6.50) and "jumbo one-pound hot dogs with sauerkraut," $2.50. That sounds like a deal.
On the other hand, all the meats they sell by the pound -- like corned beef, dry Genoa salami, Oct salami, or, ooh yeah, liverwurst -- can be sandwiches too, $4.95. So, let's think sandwiches.
Liverwurst...pâté? I scratch my pâte (heh heh). Can't beat good pâté, good cheese, good bread. I stew for a moment over that one-pound hot dog, and another over a Caesar salad with chicken for $5.70, and even consider just buying a whole rotisserie chicken to rip apart. But no. I'm batty over pâté. And the glorious bonus is, for 60 cents extra, you can get any cheese you want. For me, no contest. Smoked Gruyère. That smoky, liquidy taste. Plus, for another 60 cents, I get avocado. In an onion roll. Plus lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, $4.95 plus $1.20: $6.15.
"Uh, what's the soup?" I ask. Michael here's really slurping into his.
"Chicken tortellini," Aaron says. "Has black beans, navy beans, chicken, corn, tomato, spices, cumin."
Ooh. It's $2.25 a cup. "I'll have it," I say.
'Course, glugging down that rich soup just about fills all the spaces I'd reserved for the liverwurst. But I tell you, the sandwich is sin itself. The squelches of cheeses. The ooze of soft pâté. You can taste the pork liver and bacon and spices in there. You might say it's the best wurst.
I'm just finishing all this off, when I realize the blue-and-red porthole doors on the wine-rack side have to lead to the Carpe Diem. Turns out the cafe leases some of Royal Food Mart's space. So -- seize the day! -- I pay up and hop through.
It's the Evil Eyes that stop me dead. Blue glass eyes strung around to keep out bad spirits. On walls, piled in baskets. Means one thing: Whoever's running this is Turkish. And man, there she is. Striking, cool, beautiful. Sema. She's a lawyer by training, a classy decorator too. French blue and cream paintwork, spiky modern clock, stained glass, red velvet and wrought-iron chairs, and a sort of sitting-room area facing another huge circular window on the Upas Street side. Wow. It's framing the sunset over Point Loma. Half a dozen customers ignore it. They're mostly gazing into laptops.
"This is what cafes are for back home, a second living room practically," says Sema. "It's that European feel I've been trying for."
She's eco-conscious as well. She's making the house brew Fair Trade coffee, where you know the grower in, say, Peru hasn't been screwed by the middleman.
Must say this place is cool. And yes, it's okay to bring your food over from the Royal and eat it here with a coffee. "I want this to be upbeat, casual," Sema says. "People take life too seriously."
Well, heck. I was going to rush off. But maybe I need a Fair Trade coffee to settle the gut after all that liverwurst. Besides, I never run away from a sunset.