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House of Blues

1055 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Did I mention my voice? I could be singing at the House of Blues tonight. Serious!

It all started this evening outside the "Everything $5.00" store downtown at Fifth and C. I was standing at the Number 25 bus stop. I started sniffing. Hmm. Somebody was smoking pot.

So I'm looking 'round to see who's toking on a funny cigarette when I notice there's a House of Blues in the old Woolworth's building.

Wonder if you can get a bite there without losing an arm and a leg?

I head on over. Best thing they've done with the conversion is to keep Woolworth's old sidewalk overhang and stick an outdoor café underneath. It's dusk now, and the red-and-yellow Spanish lamps are just winking on. It looks muy romantica. I follow the people sauntering in, looking for tickets to tonight's music, or heading for the bar. In the background, Aretha sings "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." Guys wheel amp boxes past.

I mosey up to the hostesses.

"Uh, can you get just a coffee and sit outside?" I ask.

"Of course," says one gal. "Sit anywhere."

I choose one of the tables nearest the sidewalk. They all have cream-colored faux marble tops, with black wrought-iron chairs. You're protected from the street -- too protected for my taste -- by troppo plants and thick sheets of Plexiglas.

I check my wallet. A single Jackson. This wait-guy John comes over, and I ask for my coffee. It's $2.50 but with refills. John leaves the menu.

On the back it says: "House of Blues is a home for live music and Southern-inspired cuisine in an environment celebrating the African-American cultural contributions of blues music and folk art."

I flip the page. Uh-oh. Worst fears confirmed. Even an appetizer, like "pan-seared voodoo shrimp with rosemary cornbread and Dixie beer reduction," is $11.95. Sandwiches, too. The "all-beef Blues Burger" with cheese and fries runs $10.25. And the entrées -- forget it. "Full rack of slow-smoked Tennessee-style baby back ribs" with mashed sweet potatoes is $23.95. Steak and baked potatoes cost $26.95.

There has to be a chink in their armor somewhere. I scan the menu...found it! Ha! Under "From the Stock Pot," they have a "New Orleans-Style Chicken Gumbo with Andouille Sausage and Okra in a Traditional Brown Roux. Cup, $3.95, Bowl, $4.95."

"Does it come with cornbread?" I ask John. I'm trying to avoid paying for a separate side of "Skillet Baked Rosemary Cornbread with Maple Butter." That's $5.95.

"No, but you get two slices of French bread."

That's good enough for moi. I order the gumbo. And just to be sure I fill ye olde gut, a side of sweet potato fries ($3.95).

Okay. Advantages of eating in classy joints beyond your limits: you get nice, heavy flatware, big white cloth napkins, endless coffee refill service with new cups at each refill, and wowzie! Big, heavy plates with the company logo. Makes you feel a little, well, important.

The gumbo comes in a midnight-blue pot on a big, blue-striped white china plate with "House of Blues, Unity in Diversity" written around its rim. The roux is rich, filled with chunky bits of meat that fall apart when you chomp into them. Veggies swill around, and a layer of rice floats at the bottom. The andouille is the Cajun sausage, I've heard, made of pork butt and spices. It's in there with the chicken chunks and okra slices. The two big slices of French bread aren't gutsy enough for my taste but good for dipping. They help stretch this dish and make it a meal.

The sweet-potato fries also come on a beautiful big plate. They're dark golden and have a pot of dipping sauce. On their own they taste like deep-fried pumpkin. The sauce gives them a tart kicker.

"That's great, that sauce," I say to John. "Kinda sophisticated. What's in it?"


"Tomato and...?"

"And tomato. It's ketchup."

"Oh, right. Thank you, John."

As I eat, and drown myself in coffee, is filling up. "It's karaoke tonight," John says. "Every Thursday...want anything else?"

"Uh, that bread-pudding dessert. Is that good?"

Why am I doing this? I never have liked bread pudding. I've spent enough, and I'm pretty full. But the menu says this dessert is the Deep South. "White Chocolate-Banana Bread Pudding with Jack Daniel's Crème Anglaise, Whipped Cream, and a Caramel Halo, $6.50."

"I'll have it," I say.

Gotta say, when it comes, it looks a stunner. A bun of banana bread in a moat of "crème anglaise," with green mint leaves on the whipped cream, and a kind of coronet of crunchy caramel. All this on another big white plate that says "In Blues We Trust."

The best taste is the fresh mint leaves in with the cream and bread. That adds a real Southern feel. But in the end, it's still bread pudding. And I've spent too much.

Next time, I'll sit down for a coffee and people-watch. Two bucks fifty, period.

Meanwhile, I have one last decision to make. Should I go back and take a shot at the karaoke? (It'd have to be "My Way." What other karaoke song is there?) Oh man, to be able to say: "Oh sure. I've sung at the House of Blues. They went wild."

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