200 Marina Park Way (behind the Convention Center), Downtown San Diego
Oh, man. Gonna faint. Just ran a hundred steps up one side of the convention center, two at a time, I swear, and down another hundred to the bay side. Keep jogging along the Embarcadero Marina Park — till I see a portable sign. “This way to JJ’s Sunset Deli by the Bay. Coffee and pastry special, $3. Hot dog special, $4. Rib-eye steak sandwich… Soda included.”
Hmm... Little break can’t hurt. Plenty of time to climb back over that mountain. I head west, and right before a fishing pier, here’s this pair of little brown-painted, six-sided cinderblock buildings. One’s a storehouse and public bathrooms; the other, hey hey, JJ’s. Half a dozen tables with red-and-white–checkered plastic cloths and white Michelob Ultra umbrellas fill a courtyard between the buildings.
They have a surprisingly extensive menu, propped near the little grille where you give your orders. First thing I like is that they’ve included tax in the price. Breakfast items are cheapest. Egg sandwich with cheese is $3.23. If you add sausage, ham, or bacon, it’s $4.85. A “plain” breakfast burrito, with egg, hash browns, grilled onion, sour cream, and cheese goes for $4.42. For lunch, a tuna sub (with cheese and choice of potato salad, coleslaw, or chips) costs $6.47, and roast beef’s $6.20. Burgers go from $5.87 (for 1/3 lb. with the same sides) up to $8.40 for JJ’s 2/3 lb. double cheeseburger. (You can add chili to any burger for $1.75.) Hot dogs start at $3.23, up to $6.73 for a large chili dog. Daily specials vary, from a burger plus sides and a soda for $6.72 (Mondays) to a BBQ torpedo with grilled pork strips and a soda for $9.00 (Thursdays). And every day they have that rib-eye steak sandwich advertised on the sandwich board for $9.97, including a soda and beans. Ooh, and a pork-chop meal (two chops) costs $8.78.
But the one that has me reaching for ye olde wallet to count the greenbacks is the Wednesday and Sunday Special: a half-rack of barbecued babyback ribs with ranch beans, garlic bread, potato salad or coleslaw or fruit cocktail, and a soda for $12.93.
Yes! Have enough dingle. And today’s Sunday. And now I see they have cerveza — and Stella Artois at that — for $4 (16 ounces) or $5 (20 ounces).
This is when the man himself, JJ, comes up. “Tell you what,” he says. “I’ll take the price of the soda off the beer price. How’s that?”
Mighty fair, I’d say. I go sit at one of the tables in the sun, sipping Stella, and feasting my eyes on, wow, a million-dollar view — a fishing pier and then the blue bay, jumpin’ with yachts and tugs and barges and ferries and pelicans and fishermen, and a brisk breeze whipping the tops of the waves. Heck, Coronado can’t be more than a ten-minute swim away.
“I wouldn’t try that today,” JJ says. “Tide’s running mighty fast.” He’s cooking the ribs outside and has quite a little crowd. Raymond and Jewel, his wife, are chewing on a center-cut pork loin sandwich, watching a destroyer slice south, headed for the bridge and 32nd Street. It’s so close you can almost touch it. “I started in the Navy in 1942,” Raymond says. “LSTs. South Pacific. Rock and roll? You had to tie yourself into your bunk or get thrown out.” Sam, who’s just slurping a beer, says he’s been fishing these waters since the pier opened 28 years ago. “Fishing here sucks now,” he says. “But you still get mackerel, bass, bonito, bat rays — I’ve seen them five feet across. And a gal caught a leopard shark once. Right here. They grow up to seven feet.”
JJ — he’s also retired Navy — brings over my ribs. Wow. Quite a rack, half a dozen, looks like, with ranch beans in one pot and potato salad in another, all on an aluminum foil–wrapped paper plate. Another plate has foil-wrapped hot garlic toast, and a third has — this is good — a little stack of wet finger-cleaner napkins. The beans are delicious and brown-sugar sweet. The rib meat falls off the bone and also has something tangy-sweet going. Overnight marinade, for sure. But the biggest pleasure is the heat of the meat. Delicious in the chilly breeze.
I come away, walking, not running. Hey, I weigh a couple of pounds more now. I get to the convention center. Stand at the bottom of those dreaded outside stairs. Look up. The beer I drank says, “Don’t even go there.” Feel like yelling, “Hey, Stella!” Oh, what the heck. Should be okay, if I just take them like you should take life. One step at a time.
The Place: JJ’s Sunset Deli by the Bay, 200 Marina Park Way, 619-237-1070
Type of Food: American
Prices: Breakfast egg sandwich with cheese, $3.23; breakfast burrito (with egg, hash browns, grilled onion, sour cream, cheese), $4.42; tuna sub (with choice of potato salad, coleslaw, or chips), $6.47; roast beef sub, $6.20; 1/3 lb. burger (same sides), $5.87; 2/3 lb. double cheeseburger, $8.40; hot dogs, $3.23–$6.73; check daily specials, e.g. Thursdays: barbecued torpedo with grilled pork strips and soda, $9.00; also, everyday combos, e.g. rib-eye steak sandwich with soda, beans, $9.97; Wednesdays and Sundays: half-rack barbecued babyback ribs, with ranch beans, garlic bread, and potato salad or coleslaw or fruit cocktail, and soda, $12.93
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–dusk, daily
Buses: 4, 11, 901, 929
Nearest Bus Stop: 12th and Imperial Transit Center (4, 11, 901, 929); connect with orange line trolley
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp