1283 3rd Avenue, Chula Vista
Anybody heard of Castle Park?
I sure hadn’t. Everybody except Thomas Bros. calls this part of town southern Chula Vista. Whatever, Castle Park’s where I am, hoofing it up Third Avenue at around eight at night, when I’m stopped in my tracks by this charming li’l ol’ cement-block house. I know, you never think of “cinder block” and “charming” in the same sentence...except, this place really is. Maybe not a castle, but a little Greek temple on top of the hill. It sits between a Burger King and Mariscos Mazatlán. It’s painted cream, with mustard-colored classical Greek-column window frames, and has a sign that reads “Leon’s Cuisine. Cantonese Food To Go.” Carla’s going to be back from work around nine-ish. Could surprise her with something.
So, I pull the door open and — wow. It’s one tiny dining room, but oh-so-classy. Peach and pale-olive-green walls with cream window trim. The tables are real black marble, chairs look like solid mahogany, the deep-stained wood floor is polished, and the single booth is red, green-topped. And, yup, more Greek-type columns.
All this for a Chinese takeout?
I sit down in the long red booth. I’m the only customer right now. Man, hope I haven’t fallen into some cash-trap for the cash-strapped. This Latina gal, Isaura, brings the menu. It looks like your classic, standard Cantonese offerings. Almond chicken ($7.75), curry chicken ($7.25), Cantonese fried rice ($7.65), fried rice with pork ($6.50), garlic shrimp ($7.95), BBQ pork with napa cabbage ($7.55), “kung pow” (that’s how it’s spelled) beef ($8.95), steamed fish ($9.25), pork chop suey ($6.95).
I’m always confused about Chinese food because they say there are eight completely different cooking traditions. Except the only one you usually see is Cantonese. No surprise, I guess, since Canton’s where I’ve heard everybody emigrated from in the bad old days. But unlike the, say, Thai, the Cantonese don’t go for a whole lot of herbs and spices. Except Isaura says that here, it ain’t so.
“My boss, Gustavo León, is from a Cantonese-Mexican-American family, and his wife is Mexican,” she says, “so you get more spices.”
Meanwhile, gosh darn it, hemming and hawing here. I start by ordering a bottle of Señorial sangría ($1.50). I like its light sparkle and winey taste. When I get to the page about family dinners, I see they go from $15.20 for two (with seven dishes) to $46.80 for four (with nine). Hmm... Seems like a heckuva deal. The $15.20 has soup of the day, pork fried rice, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour wings, BBQ pork, fried noodles, and egg rolls. Man, I could do with that. Then I have a brainstorm. “Could you pack half for me to take out?” I ask. Thinking of the lovely Carla.
“Sure,” says Isaura. “I’ll bring it all out, and we’ll pack whatever you don’t eat.”
A mom and her two daughters, looks like, come in and sit at the next table. They know what they want: chicken chow mein, orange chicken, pork fried rice, and sliced BBQ pork. Every cliché in the Chinese book, but it all looks delicious. “Thirty-three dollars for the four dishes,” says the mom, Laura. She and her daughter Sadie and Sadie’s friend Athina come all the time.
My combo shows up mighty quick. First the fried noodles and a bowl of chicken-noodle soup (which has a good strong taste), then the rest, all together in a circle around me: the pork fried rice, chow mein, wings, BBQ pork slices, and egg rolls. So much color on these Chinese-patterned Bakelite dishes: the orange of the noodles and fried rice, the red of the plum sauce over the wings, the cream and green of the chow mein. Yeah, chow mein’s a little watery, like most chow meins I’ve tasted, but the fried rice is nutty and not sticky, and the wings are gloopily delicious. The BBQ pork has a nice burnt-sweet thing going on. I’m not ashamed to drip soy sauce on the rice when I want to kick up the flavor, or squirt on some Hoisin. And the egg roll has — fennel? Cumin? — something herby that makes it more than the standard eggy-veggie combo hiding inside fried pastry. I have to say: there’s nothing rip-your-heart-out spicy. But the chicken’s good, and the pork’s my absolute favorite.
“We have a lot of Mexicans coming here, and Chinese,” says Isaura. “’Specially around 3:00 — Mexican lunchtime — we’re always full. And Sundays, all day.”
I’m not surprised, though I don’t know how they fit everybody inside. “We’re going to build a deck,” Isaura says. Man, can’t wait for that. I pay up my $18.15, and Isaura packs everything (there’s plenty left) into five boxes, and adds the fortune cookies. I head across Third Avenue to the 929 stop.
Dang. Just miss a southbound. Half an hour to wait. So — crisis equals opportunity — I slide into DK Donuts, right by the stop. Get talking to Vanna, Cambodian gal (and, yes, the Khmers do seem to have the donut trade cornered). I get a dee-licious apple donut (75 cents) and a coffee ($1.10) and it’s a perfect end to a great meal. I buy an extra donut for Carla.
Cell phone rings. I wrestle it out of my pocket.
“Edward. I’m starving! Where are you?
“Castle Park…What do they eat in Castle Park, wherever the heck that is?”
“Well, a kinda Cantonese/Mexican/American/Cambodian combo… It’s…you’ll have to see it.” ■
The Place: Leon’s Cuisine, 1283 Third Avenue, Chula Vista, 619-422-1556
Type of Food: Cantonese
Prices: Almond chicken, $7.75; curry chicken, $7.25; Cantonese fried rice, $7.65; fried rice with pork, $6.50; garlic shrimp, $7.95; BBQ pork with napa cabbage, $7.55; “kung pow” beef, $8.95; steamed fish, $9.25; pork chop suey, $6.95; family dinners, e.g. $15.20 for two (with seven plates), $46.80 for four (with nine dishes)
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:30 p.m., seven days
Buses: 712, 929
Nearest Bus Stop: 3rd and Palomar