819 C Street, Downtown San Diego
The golden-brown steaming lake of birria sends wafts of beefy, spicy, cilantro-y, almost mole-ish richness swirling up my nostrils. And now the lime I’ve squirted on it makes it so purr-fect it almost sings as much as it stings.
I take a big slurp of the soupy stew, grab one of the chunks of beef floating in it, dip the crispish thick corn tortilla in and chomp off a bit of that...and lays and ginmen, we have ourselves a birria worthy of Mercado Hidalgo in TJ.
Except we’re here on the most blah section of C Street in downtown San Diego, right next to the eternally decrepit Hotel Churchill.
I swear. This place. This location. The kiss of death for three different owners, that I know of. This time it’s called “Rustic Kitchen,” and it promises “good food made from scratch,” plus “organic coffee and daily bakes.”
Organic sounds good. And as I came past, hoofing it down from the City College trolley stop, I was impressed by the patio with the coffee urn. “Café de la olla,” says this guy Miguel. “It’s coffee, Mexican-style, with cinnamon and piloncillo — molasses? No. More like solid rocks of unrefined sugar.”
Costs $1.50. Mornings only.
But food’s all day. I check the sandwich-board menu out here. Hmm... Shrimp and chorizo tacos (3 for $8.50), birria tacos ($6), quinoa burger ($7.50), fajita quesadilla ($6).
I head inside, to this spacious old-fashioned room. They have painted the walls every which color — blue, green, orange, yellow. “That’s inspired by our grandma,” says Miguel. “She is from the Yucatán.”
Miguel gives me a menu. I spot their list of “signature dishes,” which includes turkey albondigas (turkey meatballs, veggies, tortillas, $7), birria tacos ($8.50), fish tacos ($7.50), calamari tacos ($7.50), and a chicken fajita quesadilla ($6).
“Our fish tacos aren’t like usual fish tacos,” says Miguel. “We don’t deep-fry them. We grill them. Much healthier and tastier.”
Huh. Tempted. And, oh Lord, Miguel says they have smoked swordfish quesadillas and shrimp-and-chorizo tacos.
“And we have the first birria downtown,” he says.
Birria? Oh, man. The stew? I’d do backflips to get a decent birria. Love it when it’s good. And the goat meat is strong-flavored but tender to chew.
“Except, we’re out today.”
So, I start to think about the salads I should be having, anyway. They do a chicken Caesar, Cobb (each $7), and spinach, and “House KBA,” (each $6). KBA means kale, bacon, avocado. It comes with tomato, feta cheese, and apples. For two bucks more you can add grilled chicken. Or for $3.50 more, grilled salmon. I ask Miguel for the KBA with chicken.
It is delicious. The feta, the apple slices, generous amounts of avo, and bacon. Man. That’s a good mix-up. Marco the chef put lots — I mean lots — of grilled hunks of chicken all over the top. But you know what? I didn’t really need the chicken.
Kick myself for eating it all anyway. Especially as the thing I actually wanted was the birria.
So, a few days later I’m walking the same route, around lunchtime, thinking hmm...maybe they have it this time. Pass that maroon frontage with the three white arched windows and the lime-green patio umbrellas. Swear I can smell birria.
“Yes!” says Miguel when he sees me coming in. “Today we have it. Claudia was cooking it for eight hours yesterday.”
Claudia is right there. “I deseeded ancho guajillo chilies, added spices, ginger, clove, simmered and marinated the shank for eight hours...it is quite popular. I think we’re the only place downtown with birria.”
The birria is $6. When it comes, I toss in a pile of chopped cilantro and raw onion and salsa and slurp away.
“This is great even though it isn’t goat,” I say.
“People here aren’t used to goat,” says Miguel. “It’s a bit too gamey for them.”
The birria’s Claudia’s baby. She brought the recipe from Guadalajara. She does the tortillas, too. And, man, they are way thick and golden and crispy and have a real corn flavor.
It turns out that the whole crew here used to work at the Hotel Del Coronado through the ’90s — Miguel, Romo, Claudia, and Miguel’s wife Jaclyn. “And my dad before me,” Miguel says.
But why open a restaurant here in this Black Hole between downtown and East Village?
“Because things are changing,” says Miguel. “My dad now owns Chef Miguel’s at Seventh and C. One of his customers told him the city has declared this area is going to be designated an ‘entertainment district’ and that four high-rise condo buildings are going up over the next four years. Two of them on this parking lot across C Street right here. So, if we can just hang in here while the new district grows around us, we may end up in a good spot.”
And the Churchill Hotel next door? “It’s going to be converted to low-income housing, so we should have lots more people living right next door. That project starts next month.”
Maybe these guys do know what they’re doing.
Next thing I wanna do: get up early enough so I can come try some of that cinnamon-sugared coffee they have brewing in the olla outside early in the morning.
- Prices: Shrimp-and-chorizo tacos, 3 for $8.50; birria tacos, $6; quinoa burger, $7.50; chicken fajita quesadilla, $6; turkey albondigas (turkey meatballs, veggies, tortillas) $7; birria tacos, $8.50; fish tacos, $7.50; calamari tacos, $7.50; chicken Caesar salad, $7; Cobb salad, $7; kale, bacon, avocado salad, with tomato, feta cheese, apples, $6; smoked marlin tacos, $7.50; birria plate, $6
- Hours: 7 a.m.–6 p.m., Monday to Friday; 9 a.m.–4 p.m., Saturday, Sunday
- Buses: All downtown
- Nearest bus stop: Ninth and Broadway
- Trolley: Blue Line, Orange Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: City College