744 Ventura Place, San Diego
"Man, you are so full of it," says Gary. He's talking to Steve, right here at the bar. Steve's been telling me that this end of the counter is what's known as Liars' Corner, here at their hangout, the venerable Coaster.
It's all in good humor. This is one of those days when the sun is shining, the ocean breeze is cooling down the midday heat, and the morning crowd of guys -- excuse me, Carla -- is wowing at the hardbodies parading up and down the Mission Beach boardwalk in front of us, all fresh-baked and sandy from la playa.
Yup. Mission Beach. Back again. Blame the heat. I'd been wandering along the boardwalk, past the lifeguards' building and their Tower 15, listening to the clank of horseshoes -- a bunch of guys were playing on the beach -- dodging electric bike riders, joggers, and Rollerblading moms shunting kids in tandem strollers, when 'round about Hamel's Castle, I followed the human tide into Ventura Place. In a flash I was beside this two-story building painted red, white, and blue, like a giant American flag. "Coaster Saloon," said its sign. "Oakwood Bar-BQ. Cocktails."
At the open-air tables and stools, people were drinking and talking, right above the sidewalk. No closed-off Heart o' Darkness bar here. Daylight lit the whole length of the counter. And, oh wow. Out to the side, I saw they were serious about their "Bar-BQ." A mighty stack of firewood sat next to two big blackened barbecue pits, chimneys and all. Plus, it even had spaces for bikes out front. As I stood there, a rumble and a bunch of screams sounded from behind me, across the road. Oh yeah. Belmont Park. That Giant Dipper roller coaster I keep raving about. The one Carla says her pop brought her to when she was five years old. Heck, it's been going since 1925. They reckon it still only costs a single Washington for the ride. I wonder if she'd ride it if I brought her down here?
Two minutes later, I'm sitting on a big, comfy black stool at the end of the bar, looking round. It's a bit like a ship's saloon. Varnished wood walls, varnished ceiling strakes, brass-and-wood ceiling fans, pillars wound in rope. I get talking to these guys. Gary's thin, sixtyish, and rooted to his corner stool. Says he's been coming here 30 years. I notice that he and Steve have a pile of poker chips stacked in front of them.
"What's that for?" I ask.
"That, my friend, is the best deal in town," says Gary. "You pay 20 bucks for ten chips, and then you can buy beer or well drinks for a token each. That's two bucks, even if the drink sells for three, three-fifty."
"Any chance of a coffee?" I ask Jamie, the server. Had a late start. This is my breakfast time.
"Sure," she says, and leaves a menu. Ah. Thank goodness. "Beach Breakfast" is served till 2:00 p.m. And, hey, we're looking at serious, solid farmers' nosh. BBQ tri-tip steak and eggs with home fries and toast or beans and tortilla, $6.95. Or pork loin and eggs, or chicken-fried steak and eggs, all the same price.
"What happens," Gary says, "is they get the barbecue going in the morning and rub the meat with salt, garlic, spices. They sear the outsides and seal the flavors in, then when you order, they finish it off on the grill. You'll taste all those good rubbings, all right."
'Course I have to scan the rest of the menu. It all seems so reasonable. 'Specially for a beach eatery in high tourist season. Two eggs with bacon, ham, turkey, links, or "country sausage" are also $6.95. Biscuits and gravy are $5.75, three-egg omelet with cheese is $4.75, and for two more bucks you can even add in lobster.
Jamie brings my coffee ($1.50). I order the BBQ pork loin, and man! When it comes, it's three whole slabs of pork, cut maybe half an inch thick, with golden home fries, and robust, cheesy scrambled eggs. I take a chomp into the pork. It's...oh yes. Smoky, tangy. That porker's definitely been barbecued. There's plenty of butter to slather on the wheat toast too, and that evens out the strength of the barbecue flavors.
It seems the barbecue method was brought down from Santa Maria, which is pretty famous for its insistence on using only central California red oak wood (just as they do here), and dry seasonings, and a mild salsa to make their famous flavor.
Gary and Steve are part of the morning crowd. At night this place has BBQ dinners, most around $8--$10, but both Gary and Steve say I've gotta try the burgers. The half-pound hand-squeezed Angus beef burger is "worth every penny" of its $5.99 tag. "Or, I love the 'sliderburgers.' They're mini-size. Like White Castle, from back East. Five bucks," says Gary.
How important has this place become in their lives?
"Run your hand over the counter there," Steve says.
I do. Huh. A tiny brass plaque.
"'Disco' Joe Blazek, 1911--Forever."
"Joe sat in that spot every morning, 25, 30 years," Gary says. "Always drank a brandy and water."
"He was a character," says Gary.
"This place is full of characters," Steve says. "Like Gary here. He doesn't lie so good anymore. So they've changed our name from 'Liars' Corner' to 'Bullshitters' Corner.' Right, Gary?"
"You are so-o full of it," says Gary.
I chomp into my BBQ. Bullshitters' Corner? I feel as if I've come home.