Sun Deck Grill’s Vicky, Amanda, and chef Omar
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Hotel del Coronado

1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado




"Bet you can’t,” says Larry.

“Bet I can,” I say.

“Five-dollar meal at the Hotel Del Coronado?” He laughs into the phone. “No way.”

Larry’s an old pal. Wants to get together. Except he lives up North County way. Says he’s coming down next week. I know he’s like me: on the brink of broke most of the time, but still a guy who likes some style. So I was heading south on the 901 when I got the idea. I called Larry on my cell. “Let’s eat at the Hotel Del, dude. Elegant! Luxurious! Cheap — yeah, we’ll nail a bargain somewhere there! Bet we can.”

“You’re kidding, right?” said Larry.

“We shall see, my friend. And, hey, my bus is just off the bridge. I’ll find out. Call you later.”

I hop off the 901 at the Del’s stop, walk in to the grand portico and through to the beach side. This time of year, it’s not so crowded. Ice rink’s dismantled, green lawn’s still a patchwork of 2x1-foot strips of sod, no one’s swimming in the spa pool. The beach is for Navy SEALs and wind-riding gulls. Ocean’s metallic gray and looking colicky.

I work my way through to the Sheerwater restaurant, searching for any bottom-feeding miracles on the lunch menu. Hmm…entrée salads are $12, with chicken $20, with salmon, $22. And it’s mostly like that. Meaning, impossible. Though they do have “duets,” any two items for $15. Includes small salads like the spinach and pear along with “BBQ duck burger” sliders. I ask the girl if I can have the sliders alone. “Wouldn’t fill you up, sir,” she says.

Out in the blustery breeze on the sun deck, the Sun Deck Bar stands like a mini Del, swoopy red roof and all. I take a look at the menu board, scouting drinks. Uh-oh. Margaritas start at $13.25. Wine starts at $8.50, beer at $7.50.

But around the corner, they have a little window counter called Sun Deck Grill. And prices? At first, my heart hits the deck. “Grilled favorites,” says the menu board. “Del white cheddar burger, $13.50, with double patty, $16.” Of course, the beef’s 100 percent Black Angus, and it comes with sautéed onions and fries. The garden burger’s $10.25 and so is the foot-long hotdog ($12 with black bean chili), and a basil chicken sandwich runs $13.50. Ouch. Maybe Larry’s right. Maybe we should meet, greet, and eat in IB. And now I see an interesting-sounding “Asian style citrus salad,” with tangerine and ginger-marinated glass noodles, bell peppers, snow peas, edamame, crispy wontons, and sesame ginger dressing, for $10.50. Or $13.50 with chicken. Not bad, but we’re still talking resort prices here.

“The Asian salad? It’s excellent,” says this lady, Diane, sitting at a fire ring nearby. She’s just finishing one up. “Huge serving. And I didn’t have the chicken with it.” Her husband Larry’s eating a basil chicken sandwich. Thinks it’s pretty good, too. They’re from Denver, Colorado.

But they must’ve spent 40, 50 bucks for this and two beers plus tip and taxes. So, hey, I’m about to admit defeat.

Then I spot the “sides.” Chili cheese fries are $8.50. A plate of fries costs $5, and a bowl of chili goes for $5.50. I mean, not amazing choices, but the price — at last — is right.

I walk up to the order hole and ask a gal named Amanda for a bowl of the chili. She passes the order to Omar, the big, burly, happy-looking cook. “This may be the cheapest thing, but it’s really good,” he says. “The chef who prepares it every day is Margarito Banderas. He has 25 years’ experience making chili here at the Del. There are 25 items in it: peppers, celery, onion, red peppers, cayenne, garlic, black beans, pinto beans, white cheese…it’s an art to get the balance right. Chips?”

“Sure,” I say. I’m mulling whether to order a beer. That’s eight buckeroos, while a soda goes for $4.75. “Can I get just water?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” Amanda says, and hands me a big plastic glass to fill from the soda fountain water tap.

They’re about to close. Not much business this day. “Come in summer,” says Omar. “On our busiest day last year, I cooked 1000 burgers.”

A moment later, I’ve found me a couch beside a square marble table. There are flames flickering in the firepit, and on this chilly day it gives out a surprising amount of warmth. The chili is delicious, and with the chips, really filling. It has plenty of black beans and white cheese, and it tickles your nostrils with its garlic vapors. I can’t get enough. Only problem is that a tribe of gold-flecked starlings wants in on it too, and, man, are they cheeky. Their little toes clack all over the marble as they wait for me to look away for one moment. Then a group of Chinese tourists see what’s happening and bring out their video cameras and turn me into an instant movie star. Mr. Yao Shen sits by me and tries to draw the starlings in for a picture. “We love to keep songbirds,” he says. “For Chinese men, it’s a hobby.” When the lovely Liang Xia comes up for her turn, the whole crowd shouts for us to sit closer. Lots of laffs.

I finish up. I’m full and happy.

’Specially when I call Larry.

“Hey, Larry? Remember our bet? Guess what?” ■

The Place: Sun Deck Grill, at the Hotel Del Coronado, 1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-435-6611
Type of Food: American
Prices: Bowl of chili, $5.50; fries, $5; chili cheese fries, $8.50; Del white cheddar burger, $13.50; garden burger, $10.25; foot-long hotdog, $10.25; basil chicken sandwich, $13.50; Asian style citrus salad, $10.50 ($13.50 with chicken)
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 901, 904
Nearest Bus Stop: Orange Avenue at R.H. Dana (southbound) and Adella (northbound)

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