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Cliff Hanger Café

2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla

Oh, Lord. "Hank. Ya gotta see this. Quick." Hank stumbles up the dirt slope. "Better be good, son, 'cause...oh wow."

We both stare. Now I'm not an arty type but I'm thinking caterpillars, green, blue, orange, white, black, hovering, huge, in the air, twenty yards away, with the Pacific half a mile below. And dangling below them, what look like pupas. Except they're...people. They curl and swoop around each other in a kind of silent, slo-mo Technicolor air dance.

Okay. They're paragliders. Guys who run down the grass and off the cliff and sail under parachutes on the updraft from the ocean.

"Let's go watch and snack on something," I say.

"No, man. Gotta pick up that monitor at 4:30."

"That gives us nearly an hour, man. See those white tables and chairs near the cliff? I'm hungry."

I start into this biting little breeze, heading toward a bunch of blue Pepsi umbrellas silhouetted against the hazier blue of the water. It's like the Café at the End of the Earth.

Actually, what's up there is a kitchen. You sit out under the Pepsi umbrellas to eat.

If you're in time.

"Sorry, I've turned the griddle off," says this chef on the other side of the counter. "I can get you snacks. Or, guess I could do you a quesadilla."

Damn. "How 'bout a burger?" I ask.

"I could do you a hot dog," he says. His name's Gary. He's been here four months. "See, the grill's off. It's cooled down. But, well, I guess I could sauté you a burger in the pan."

That sounds promising. Don't normally hear "burger" and "sauté" in the same breath.

"Thanks! Yes," I say, and watch while he goes through to a small partitioned cooking area farther along the counter.

"With cheese?" he asks.


"American, cheddar, or Swiss?"


"Want to kick it up to Cajun burger? Nice and spicy."

"Sure," I say. "Love spicy."

"See?" he says, holding up a CD-size patty. "Half-pound burger. I've hand-formed it myself, added spices...here, smell it."

I do. It's herby-spicy.

"And I don't cut the tomatoes till I do each burger," he says.

Huh. But now thinking dinero. Lessee. Hamburger's $6.00. Cheeseburger's $6.50. Cajun burger, too. The menu's labeling, I see now, is kinda cool, all paragliding-related. Breakfast stuff is called "The Launch," because "you should never leave the ground on an empty stomach." They have a $4.00 breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, onions, bell peppers, and salsa. The "Mile High" omelet's bacon, cheese, and bell peppers ($5.50). Then there's chicken and fish and Gardenburger sandwiches called "Alternate Flight Routes," because "great discoveries are motivated by taking risks." The "Landing Zone" is for "oddballs with no other place to call home." We're talking bratwurst and sautéed onions ($4.25), or a Philly cheesesteak ($6.25).

But Hank's shaking his head. "Nothing here for me," he says. "I need salads."

"The grilled mahimahi is really healthy," Gary says. It's $7.00. "We use lemon pepper, sautéed onions, fresh garlic, and it's in a whole-grain honey-wheatbread sandwich."

Hank isn't tempted, but thinking of Carla, I say, "Give me one of those to go."

We get a coffee ($1.00) each, then Hank goes off to see how far down the cliff these air-sailors swoop. While I'm waiting, a gal walks up to Gary. Alaina, the manager. "She's also Number Three in the world Frisbee golf championships," Gary says.

We talk Frisbee golf till Gary comes up with the burger. Wowee. That's one big chunk of char-sealed meat in there. Caramelized sautéed onions on top, along with the tomatoes, lettuce, and pepino, a big pickle. I take my eyes off the swirling carnivale and concentrate on the taste in hand. This burger's worth it. I swear I get cayenne flavors. Cajun. I hack into the pile of potato salad that comes with it. Gary says he makes this too. It's red-skin potatoes and celery and has me glooping till the last forkful. I lean back, look up at the rainbow sky.

Hank comes heaving back up from the cliff edge. I hold up the Cajun's remains. "That, my friend," I say to Hank, "is a burger."

But the biggest treat is Carla's mahi sandwich. I just have to bust into it. There's something about the sweet, dark bread, the unfishy fish, the tartar. It's a treat, and I lean on Hank to try it. But he's on the Trim-Slim, Yoyo-No-Mo' diet plan, and nothing will shake him. I wish I had his grit.

But then, I woulda missed these two treats.

It's getting late. Lots of guys are circling in, busy as Lindbergh Field at this hour, but quiet, except for a guy who's walkie-talking one of the paragliders into a landing. He comes to sit down. Turns out he's David Jebb, the owner. Used to be a cop with the SDPD. Running this, he says, beats everything.

"When the weather starts warming, we're going to stay open later," he says, "because with the sunsets we get from here, I tell you, they'll blow you away."

But no. I want the wind to blow me away, flying one of these silent wings. Seems even Charles Lindbergh learned flying here. But he probably had dinero. Guess I'll have to be happy with occasional Cajun chomps and membership in the Green Flash Club.

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