3604 University Avenue, City Heights
“Totally Nude, 6:00 p.m.–6:00 a.m.” Dang. It’s only 5:00 p.m., here outside Club Fantasy Gentlemen’s Club. Actually, I’m jes’ passing by, minding my business. Too broke to go in anyway. When you’re poor you can’t afford to be bad.
Mind you, I do have a Hamilton in my shoe. What halted me in the first place was the sound of laughter. From Club Fantasy? No, it’s coming from across 36th Street. A little box of a place. Canada Steak Burgers.
Hmm…Canada…Are we talking moose burgers? It’s a red-blue-white brick building with a blue awning. I cross over. The bricks have that squeezed-out-mortar look. Every inch of the windows is taken up with ads for menu specials. Place looks like it’s been here for 50 years.
Just as I come in, the cash-register guy comes around the counter and hugs a little laughing lady with gray hair and a big bag of takeout in her arms.
Everybody joins in her laughter. It’s hard not to in this small space, with its hot, low, dark little kitchen, half-dozen tables, and a big cream tile floor and buttery cream walls.
I ask the little lady, “Someone just won the lottery?”
“Oh, no,” she says. Name’s Shirley. “It’s always fun in here. They are wonderful. I just live across the road. If I don’t turn up for a couple of days, they come over and knock, to make sure I’m okay.”
Shirley says today she bought the #10 combo, chicken kabob and shrimp ($8.49), plus a baklava ($1). “I live next to Shirley,” says another lady, Darla. She’s taking home a small chicken salad ($4.49) with a large Coke ($1.25). “When I lost my job, they let me work here in the restaurant for a month and a half. That’s the kind of people they are.”
Guess I may as well join the order line. I check the wall menu. Huh...not so much a Canadian thing going on as Greek. First thing I see is a gyros and souvlaki combo. It’s $8.49. So are other combos, including the quarter chicken and spanakopita (spinach pie), the souvlaki and ribs, and chicken kabob and shrimp. All of these come with a Greek salad and a choice of fries, rice, garlic or pita bread. Not a bad deal.
Dinners (same sides) are mostly a little cheaper. The five-piece jumbo shrimp plate costs $7.99, BBQ spare ribs is $8.99, a shrimp and fish seafood plate is $7.99, and — getting better — fish and chips (with three pieces of fish) is $7.49.
But steakburgers? The best value is the four-ounce charbroiled hamburger at $2.49, but it just uses ordinary ground beef. Guess steakburgers must grind a better cut. You get a six-ounce steakburger, for $3.49, and an eight-ounce for $4.29. For about 50 cents more, you get patty melts in all three sizes. They have other variations on the meat theme: steak sandwich is $4.99, so is a Philly sub. A chicken fillet with cheese goes for $3.69.
“Moose! What’s up, man?”
These two really big ’n’ tall guys come in through the back. They’re talking to the guy at the cash register. Moose? Huh. Maybe he is Canadian.
“We’re having the steak tonight, right? We got the tickets. Vegas, baby!” says this guy Milton.
“You going, Moose?” says the other guy, Alex.
“Probably,” says Moose.
“Okay. Give us two porterhouse,” says Milton. “The works. Fries, salad, garlic bread. Vegas is gonna be a blast.”
I do a quick search of the wall listing. Ah. The porterhouse is a dinner, $12.99. Most expensive thing on the menu.
Now it’s my turn.
“Uh, looking for something Canadian,” I say. “Are you Canadian? Like, Moose is your name?”
“People call me Moose, but my real name is Mousa.”
Oh, Mousa. Middle Eastern way of saying “Moses,” I seem to remember. Turns out Mousa and his parents are Palestinian-Americans. And they have run this place since 1980. That accounts for the Mediterranean side of the menu.
“So no moose burgers?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Sorry. The Canadian guy left way back.” He needs my order. People are starting to line up behind me.
“Uh, what’s the difference between hamburger and steakburger?” I ask. I’m looking at that $2.49 hamburger and the $3.49 steakburger.
“Better meat,” Mousa says. “Steakburger has meat from steak.”
I nod. Go for the six-ounce steakburger. Mousa slips the ticket to Eliazar and Cecilio, the two cooks working the grill behind him. Damn, but the smells are delicious.
Five minutes later, I pick up my burger and set down at a table. Mmm. This burger sure has juices, and flavor. Reminds me of Burger Lounge. Mousa says it has a “secret seasoning” his dad invented. Even the fries have a seasoning salt added.
I get talking to Milton and Alex, the Vegas guys. Turns out Alex soups up cars, and Milton has completely rebuilt a ’72 Chevy Impala, installed a “383-stroker” motor. Gets 5 mpg. But Milton’s committed, all the way. He shows me the back of his hands. Ouch. Fresh tattoos, still raised. His right fist has the Chevrolet symbol, the left has the impala, a leaping deer. “I’m in love with Chevy, man” is all he’ll say.
Say no more. The burger really goes down well, though I think next time I’d go for the eight-ouncer. ’Specially seeing as it’s such a good price. Still, I leave stuffed, with burger and talk.
Back outside the Club Fantasy, I keep walking. Mr. Hamilton’s history. There’ll be no garter-stuffing tonight.
The Place: Canada Steak Burgers, 3604 University (at 36th Street), East San Diego, 619-283-4345
Type of Food: American/Mediterranean
Prices: four-ounce charbroiled hamburger, $2.49; six-ounce steakburger, $3.49; eight-ounce steakburger, $4.29; patty melts, around 50 cents more, in all three sizes; steak sandwich $4.99; chicken fillet with cheese, $3.69; gyros-souvlaki combo, $8.49; quarter chicken, spanakopita (spinach pie), $8.49; souvlaki, ribs, $8.49; chicken kabob, shrimp, $8.49 (all have Greek salad and either fries, rice, garlic or pita bread); jumbo shrimp plate costs $7.99, BBQ spare ribs is $8.99, fish and chips, $7.49
Hours: open 10:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m. daily; till 11:00 p.m. Friday–Saturday
Nearest Bus Stop: 36th and University