2037 University Avenue, San Diego
The three Secret Service agents stand at the bar. "Seven?" asks Nacho.
"Seven," say the Secret Service guys.
Miguel Madera, fondly known as "Nacho" to about every sailor in the Pacific Fleet, goes ahead and whacks seven patties down on his hot plate with the "slam" that gave his "Slamburgers" their name. And nobody in the bar's sayin' nothin', but everybody knows. Even these beefy guys in their shiny black shoes and curly-wire earpieces could never make it through seven of Nacho's Slamburgers.
That can mean only one thing. They're taking half of them back to the Big Guy, waiting in the nearby Hotel Del. The nation's self-acknowledged number-one burger fanatic, President Bill Clinton. He could have ordered burgers from the Del, but no. He obviously sent his Secret Service guys out to Danny's, the sailors' bar on Coronado's Orange Avenue to get "the best burger in San Diego," according to countless surveys, Nacho's Slamburger.
So, okay. That was 1994. Nacho stayed at Danny's 18 years. When he left in 2004, burger aficionados about freaked. Word went forth. Find Nacho! But nobody did. Not that I heard of, anyway.
Who knew today would be the day? Today, I've been looking for lunch in all the wrong places, mostly Park Avenue with its swank Uptown prices. That's why I head down the plunge where University starts its long haul east, under that arched concrete bridge. I come to the first low, salmon-colored stucco building and a bright red-and-yellow place with a Mayan pyramid sign. "El Sol. Mexican Restaurant. Nayarit Style. Best burgers. Sandwiches."
What the heck? Burger in hand's worth two in the bush. I dive in under the blue canopy to a little space with half a dozen tables. I go straight up to the serving hatch to a tiny kitchen and look into the eyes of -- my God! Can it be? Nacho! Burgermeister to presidents! His face bursts into a grin.
"My own place," he says, proudly. "Take a seat. My nephew will take your order."
I sit down, in shock. Feel like I've just found Howard Hughes.
Freddy, Nacho's nephew, comes over with a menu. "He tried retirement, but then he saw this place, and he had always dreamed of owning his own place, so he took it."
To get things going, I check the specials on the menu and go for the first I see, shrimp tostada, $2.50. I order a coffee ($1.50) too. The place is spotlessly clean. Big white floor tiles with red throw-mats, dark red skirting, yellow walls, white ceilings. Overhead fans, neon strips. The walls are dotted with Mexican ceramic suns. I count eight. And, from Coronado days, a black U.S. Navy Seal flag holds place of honor over the serving hatchway, along with the Virgin of Guadalupe, surrounded by paper flowers on the front wall.
Oh Lord, and he has a glass-front cooler labeled "Cerveza Fria." It's a little early, but...
I scan the menu. I'm just too late for breakfast. Pity. They have, like, three eggs with two sausage or bacon and toast for $4.99; a carne asada steak with three eggs, beans, and tortilla for $6.99; omelets and breakfast burritos for three, four bucks, but only till 11:00 a.m. So now we're talking lunch, Mexican or American, including chimichangas, soups, tacos. I like the sound of the carne adobada seasoned pork plate, for $6.99. Seafood dishes go for around $9.00. Oh man. On the wall, Nacho advertises a dozen oysters in their shell for $13.00. But here comes Freddy with my tostada de ceviche. That should fill the fish factor.
Besides, who am I kidding? From the king of presidential burgers, what else? I ask Freddy to have his uncle cook a cheeseburger with bacon and French fries ($6.00).
I dive into my ceviche. Oh boy. Delicious, fresh, tart, packed with shrimp, onions, tomato, cilantro, and all on that crackling tostada. Plus, it's filling. At $2.50, a bargain meal in itself.
And I get a beer, even though it's $3.50, domestic or imported. In honor of Nacho's place, I get Sol ("Sun"), a beer they've been brewing in Monterrey, Mexico, "desde 1899." Wow. Goes so well with the ceviche.
When the burger comes, I'm ready. The bun, patty, cheese, and bacon sit on top of a pile of fries. The lettuce, tomato, big disc of red onion, and pickles are stacked in a separate pile. I scoop all that in under the top bun and crunch! We're away.
I mean, I'm no presidential burger expert, but it's a big, generous serving. What can I say? Plus the meat does have a certain juicy twang. We're talking literally 15 minutes of chomp, chew, swig, chomp, chew, swig, before I've conquered this thing. Halfway through I add a bit of Salsa Huichol, a hot one from Nayarit, plus Worcestershire, and Thousand Island, so now we're talking face-mess, sideburn to sideburn. So-o-o good.
"The secret's the meat and the spices," Nacho says. "I use only 20-percent-fat ground beef, and I put spices in. Garlic, black pepper, Mexican oregano, things like that."
That's as far as he goes. The rest even the Secret Service couldn't get out of him. And who knows, in a couple of years, they may be back, those Secret Service boys. And President Clinton may have them track Nacho down to cook seven more burgers -- for the First Gentleman, natch.