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Café Estela's

1524 McKinley Avenue, National City




"End Times Christian Soldiers Mission," says the church near Oak Park School. Lord, why does everyone love this "end is nigh" stuff? I'm aboard the 955 bus, heading south toward National City. On the other hand, Carla's told me the end will definitely be nigh if I don't replace the washing machine's push-pull knob I busted last night. "Machine's Linda's," she said. "She's back from Florida tomorrow."

So my buddy Rod told me about this parts place in National City. Then he sweetens the pot by mentioning there just happens to be a place he goes to down there for breakfast, tucked in behind the parts warehouse. "Ya gotta go," he says. "Real old San Diego. Great breakfasts. No coffee — or, okay, maybe instant. But, basically, all they've got is beer."

"Beer for breakfast?"

"You can handle it, can't you?"

"Uh, not my usual thing, but..."

The bus grinds to a halt right by the Eighth Street trolley station. "Walk south a couple of blocks," says the driver. I do, on Harbor Drive, tramping on wood chips, outside the Naval Base. No sidewalk. Finally do a dogleg onto McKinley. It's dusty but nice and settled with big eucalyptus trees and low, Quonset hut–type businesses, like Ken's Custom VW. No sign of an eatery. I finally ask this guy leaning back on a swing seat under a fig tree.

"Next door," he says.

Huh. It's a long, low, cream-painted wood building with a Wild West–style high square frontage.

Don't see no sign yet, except for one on a pay phone that says "25 cents." Metal grilles protect windows and door. I stoop through into a low-beamed cream-walled room with a pool table up front, counters on either side, loads of beer ads, and a huge map of Mexico on the right. Actually, it's three joined rooms leading to a patio in the back.

I sit down on a well-worn red counter stool. The cook, Lourdes, is stirring a huge pot of frijoles on the gas fire. She drops a menu in front of me. It's mainly Mexican, of course. Tacos, burritos, combo plates. The tacos run from $1.45 (for, say, shredded beef or chicken), through $1.75 (carne asada, carnitas), to $2.25 (shrimp, fish). Burritos start at $2.75 (with just beans in it), through $3.25 (beans and machaca), to $3.50 (chorizo with egg), to $4 (chile relleno or pork chile verde). It tops out at $4.50 (for shrimp, natch).

Combo plates come with rice, beans, and tortillas. Chile Colorado costs $6.99. So does a carne asada plate or fish. Carnitas is $7.25, breaded shrimp goes for $8.25. An order of cabeza (flesh from the cow's skull) is $5.99.

Which I think about...but then, this is breakfast, right? So I go for the $3.50 breakfast burrito, with egg, potato, and bacon inside.

Lourdes asks what I want to drink. "¿De tomar?"

Well, as they say, it's five o'clock somewhere. She points out that she has the house brand, Estela's Pale Ale. But only in a pitcher, six bucks. No way I'm up to that without sleeping off the rest of the day, so I ask for a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft ($2). Hey, it's a buck cheaper than Red Bull, and I'm wide awake already anyway.

Lourdes starts making my breakfast, right there in front of me. She does everything from scratch. She gets a whole raw potato, chops it up with a knife, puts it into a basket in a little pan sizzling with oil, then cuts up some ham on a wooden plank. "I'm sorry," she says. "I'm out of bacon." She tosses the ham into a sauté pan next to another one where the eggs are scrambling. She flaps a flour tortilla on the griddle, chops up some lettuce and slices a tomato, and pretty soon hands me a steaming burrito with a small side salad.

Gotta say, it's a pretty delicious combo. The potatoes and ham are sabroso enough not to be dulled by the tortilla wrap. And, hey, the Miller's pretty darned snappy with it. The burrito seems to soak up that one bottle just fine. Heck, I'd go for another if I didn't have to work.

I get to talking with the owner, Lydia. It turns out there hasn't been an Estela for decades. "Estela's has been going 35 years already," she says, "and the building is much older. Very old." It had been an ice cream parlor. Lydia put in the full kitchen and made it what it is. Turns out her mom is Lydia of Lydia's in I.B. That is one famous joint. This Lydia was brought up down there behind the counter, so it's in the blood. Lydia says this place really gets into gear later, when all the workers from the factories around here get off and come for a couple of drinks. The kitchen closes at three in the afternoon, but I get the feeling they'll cook you up something later if you need it. Man, I'd love to come later, when this place is rockin'. And I can see from the jukebox it'd be pretty much all roc en español.

Half an hour later, I blink out into the morning sunlight. Next time, I swear, I'll have the pitcher. Bring Rod. 'Course with the end times a-comin', I'd better make it soon, heh-heh. And then I have my own end-times thought: Carla. If I don't have enough dinero left for that washing machine button... Oh, man. I start emptying out my pockets. Sweat breaks out on my brow. It's enough to drive a man to drink. At breakfast.

  • The Place: Café Estela's, 1524 McKinley Avenue, National City, 619-477-7858
  • Type of Food: Mexican
  • Prices: Shredded beef taco, $1.45; chicken taco, $1.45; carne asada taco, $1.75; carnitas (pork) taco, $1.75; shrimp taco, $2.25; fish taco, $2.25; bean burrito, $2.75; chorizo and egg burrito, $3.50; breakfast burrito (with egg, potato, and bacon), $3.50; chile Colorado combo plate (with rice, beans, tortillas), $6.99; breaded shrimp combo, $8.25; cabeza (head flesh) combo, $5.99
  • Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., daily (bar open much later)
  • Buses: 932, 955
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Eighth Street trolley, on West Eighth Street
  • Trolley: Blue line
  • Nearest Trolley Stop: Eighth Street, National City
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