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Pass through a kinda dark passage to the twinkling lights of the sheltered outside patio. Inside, head past the noisy bar, and through a stone-arched door into a cozy space with a dozen wooden plank tables under heavy rafters. Big brass Swiss cowbells hang from them. Ask Tío, the veteran waiter, to bring you two things: a Bösiger porter beer (brewed on the spot by the Swiss owner, Réné Bösiger), and a Sótano Dog.

Let me be blunt: these Sótano Dogs are the best goddam hot dogs in the galaxy. The Sótano Dog is a crunchy, way-long baguette loaded with Hungarian sausage, tomato, onion, chile guëro, and uncooked Swiss cheese hanging out over the top. It costs about $6.50 (depending on exchange rate). Or $12.50 for the Mamuth Dog, over twice the size. You’ll need someone to share this with. It’s ginormous.

Happy hour? Drinks only, buy one, get one free. But the food’s so cheap, it always feels like happy hour.

Vagabond

2310 30th Street, South Park

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Vagabond

Happy Hour: 4:30pm–6pm, Monday, Wednesday–Friday; Tuesday till close.

Cutest little eight-stool bar you ever saw. It’s in the Latin America section of this tour-of-the-world eatery. French part’s in the front, Asian’s in the middle, Morocco is in the back alcove. And strangest items appear on the happy-hour list, too. Like, fried Brussels sprouts in a brown clay bowl, with “apple wood smoked bacon, lemon, and pecorino Romano.” Normally $8, but $6 for happy hour.

The strangest items appear on the happy hour list at Vagabond in South Park.

Of course, you’ve got to make it to the bar stool to get the happy-hour deals. But they’re worth fighting for, even if you need a minute to get used to some of them. Seaweed salad ($4) turns out to be delicious and nutritious. The short rib beef street taco ($2) is great with its queso fresco, avocado, and BOMB sauce. And the mussels — the most expensive at $13 — look and smell great when they pass me by. But the sprouts, with bacon and cheese and lemon are incredible. Even more incredible: the fresh-baked hot bread. ‘Specially when you lay on the aioli butter with saffron. I also got a $6 glass of French wine. Next time: the mussels, or lamb sliders (2 for $10.)

Just make sure you nab the stool, or all HH bets are off.

Downtown Johnny Brown's

1220 Third Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Downtown Johnny Brown’s

Happy Hour: 3–7pm, Monday–Friday

It’s hard to beat free. And Friday evenings they often have complimentary tri-tip roasting away. This is the Irish green eatery and bar in the Civic Center Concourse, the one café that sprawls out towards where Cabrillo’s 1542 map of San Diego Bay is pictured in mosaic tiles, and the prow of a ship rushes through water to show we’re a city of immigrants.

So last time I came on a Friday, there was that luscious smell. I jes’ followed my nose to the chafing dish, and forked on two slabs of the meat to my plate, and headed for a table. Trying not to look smug. Tender, soo tasty, and filling. That and a $3 domestic bottle of cerveza makes for a pretty decent way to finish your week. Otherwise $1 fish tacos and 40 percent off appetizers. That’d mean a cheese quesadilla for $3.50, chili cheese fries for $4.50, potato skins for $4.50.

Plus, you’re in the bosom of government here on the best possible day. Folks are letting steam off over the week’s budget battles and pothole programs. And you get a chance to put your two cents in about people trying to have something for nothing

Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar

1912 Coronado Avenue #105, Nestor

Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar

Happy hour: 3–6pm, Monday–Thursday; $1.35 fish tacos, all day Monday–Thursday

This is down near Suzie’s Organic farm. Saturn and Coronado Avenue. Mostly housing, sloughs, a few franchises. But come here at sunset, because two things are happening: the sun shines horizontally on the Baja Oyster sign, and gives a magical light inside; and the place is rockin’. Like a Baja surfing cantina. Corrugated iron, thatch palapas, two bars and cooks’ stations, one at either end, and people, yakking, shouting, laughing, chowing.

Right next to you, Leo, Juan, and Nazareth, the cooks, are racing around, clanging pans onto flames, taking orders, barking orders. It’s quite a scene.

You get a heckuva deal on the HH special, the $1.35 fish taco, glugging the 2-fer-1 Buds ($3). I mean, these fish tacos are fine, but go off-HH menu too. Look for the smoked marlin taco ($3.50). It is out…of…this…woild. For starters, tortilla’s all black-striped and end-burned from cooking on the flame broiler. Then there’s the smoky fish and hot salsa and a way-big slab of avocado. I swear, you sit here chewing and shaking your head. It’s that good.

Dobson's

956 Broadway Circle, Downtown San Diego

Dobson’s

Happy hour: 4pm–6pm drinks; 4pm–11pm for bar food.

You come here because this is where the power players gather after work. I come here because they have $3 beers in HH, and some incredibly sophisticated, but not that expensive bar food specials. Like their mussel bisque “en croute,” meaning in a puff pastry jacket. Yes, it’s $10, but for that you get the mussels, a winey sauce, beautiful puff pastry, and at the end the waiter punches a hole in the pastry center and sends a stream of sherry into it for added sexiness. Oh, man.

Or the chicken liver mousse ($9), a pâté where they lever the waxy top off it in its little ceramic pot, and bring fabulous baked-on-the-spot bread with butter.

Okay, I also come because of the awesome, golden mahogany bar they shipped out around the Horn from England back in 1913. People have been leaning on it telling the bartender “my wife doesn’t understand me” for 99 years.

Bare Back Grill

4640 Mission Boulevard, Pacific Beach

Bare Back Grill

Happy hour: 3–6pm, Monday–Friday

This New Zealand–themed restaurant was one of the pre-Burger Lounge pioneers of free-range organic beef burgers. Theirs had less fat in their beef and lower cholesterol than even turkey, plus more omega-3 than salmon.

But what I liked about them was they didn’t make a big religious thing about it.

More from the Happy Hour issue: Not just drinking on the mind | That transcendental space between drinking too early and drinking too much

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