933 Orange Avenue, Coronado
"Appetizers! Appetizers! Me want..."
I swear. Carla's becoming a kid again. 'Specially when it comes to Mediterranean eats. We're talking Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Middle Eastern. There was that time when we were humping around, like, Qatar, Egypt, when all we ate was appetizers. Months on end. Finances, of course. And, of course, for months after, we couldn't stand the sight of a bowl of hummus, baba ghanoush, or tabbuleh.
Now, the pendulum's swung again, and Carla has the hots for anything Middle Eastern. So when her friend Linda called and said she'd been to this place where they served homemade hummus, Carla had my butt on that 901 bus before I could say baba ghanoush.
"There's only one problem," Linda told Carla. "It's in a liquor store. Right next to Petco."
We hop off the bus at Ninth and Orange, then head south toward Petco. And then we're here. "Grand Opening," says the sign. "Coronado Bottle Shop. Mediterranean, Greek, and Pizza Restaurant."
It's a liquor store all right, but it has a couple of black metal tables and chairs outside.
"Follow me." Carla heads in, weaves down through the racks of bottles, brandy, whisky, wine, water. I make out a blue-painted counter way at the back.
We end up stuck behind a bunch of schoolkids ordering slices of pizza. Coronado High. It's a couple of blocks away. I grab two sheet-of-paper menus. Slices, I see, are $1.89 each, or you can get a "combo slice," with one topping and a soda for $2.78.
One side of the menu is Greek, the other is sandwiches, with pizzas in the middle and appetizers at the bottom. The Greek dishes are $3.99 for a sandwich and $6.99 (mostly) for a plate, which comes with rice, salad, and pita bread.
They have what you'd expect: sheesh kabob, gyro, a chicken gyro, beef or chicken souvlaki (cooked over charcoal on skewers with onions and tomatoes), falafel (a deep-fried garbanzo patty with sesame sauce), and spanakopita, spinach pie. I see the plate size for this and the falafel are only $5.99 each.
The owner, Sadir -- or Steve as everybody seems to call him -- stands behind the register. His green eyes are hawklike. Schoolkids ain't gonna mess with him. He's a Chaldean, Christian from Iraq. Spent a lot of his childhood in Greece. Worked in a restaurant there, he tells us, as we wait our turn. He's owned a liquor store here for years, used to have a pizza place in Poway. Always dreamed of opening an eatery in Coronado. "I wanted to make a place where you got good food and could basically fill yourself up for about five bucks or so. Now I've got a chance to do it."
He says the burger I'm looking at (with fries and salad, $4.98) is a half-pounder. Wow. Not bad. They have a Philly cheesesteak for $5.98, same sides, and a shrimp sandwich for $4.98.
"The meatball sandwich," mutters this guy behind us. "To die for." He works for a local plumbers' outfit. Knows every eatery on the island. "I tell you," he says, "meatballs. Something about the sauce. Or -- their pizzas. I mean, I know pizzas, right? It's the sauce again. There's better pizza here than anywhere in San Diego. True! Except maybe Mazara's in North Park. Or DeMille's. But this is better than Filippi's, and I never thought I'd say it."
Before I have time to digest all that, Carla has ordered a gyro plate ($6.99) for herself and a hummus dip appetizer ($3.97) and is talking about a falafel (the deep-fried garbanzo, $3.97) and dolma (rice-stuffed grape leaves, same price).
"Sweetheart, you're gonna $3.97 me to death."
"But that's why we came! Don't you remember, six months of our lives..."
In the end, the hummus is our only extra. I order up a chicken souvlaki ($6.99). It's on special today, comes with a free drink. I get lemon soda for both me and Carla (the second drink costs $1.00). We're out twenty bucks and change.
Still, the gyro's turned Carla into a murmuring brook, bubbling with mmm's and "oh yeah's." I grab a few bites. It does have a good spicy flavor to it. A bit short on tzatziki, but Steve gives us more.
You can taste the lemon and smoke in my chicken souvlaki. You know it has been truly cooked on charcoal, because the three skewers are about burned off at the holding end. The salad with tzatziki sauce, feta cheese, red onions, and real Kalamata olives is great. But it's the basmati rice under the skewers that is the greatest. Just spicy enough.
And now, hummus time. Carla and I curl up over it, rip the pita, scoop out the garbanzo. You can taste the sesame tahini and the garlic. We start talking about the day it rained in the desert in Qatar, about eating rabbit fresh-caught by a falcon, about the day we discovered that algebra, navigation, half our knowledge, and just about all our religions come from the Middle East.
Wadia, Steve's cousin, who is the cook, says he also makes the baklava. "Like to try?" he says. They're 80 cents, but he gives it to us for free.
What a kick, taking our baklava and sitting out there on the Avenue, chowing down and watching all the surprised faces pass. "Eating? At a liquor store?" you can see them all thinking. Okay, so it's not exactly the Hotel Del. But hey, neither are the prices.