2275 Imperial Avenue, San Diego
'Return to Life!" says Guillermo. It's an order. He plops down on the blue stool next to me. "I ask for it every day," he says. We both watch while José Gameros, the owner, fills a big stemmed glass goblet with chunks of clams, sea snails, octopus, shrimp, and fish, in juices red and green with tomato, cucumber, onion, and even a little ketchup. He tops it all off with a crown of just-shelled oysters and hands it over. Guillermo shakes on drops of Guacamaya hot sauce and dives in. "Vuelve a la Vida!" he says. " 'Return to Life!' " He works at El Güero tire shop, a couple of doors away. "This keeps you going," he says.
Yeah, but octopus for breakfast?
Here's the situation. It's around 2:30 in the afternoon and I haven't eaten yet. I walked up here from 12th and Imperial, under the I-5, in search of food. But it had to be gentle. Last night Hank and I drowned our sorrows well. Today I was hurting. So I knew it was either menudo, the Mexican tripe hangover cure, or this "Return to Life" cocktail, named for exactly my situation.
Coming up Imperial onto the east side of 5 is like entering another town. Li'l ol' 1940s houses, kids kicking balls, dogs yapping, Mexican and American flags fluttering. Signs like "Envio de Dinero" and "Se Activan Beepers en 30 Minutos." Jaunty norteño music, guys leaning under lowrider hoods, and then this tiny place. Blue and white. About as wide as a single garage.
I flipped through the screen door. Inside, I saw it was called Mariscos Golosito. "It means delicious," José explained in Spanish. The walls were strung with blue fishing net, anchor clocks, ship's wheels, and a hand-painted menu. No cooking equipment visible.
"Just seafood cocktails here," said José. Which was good. I needed my gentle landing. I searched the wall menu for "Return to Life." Ah. There it was, next to Campechanas (a poetic way of saying "combinations"). I was about to order Vuelve a la Vida when I saw -- aargh! -- it was $9.95.
Guillermo had no problem ordering. "I can afford it every day because I'm not married," he says. "Most of the guys at El Güero have families. They can't come as often as me."
Me neither, I'm thinking. I ask for a shrimp cocktail to start ($3.25 for a chico cup), while I check out the rest of the menu.
José fills up a small coffee-sized polystyrene cup with shrimp and a reddish liquid.
"Onions?" he says. I nod.
He passes it over, along with a plate of "Zest" saltine crackers, a half lime, and two hot sauces. Tapatío and Guacamaya. Here goes for my first all-seafood cocktail breakfast. Mmm. It's interesting. The tomatoey, cilantroey liquid counters the camarón (shrimp) flesh, and the saltine crackers counter the acid of the liquid. Must be a dozen decent-sized shrimp in there. And, huh: José says they come from Thailand.
By the time I have downed them, I'm feeling quasi-full. And guess what? The gut doesn't feel all shook up.
I check the board. You can have camarón (shrimp), pulpo (octopus), callo (scallops), or caracol. Hold it. Caracol? That's the conch, isn't it? Giant undersea snails that make those mythical shells. Oh man, no. Can't eat one of them. Too personal. They're too slow. Not fair, catching them. Then of course he has ostión (oysters) and pescado (fish). Small cups are $3.95, except for the oysters ($6.50 a half dozen) and fish ($2.50 for a small cup).
In the end I order a ceviche tostada ($3.25) and a small cup of pulpo cocktail ($3.95). Too late I realize I could have ordered a campechana -- a combo of any two of these sea creatures for $4.00 (or $5.50 for medium or $6.95 for large). The pulpo almost looks up at you, bits of tentacles all red, purple, and white. It tastes doughy in the thicker parts. I have to tell myself, "Eat those suckers," and mean it. José tells me this octopus comes from the Philippines. Does that mean we've killed off all our own octopuses?
Out back, I see three white wrought-iron tables under trees, with ceramic fish attached to the tree trunks, as if they're swimming through. Wow. That'd be good in the evening with Carla, drinking a bottle of the sangría they have in a cooling cabinet (grape-based, nonalcoholic, $1.00) and chomping and slurping Vuelve a la Vida. José says his Golosito has had the same menu for the 25 years it's been open. "This is Sinaloa-Nayarit style. We like it fresh and simple," he says.
"I only came down from L.A. two months ago," says Guillermo, "and I can tell you this Vuelve a la Vida is better than we get in L.A. -- and cheaper."
Still, $9.95 ain't no poor man's daily dish.
"But it's healthier than all that cooked food, like burgers and burritos," says José. "Think of us as a kind of sushi mexicano."
Of course I end up spending as much as if I'd gone direct for the Vuelve a la Vida. About ten bucks. Outside, I bump into a couple of mariachis looking for business. Paco, who plays the accordion, and Checo, with his guitar. Yes, they know "El Columpio" ("the swing"). Man. Only on Imperial. I fumble in my pocket to see if I can afford them.