Queenstown's beef jalapeño mini burger, the Kiwilango.
  • Queenstown's beef jalapeño mini burger, the Kiwilango.
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Water. Adam’s Ale. Hobo cocktail. Sky juice. Call it whatever, it’s one of the few things around that’s still actually free. And — hey hey! — today, water made it possible for me to finagle visits to two kinda swanky joints with happy hours.

First off, I hit an outpost of New Zealand in Little Italy. It was this romantic 100-year-old Craftsman house with a porch, tables in the garden, round windows, roof overhangs, and even a garden brazier. “Queenstown Public House,” reads gold lettering on a window. Name’s inspired by Queenstown, a Julian-like mountain town in New Zealand. I was here soon after they opened three years ago. But now I hear they have a good happy hour.

Little Italy’s New Zealand outpost, a 1905 Craftsman offering up Kiwi grub.

“We’re just starting,” says this gal at the lectern out front. She shows me the HH menu. “Afternoon Tea!” it calls it. It’s a postcard. “Monday–Friday 3 p.m. till 6 p.m.”

Queenstown Public House

1557 Columbia Street, Little Italy

Choice is pretty simple. A six-beer flight for $9 or three wines or sangrias. And the important part: $4 sliders, including “Meso Tasty, Kiwilango, Bare Lil Lamb, Cluck N Squeal.”

I head in and grab a seat at the zinc bar. “Marae e hoa manuhiri,” reads this message etched into the backboard mirror. Means something about this being a meeting place for guests, I think. The language is New Zealand Maori. It’s close to Hawaiian. Wish I knew more, because we’re Pacific peoples too, right?

“Menu?” asks Craig the bartender. He plops one in front of me. The Meso Tasty slider turns out to be grilled chicken with grilled pineapple, sweet onion chips, Swiss cheese, and red pepper aioli in a focaccia bun.

The Kiwilango’s a basic beef burgerette with jalapeños, blue cheese, tortilla chips, and hot sauce in a focaccia. Or you can go vegan with a black-bean patty.

“Bare Lil Lamb,” the ultimate Kiwi burger. Green jewel is the essential mint jelly.

But, this being New Zealand–themed, you pretty much have to love the national obsession, lamb. Bare Lil Lamb’s patty comes with blue cheese, mint jelly, and beets in a focaccia bun.

I order one of each. Chicken, lamb, beef. That’s 12 bucks. This is the dangerous moment. Start drinking, and even with, say, that HH beer flight, we’ll already be talking near enough to $30, with tax and tip.

Craig must have read my face.

“Water?” he offers. I nod. He pours a nice tall one into a glass of ice cubes and we leave it at that.

Sound system’s playing “Spooky.” Atlanta Rhythm Section. Love that song.

I look around. It’s getting crowded. Even on this Monday afternoon.

My three sliders come. First is the best. The Kiwilango. I chow in. Boy. Hot! Not what you’d expect from Kiwiland (the menu lists “NZ Favorites” as “bare lamb,” fish and chips, steak and fries). But this combo of rich beef, jalapeños, hot sauce — plus tang from the blue cheese and the crunch of tortilla chips — makes it a winner.

Meso Tasty, the chicken-n-pineapple sweet thang

The chicken slider’s okay: cheesy and also with chips, but lacks a distinctive taste apart from the pineapple. The lamb slider’s kinda hypnotizing, though, especially with the electric-green of the mint jelly glowing around the blue cheese. But, taste-wise, it’s the Kiwilango, outright winner.

And I’d forgotten how water’s the perfect mouth cooler. Sky juice! I’m discovering it all over again.

Queenstown Public House

1557 Columbia Street, Little Italy

Queenstown Public House

  • Happy Hours: Monday–Friday 3–6 p.m.
  • Happy Hour Prices: $4 sliders, including “Meso Tasty (grilled chicken, pineapple); Kiwilango (beef jalapeño mini burger); Bare Lil Lamb (blue cheese, mint); Cluck N Squeal (grilled chicken, bacon, avocado); standard prices include fish and chips ($18), steak and fries ($19), quinoa salad ($12)
  • Bus: 83
  • Nearest bus stop: India between Cedar and Date (northbound); Kettner at Grape (southbound)
  • Trolley: Green Line
  • Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy (at Cedar and California, two blocks from India)

Bonus is this leaves me with a little spare lettuce in the pocket. I get downtown into the Gaslamp and head into Café Sevilla because I remember that they automatically bring out frosted ceramic-flip-top water bottles and blue glass goblets, just to welcome you. You feel so cool drinking the agua from your goblet like it’s mead or wine, it doesn’t matter that it’s just water. It does matter that it’s free.

Bite-size version of the famous tortilla Española. Surprisingly filling!

They’re in HH, too. This time I order three “tapa bites,” a tortilla Española, a short-rib slider, and a cured-Spanish sausage dish. Three bucks each! ’Course, Marlin (the server) has warned me: “These plates are gonna be tiny.”

Wouldn’t really matter. I love the atmosphere here. The Spanish tiled tables, the tortured Gypsy flamenco singing coming through the sound system, the way they bring out your tapas on wooden planks, the way they use Moorish seasoning (a mix of spices such as cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne, oregano, turmeric) on things like chicken.

Spanish sausage

Tapas bites arrive. Okay, yes. These are, uh, mini-tapas. Maybe mini-mini tapas. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have taste. Especially the short-rib slider. It’s braised beef, kind of winey, ultra-tender on a crisp toasted slice of baguette. Scrumptious. You forget the other two dishes, even the Spanish sausage, with its crowd of sweet sautéed onions. Or the tortilla Española, even though it is a good little pie stacked with potato, tomato, and goat cheese.

Best news? This three-course Gaslamp mini-meal has cost me $9.70, including tax. Except I should have read the menu more carefully. It says “$3 off all items $11 and under. And five dollars off items $12 and over.” Lordy! This opens up a ton of HH dishes. I could have had a complete tortilla Española (normally $8) for $5.

Sigh. Next time. What can you do? I flip the ceramic top and slush some more Adam’s Ale in my glass. Start glugging. Feel slightly drunk. They say sky juice will do that to you, if you have enough.

Café Sevilla

Café Sevilla Tapas Bar

353 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

  • Happy Hours: 2:30–6:30 p.m. daily (Saturdays till 5 p.m.)
  • Happy Hour Prices: Tapas bites, $3 each (e.g., short-rib slider, tortilla Española, bacon-wrapped date, ahi tuna tower, grilled chicken skewer, mini Spanish Cubano sandwich); full tapas include Spanish meatballs ($6); fondue (with manchego, goat cheese), $9; stuffed dates, $5; tortilla Española, $5; grilled chicken, $5; beef empanada, $6
  • Buses: 3, 11
  • Nearest bus stops: for #3: Fourth and G (southbound); Market and Sixth (northbound); for #11: Fourth and Market (northbound), Third and Market (southbound)
  • Trolley: Green Line
  • Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp (at Fifth Avenue and Harbor Drive)
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