718 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills
777 Harrah's Way, Valley Center
"Let's eat at a bar," says Hank. "No, you don't eat at a bar," I say. "You drink."
We're in Mission Hills, at Goldfinch and Washington.
"Wanna bet? First bar we come to, bet we get food."
"If we don't, you pay for the drinks?"
"Deal...Hey, look. Over there."
It's one of those old '50s places. River-rock wall, and smoky-blue vertical wood cladding, and a red-and-white sign: "The Lamplighter." Clearly, all the action's inside. "Yeah, baby," Hank says as I follow him through one of those S-curve entrances. We tumble into gloom.
"Help you boys?"
A face materializes as our eyes adjust to the light. Tina. Oh wow. Beautiful. She's standing behind a red-and-black kidney-shaped bar. Gradually, you make out the other customers, men, mostly, on stools. I notice a couple of pool tables, and some karaoke equipment, plus photo collections, groups of people, happy faces, raised glasses.
We find spaces at the counter.
"How much for a Bud?" Hank asks.
"Three bucks," says Tina.
"And coffee?" I ask.
That perks me up.
"Listen," says Hank. "Any chance of food?"
"Sure," Tina, says. "But not from here. She reaches down under the counter and comes up with a bunch of menus."
"These are all restaurants around here. Most deliver."
"We can eat their food here, at the bar?" says Hank.
"Sure," says Tina.
"Heh heh," says Hank. "I win."
"No way. They don't have the food here!"
Hank shakes his head and looks at Tina. "Which places do you like?"
"Well, this..." She selects a folded orange menu labeled City Wok. "I like their spring rolls."
Must say, the idea of eating here is appealing. The place feels cozy. It's been around since 1954, Tina says. "And always Italian-owned. First the DiSantis, and now the Sciuttos."
She slides Hank's Bud over.
He upends it, while I check out the menus. For me, it comes down to two: City Wok, because they have plenty of $4.95 dishes, like potstickers and spring rolls and barbecue pork, plus half-plates of things like Kung Pao chicken, chop suey, Mongolian beef, and garlic pork. Okay. These were just under six bucks. The full plates are three dollars more.
But I like the look of Fiori's too, because Fiori's has plenty of $3.99 and $4.99 dishes. Like, the eggplant Parmesan hot sandwich is $4.99. Fish and chips are the same, and, hey, spaghetti with marinara or meat sauce is only $3.99 with sourdough garlic bread, $4.99 with salad as well.
Hmm. Hanker for that spaghetti.
But Hank ain't hankering. He's deciding. "Let's go for the Wok," he says. "I'm gonna have the spring rolls, and then Buddha's Feast."
Buddha's Feast? Oh yes. Whole bunch of vegetables steamed together. Half-plate's $4.50, except Hank wants a full plate, $7.50.
Tina comes over. "You're getting spring rolls? 'Cause I'll give you five bucks, and you can add an order for me."
I scan the Wok menu again. Come across a couple of house specials that I could go for: the Shanghai potato scramble ("fresh-cut potatoes, julienned red and green bell peppers, onion, and egg, stir-fried with ginger and topped with minced green onions, $6.95"). Or barbecued freshwater eel bowl. Eel! Used to catch 'em and cook 'em over a fire when I was a kid. It's $8.95, but...
"Shall I call?" Tina asks.
We nod. "Eel," I say. "Tell them I'll go pick it all up."
Ten minutes later I'm over at this nice, airy new Chinese place. Franchise that started in North Hollywood. I pay out Hank's money, my money, Tina's money. Comes to $28.40. Start back with a big, steaming bag.
On the way, I spot Fiori's. I whip inside a sprawling white liquor store with black-and-white check floors and have this guy Nathan make me the $3.99 spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread.
Hope the Chinese food's still hot. Fortunately, when I get back, Hank's busy yapping with a fireman. Hank helps lay out all the boxes and starts chowing. I open my spaghetti. Lordy. A round box, stuffed, and another bag with hot garlic bread. Pretty soon, it's a sea of plates we've got going on the counter.
Hank says his Buddha veggies are great, and I slurp on, attacking my spaghetti. But I can't handle it, not with the eel still to come. I slide half across to Hank. It won't go to waste. Today, the guy's an eating machine.
I dig in for my first plastic forkful of barbecued eel. Hmm. It's sweet, and 'specially with the skin, rich, but not fishy. Oh man, with some hot sauce, it gets really flavorful. The fried veggies in the rice help. Beautiful. This is an eel of a find.
"You guys should stick around for the karaoke," Tina's saying. "Every night. We've got 21,000 songs."
"Uh, do you have 'My Way'?" I ask.
"You sing 'My Way,' I hit the highway," Hank says. "After you've paid for my drinks...right?"
Damn. The bet. "Except they didn't have the food here...but, oh, what the heck." I fork out the dough. "We'll do it your way."