When Judith Moore suggested that because my buddy Hank and I were eating mostly cheapo street food anyway, why not write about it, I thought, “Yes, but how many ways can you describe a burger? And what do I know about cooking?” She gave me a Mona Lisa smile. “You’ll soon find out.”
Heh-heh. Was she right. What she didn’t say was how much I would learn along the way, about food, yes, but also about so much more. This is the best education a country boy could ask for, ’cause it’s not about how much salt the chef put in the soup, but the life these guys create around their food.
Let’s face it, eating is a kind of social cement, an antidote to loneliness. Because, basically, people have to eat. The eateries I go to, though, you don’t have to put on airs and try to look respectable. And you don’t have to fret about how much each bite is costing you
Like, one of the earliest places I lucked into was Ye Olde Plank Inn, down the coast in I.B. Everyone there seemed to be military, or retired military. The palapa-sheltered bar looked straight out of the south seas, with green glass floats, dangling puffer fish, and palm fronds. The owner, Alan Winkelman, retired Navy, started a Sunday brunch to absolutely die for. Back in 2001, for $5.95 you got a six- or eight-ounce steak, or six sausages, or a slab of ham, or a pork loin, plus, from one- to, uh, ten-egg omelets, home fries, and a pick-me-up drink from the bar, like a Bloody Mary. That was one hard place to leave. Chewing your steak in the sun, sipping your Bloody Mary, and hearing the waves just beyond the berm is hard to beat, at any price.
Lee’s Cafe, at 738 5th Avenue downtown, is also one of those golden places — I’m a penny-pincher and love that they manage to stay cheap in among a surrounding army of pricy chichi eateries. Lee’s sits next to the Bella Luna in the Gaslamp on 5th, and it has unbelievably low prices. “Uncle Lee” started cooking here 50-plus years ago. He must own his slice of the building, to be able to afford to keep prices so low. Last time I went, the beef stew (with potato, rice, veggies, salad, soup, bread) was $2.33. That wouldn’t buy a single cawfee next door.
The other thing I love about doing “Tin Fork” is exploring life in eateries of other cultures. One of my favorite hangouts is the Trieu Chau Cambodian restaurant (4653 University Avenue). Kathy, who’s Chinese-Cambodian, runs a tight ship, but she lets all the guys who come in each morning for a Cambodian coffee and pastry use the back room, so they can talk about the old days, before the Khmer Rouge nearly starved and beat them to death. I love to sit with those guys and talk. It’s often about the things they miss most: the old home, with lots of family and animals, and fields, and a garden to grow vegetables.
I get half my ideas from yakking on buses. Or sleeping on buses. Like, the evening I fell asleep on the number 15 as it headed east up University. I woke to find this Somali guy and his robed sister sitting next to me. Pretty soon he was inviting me to get off the bus, at 50th, and come with him across the road. In the gloom, we spotted a clump of men, many leaning on elaborate walking sticks, some dressed in long white cotton galabiya robes and jackets with Muslim hats. They were talking and smoking outside a place called Afrique.
That’s where I learned the Somali way to eat a meat and soup entrée — all together, and with the fingers (of the right hand, of course). At first, I couldn’t believe it. The owner, Abdiaziz, showed me a plate of thin-cut steak with raw onions and shredded lettuce, then started tearing up two muufos — disc-shaped loaves of bread — then broke a banana into small pieces over the meat. Then — whoa! — he took a bowl of vegetable soup with tomato, carrot, and potatoes, and poured it over the whole plate. Then he picked up a bottle of olive oil and poured a thin stream over everything. “Now,” he said. “You eat this with your right hand, and the steak with your knife and fork. One, then the other…” He left me with a pile of paper napkins.
The result was an incredibly sensuous meal, and all for around seven bucks. Got me wondering why we bother with clattery utensils. Afrique has since closed, but African Spice, open at 54th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, does the same food.
And “Tin Fork” level is where you often spot new food movements. Like, the Middle East’s gastronomic takeover of the world. True! We may be trying to win their hearts and minds, but they’re conquering our stomachs. Call it Operation Dessert Storm. Heh heh. But not just desserts. Go see the late-night lines outside Sultan Shawarma’s (543 4th Avenue) for their kebabs and sandwiches. It hasn’t been that long since the pizza places had the post-bar crowd to themselves.
One night, I spotted another kebab place (Kebab Shop, 630 9th Avenue), started by this guy Aaron about three years ago. The place was abuzz with a group of students holding a get-together after a study trip to Spain. “They came here to relive the ‘Spanish’ food they’d eaten the whole time they were there,” Aaron told me. “Turkish-style doner kebabs. Kebabs are like soccer, popular everywhere in the world except the US. So I’m bringing it here.”
You’d never know it from all the burgers I’ve downed, but I’ve always carried a banner for “green” food. So I got a real kick when a spiky little lady named Cristina opened a restaurant named Cilantro Live! in Chula Vista. It was the first raw-food place in the county, and she was unstoppable. “The secret is not to heat anything above 112 degrees,” she told me. “Above that will kill the enzymes in any food, so you’ll have to use up your own body’s enzymes to digest it.”