2310 30th Street, San Diego
Ah. This is the life. Kicking back at 30th, Fern, and Juniper. I'm at Rebecca's. Outside. Cawfee, $1.50 (30-cent refills). This guy Mike Hernandez sings softly under the jacaranda tree. "Your ma said you cried in your sleep last night." Robert Plant, the Led Zeppelin guy, right?
Sun shines brutally beyond our gentle shade. Alice studies here under the pepper trees, and two guys, Peter and Philip, play chess. "Go back," says Peter. "Go back!"
"What you telling me, 'Go back'?" says Philip. "Check!"
He shoulda gone back. Three moves and it's over.
Philip gets up, takes over the guitar. Starts playing the Band song "The Weight." "I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' 'bout half-past dead..."
Me, I'm looking across the road at a mud-colored building topped with a dome. "What is that place?" I say.
"It's a, like, French restaurant. Vagabond," Mike says. "Every day, people line up."
Huh. Fact is, it's coming up to a year since the lovely Carla broke her leg. Gotta celebrate the anniversary. Finances being what they are, can't break an arm and a leg doing it, but maybe this is worth a look. I hop across. It has a red-and-khaki-colored canopy. Dead outside, but inside -- whoa! Every table is full. Beehive hum of chatter, waiters laying down new paper tablecloths over starched white cotton ones, chinking silver...classy. Definitely not my scene...
"Welcome," says this guy with a French accent. He catches me pinching one of his menus to scrutinize.
"Just seeing if I can afford you guys," I stammer, zooming in on the magic numbers on the right. Hey. Single figures! $6.50, $7.50...$12.50, tops. Long as I don't blow it on drinks, I might be able to handle this.
Jerome leads me into an Asian-looking section, a row of tables under a saying of Lao Tsu's scrawled across the wall: "Thus the sage knows without traveling. He sees without looking. He works without doing."
Uh, Ho-kay. If you say so, Lao baby. The waiter flaps a new paper topping onto my table, chunks a preserving jar filled with stainless cutlery on top. Folks must have just vacated the spot. That's how crowded it is.
I sit down between these two couples.
"But I don't know your wife yet," a woman says to this guy.
"You've got to distinguish between your id and your superego," a guy at the other table says. "You are at the nexus..."
Oh please. You can tell, this is people plucked right out of the 14th-floor corner offices of Copley Towers. They've Beamered over for the lunch hour. All the while they're munching on salad and tuna, salad and big golden shrimps loaded on big white plates. Which reminds me. Decide quick, so you don't get blindsided.
Let's start off with the cheapest. Bunch of salads. The Vagabond house blue cheese salad with black olive croutons and pine nuts is $6.50, a dollar more if you add slices of prosciutto ham. Caesar salad's $6.50, with a soft-boiled egg, Parmesan, and anchovies, $8.00 with chicken, $8.50 with shrimp. Calamari duo salad has both grilled calamari and crispy garlic calamari for $8.50. All this I can handle. Even the grilled scallops and skewered-shrimp salad comes in at $9.50. The gent to my left has the grilled calamari salad, and it looks huge.
They have a section of panini and sandwiches. Grilled chicken panini, $8.50, or, yeah, Kobe beef burger, also $8.50. Half-pound patty. Dollar more with cheese.
Then, oh Lord, further down the list are things like Assiette Française. Get this: "The traditional French plate of charcuterie; assorted pâtés, imported sausages, cornichons (gherkins), and olives. Served with a fine selection of Imported Cheeses and a Small Vagabond House Salad." It's $9.50.
I'm pretty much set on the burger when Emilie appears. French. And very cute. I order a coffee ($1.75 with refills), ask her what she thinks of the burger. "The filet mignon sandwich is more interesting," she says. I check the menu. "Caribbean Filet Mignon Sandwich with Avocado," it says. "Thinly Sliced Filet Mignon Marinated in a Caribbean Dressing of Olive Oil, Garlic, Honey, Ginger, Herbs and Spices. Served Grilled with Spread Avocado and Spicy Jack Cheese on Toasted Telera Roll. $9.50."
"It's sweet," Emilie warns.
That's what sells it. While I'm waiting, a guy brings French bread and a pot of aioli. Oh man. Perfect marriage. Garlic, mayo, virgin bread. I chew cud and look around. The place yammers. People are excited to be here. You can understand it. I'm here in the Asian section, but over by the blue arches there's a Caribbean area. To the left of that, a glamorous oriental woman sits in Little Morocco, framed by a Corinthian column and glowing, pierced-metal lanterns. And out by the blacktop bar, there are poems in Spanish on the wall and a big joker-card mural. It makes you think of Argentina.
One thing I know: Carla's gonna love this. The other is that my sweet filet mignon is great. Love that honey-ginger taste coming through. But yes. I have regrets. It's still just a sandwich. I coulda had that calamari duo salad, or Assiette Française. Charcuterie! Those cheeses! Or, Lord, the moules frites -- black mussels steamed in wine and cream, and pommes frites -- except that that one's $12.50.
In the end I'm glad I held the line. My bill comes to $12.13, coffee, tax, the lot. I prepare a last mouthful of honey-ginger beef with avo and tomato. Mmm. Carla, honey, this bite's for you. After we're through, I guarantee you're gonna cry, "Oui! Oui! Oui! Oui!" all the way home.