2543 Congress St, Old Town
The church of the Immaculate Conception looms, ghostly white in the night.
Old Town. It’s past 8:00 p.m., and I’m looking for food. And not tourist prices. Get up toward Old Town Saloon. No point trying there — it’s drinks only. I look across the road at the one-time Taco Bell on Harney Street. And, man, you can hear it from here — music, people laughing, shouting. That place is rockin’. You can see them all sitting around a fire ring, at tables, or at the open-air counter overlooking those of us down on the avenue — the place sits at the beginnings of the Presidio hill.
The brick arches are earthy brown. Must be adobe. Green sign reads: “The Alamo.” Seems promising.
A moment later, I’m climbing steps between strings of blue-purple lights. Everybody’s outside ’cause there ain’t no inside. Cool. Long trestle table is filled with green-shirted gals from, what? A basketball team? No. Not lanky enough. Soccer? Anyway, lots of bantering and arguments, like they’ve just come off the field.
I walk under adobe arches, head to a well-worn but spotless white tile counter.
“We don’t close till 10:00, especially when there’s people here,” says this gal, Heather, when I ask. She has a U-shaped metal stud through her nose and wears a gray T-shirt that says “Fassler Hall.” A shark tooth hangs from a ringlet of her dark hair.
Tacked to the adobe are signs explaining their deals: “Tasty Taco Thursday. All day, all night, $2.50 tacos.” And “New full bar. Happy hour, Monday thru Friday, 3:30–6:30 p.m. Almost ½ price off.”
They have a standard Mexican menu; nothing above $8.99 (that’s for the shrimp fajitas) and most in the $4–$6 range. Great prices for Old Town’s “strip.” Regular tacos are $3.99 with rice and beans, or $2.99 à la carte. Tortas, like the marinated pork, go for $5.75. Burritos start at $3.49 (for beans and cheese) and go up to a max of $6.49, for the California (with steak, fries, guacamole, cheese, sour cream, and pico de gallo), and $6.95 for the shrimp burrito.
I’m thinking nachos. Chips, black beans, sour cream, and pico de gallo ($5.49). Sound luscious, ’specially with an add of carne asada for two bucks more.
Then, Eric, who’s working behind the bar with Heather, starts talking about the grilled burgers. Hmm…a burger in Old Town? Seems almost disloyal to its heritage. Back in the day, eating gringo vittles might’ve been a hangin’ offense (and they did hang people just a few yards from here, right next to the Whaley House — no wonder that place is haunted). It’s a clash of cultural concepts, like going to a McDonald’s on Paris’s Champs Élysées.
What the heck...I order one anyway ($6.25 with Monterey jack/cheddar and fries). I get a glass of draft Miller Lite ($2.79) and take off for the table with the fire ring. Spend five minutes scoping the buzz. Then Heather turns up with my burger and fries. Realize I’m famished — I take a great white–size chomp. This quarter-pounder is juicy, crispy-edge delicious, with enough lettuce and onions to freshen it up.
Doesn’t take long to finish. Bring my tray back to the counter.
“Always crowded like this?” I ask.
“Well, we’re kind of the local spot around here,” Eric says. “We’re cheaper than most places, and we don’t put on a show — waitresses in costumes making tortillas, all that. Plus, we’ve got this full bar.”
So, it’s still early…what next? Oh, yeah. Churchill’s, the wine-and-cigar place, is just up the road. I ain’t no smoker, but maybe once a year I might try a stogie.
2415 San Diego Avenue, Old Town
Two minutes later, I’m in a cozy little whitewashed place with 60 feet of cigar humidor, racks of customers’ private cigar lockers, wine bottles galore, and varnished mahogany paneling lining the walls.
“Just in time,” says Anne, who seems to be in charge. “We have last call at 9:30. Know what you want?”
Uh, no. Not till she says she has Arrogant Bastard. I order a pint ($6). I notice all the men out in a little patio with a maroon canvas awning and lights spiraling up a couple of trees. There’s a big TV screen. Everyone’s smoking cigars, watching, joshing. Boys’ night out! (But, yes, Anne says, women can and do come.)
I ask for the cheapest cigar. David, who’s also working behind the counter, goes to a sliding-glass cabinet and plucks out a Quorum from Nicaragua. Maybe five inches long. “This is $3.45,” he says. “Smoke it slow. Don’t overheat it or you’ll stale out the cigar.”
Now he’s talking cigar flavors. “You’ve got earthy, where it basically tastes like dirt; you’ve got grassy, a kind of barnyard flavor; and you’ve got woody, like, maybe cedar bark. Those are the three basic flavors of cigars.”
Pretty soon, I can’t tell if he’s speaking about cigars or wine, it sounds so much the same.
“That’s no coincidence,” he says.
I head out to the patio and light up, thankful for the strong taste of the Arrogant Bastard. Kinda regret I didn’t get a glass of red wine, just to see if I get the earthy thing David’s talking about.
I’m a wimp about smoking, but have to say, once I get to talking with these guys, you can feel the brotherhood. Talk drifts from, “Where you from?” to “What’s going on with the Lakers?” to “Masons...” to...
“Boys, gonna have to wrap it up.”
Must be 10:00 p.m.
All in all, I’ve spent the best part of a Jackson tonight. That includes both places. All I need now, before I get home, is a couple of Altoids.
The Place: The Alamo Mexican Cafe, 2502 San Diego Avenue, Old Town (at Harney), 619-296-1112
Prices: Tacos, $3.99 with rice and beans, $2.99 à la carte, $2.50 on “Tasty Taco Thursdays”; marinated pork torta, $5.75; bean-and-cheese burrito, $3.49; California burrito (with steak, fries, guacamole, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo), $6.49; shrimp burrito, $6.95; nachos, $5.49, with carne asada, $7.49; burger, $5.25, cheeseburger, $5.75
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily
The Place: Churchill Cigar Lounge, 2415 San Diego Avenue, 619-546-7758
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily (till midnight, Friday–Saturday)
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
Nearest Bus Stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street
Trolley/Train: Blue Line, Green Line, Coaster, Amtrak
Nearest Trolley/Train Stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street