5150 E. Campus Drive, SDSU
‘See? Skin on the ends. Never, in Fronce.” That’s how Eric says it, of course. “Fronce.” He’s French.
He’s pointing to his French fry. It does have patches of skin at either end. Actually, I thought that’d be a plus.
But Roland nods agreement. “Our French fries are thinner, more…delicate.”
I’d been here at San Diego State looking into, well, taking classes. Yes, moi. Except, first up, needed to fill the airspace in my gut. I asked at the student-info place where the best deal was.
“Oh, the Quaker Kelly Dining Room,” said the gal. “It’s all-u-can-eat.”
So I headed into the jungle of campus housing, looking for anything that said “Quaker.” Three buildings down, past Aztec Grill, I spotted a small sign: The Dining Room at Cuicacalli Suites. Aha! Not “Quaker Kelly,” but “Cuicacalli.” Turns out Cuicacalli means “House of Song” in Aztec.
I bounced up the stairs and into this way-big eating space. But interesting, with different kitchens angling out into the common space, some baking breads, others grilling burgers, others squirting Mister Softee ice creams, plus islands of salad and an Asian food kiosk. Man.
It’s a guy standing at a podium between me and the food.
“D’ah, not yet.”
“No problem. You pay 45 cents more is all. That’ll be $8.25, $8.89 with tax.”
Ulp. “Does that include, like, everything — drinks, food, salad, dessert, ice cream…?”
“Everything, my friend.”
So, Lord. Where to begin? The one menu that seems to cover the whole place lists items in green, yellow, or red. Green’s healthiest, red’s the greasiest. At the bakery a gal’s cutting up bite-size chunks of hot cheesy ciabatta. Right next to her, a cook named José has five-across rows of hamburger patties cooking. As he builds each burger, he shouts out a name. “Patrick?” “Ellen?” “Joe?”
“For you?” he says.
“Sure,” I say, and write my name down on a piece of paper.
I head for the salad bar for a healthy start. Stack up a nice plateful of spinach, kidney beans, garbanzos, sliced mushrooms, mini-tomatoes, croutons, and Italian dressing. Then I pass this guy who’s settling down with a steaming bowl of chicken and rice and other savory scatterings in a bowl.
“Where’d you get that?” I ask.
“There,” he mumbles. “The stir-fry bar.”
Of course. I see the kiosk with the row of five woks and a cardboard sign on the counter: Crispy chicken with tofu orange sauce, jasmine rice, and veggies.
“I’ll have that,” I say to Eva the cook. She swings into action. Grabs chicken, tofu, and I don’t know what all, tosses them into a wok, then looks up.
“Any of these?”
I lean over. Oh, right. Dishes of onions, red and green peppers, carrots, mushrooms, and bean sprouts. “Everything,” I say, on principle. She grabs handfuls of each, stirs them round in her wok, lands it on a roaring gas grill for a minute, then snatches a bowl, dunks in a scoop of rice, pours the sizzling wokload all over, and presto. Crispy chicken.
“Ed! ED?” I hear José’s microphoned voice ringing out across the room. Oops. Forgot about the burger. This could be embarrassing. But I go over and pick it up, come back for my crispy chicken, then convoy everything to a seat behind two guys babbling away in French.
Natch, the first few minutes I’m silent, triangulating between burger (nice and crispy), crispy chicken and rice bowl (definitely crispy and tangy), and then freshening up with some spinach-and-kidney-bean salad.
I notice the two French guys are not exactly lunging into their food. They have beef and cheese sandwiches, waffles, chunks of ciabatta cheese bread, and cardboard bowls of fries.
I have to ask. “Not into American food?”
At first they say it’s all fine. Then Eric cracks. “Except, well, there’s not a lot of taste to this food. You Americans put so much sugar, so much grease, so much oil in your cooking. And we worry about the chimique — the pesticides, the hormones in your food, in your meat.”
“And selection,” says Roland. “Here your choice of cheeses is Swiss, Cheddar, Monterey, that’s it. No goat cheese, no Camembert, no bleu… Food for you Americans is just a practical thing. Fill up the tank. For us, eating is a social act. We take pleasure in it. Our mothers will take an hour to prepare the evening meal, maybe four hours on Sunday.”
“On the other hand,” says Roland, “the girls here are fantastique.”
It turns out they are part of a group of 40 French students studying international business for a year, first here, then in Vietnam and China.
Still, chimique or no chimique, this crispy chicken tastes good. Darned good. And the burger ain’t bad either. I’m just finishing up the chicken when the place starts emptying. Oh, yeah. Lunch ends 2:30 p.m. Dammit, I haven’t had dessert. Haven’t had my free squeeze of Mr. Softee. Haven’t had my cawfee and still have to finish half my salad, half my burger. I ask this manager guy, Chuck, if I can pack my leftovers to go.
He shakes his head. “This place is like life,” he says. “Enjoy it while you’re here, ’cause you can’t take it with you.”
The Place: The dining room at Cuicacalli, second floor, 5150 East Campus Drive, College Area, 619-594-2622 or 594-4932
Type of Food: American, health, Asian
Prices: One price for all-u-can-eat: $6.25 (breakfast), $8.25 (lunch), $10.25 (dinner); students 45 cents less on all meals; daily breakfast selection includes omelet bar, pancakes, fruits, yogurt, pastries, daily chef’s special; lunch includes daily specials from pasta bar, pizza bar, Italian bar, grilled items like burgers, veggie plates, such as eggplant Parmesan with garlic bread; dinner specials include lo mein bar, Hawaiian bar (including kalua pig), macaroni and cheese bar, Mongolian bar; various desserts, drinks, and ice cream included in price
Hours: Breakfast, 7:00 a.m.–10:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m., seven days
Buses: 11, 14, 15, 115, 856, 936, 955
Nearest Bus Stop: SDSU Transit Center at Campanile and Hardy
Trolley: Green line
Nearest Trolley Stop: SDSU