Good Soup as Good as Jazz
930 Market Street, 2, San Diego
Kevin's bag is still sitting by the front door, between the building's bowling-alley side and the restaurant side. It's ten at night. The guy has just flown in from New York. Was back there for Martha Stewart, doing cooking pieces on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Now he's up at the bar, nattering with Tony and Christine.
I meet Tony 'cause he's seated on the next stool over. I'm waiting for my "Don't Mess with Texas" burger. Must be the only person in this barn drinking a cawfee. I must also be the only person who doesn't know that Kevin Roberts is, like, this famous chef who's nationally known as "the Food Dude," appears on Fox TV and 93.3 radio, and has cooked for Snoop Dogg. He's the spokesman for Frank's RedHot sauce. He's also the owner of this big, rowdy, way-cool, multiscreen sports bar that's half drink, half food, half bowling alley. Plus, he's written one book called Munchies, about food and dorm-life (he says it paid for this place), and another called Kissing in the Kitchen, about cooking and dating. The guy's on a roll.
I came in here because, well, it's late. And here's a place that feels welcoming this time of night. Food, drink, a couple of dozen sports TVs yakkin' around the brick walls, the clunk of balls and cheers of bowlers and rattle of falling pins. Plus, it's another of those great old warehouses that someone's saved and not wrecked inside.
I popped onto a tall chair at the bottom of a long U-shaped bar and ordered that, uh, coffee, and asked for the menu. Noticed a few snorts from the Leisure Classes, but what can you do. I've got more work tonight. Jamie, the gal on my left, was slurping up an angel-hair pasta that Jamie the server gal -- really -- brought to her in a big deep white plate. And guess what? It looked and smelled, as they say in the movies, divine, the last thing you'd expect at your normal buffalo-wing-nachos sports bar. Jamie's friend Melissa had a Caprese panini, a toasted-cheese sandwich, far as I could tell. And Tony here on my right was talking up the Cubano panini. "Such a rich flavor," he said. "I've been having it since I started coming in here."
Which couldn't be that long. Place has only been going, what? Four months? But the space: this has been here forever. I took time to admire the double-arched roof support overhead, which has to go back to the early 1900s, before I went headdown into the menu.
I knew I wanted a burger. They had the house specialty, a "Tavern Burger," a half-pounder slathered in "secret sauce" and onions ($7.75; comes with fries, onion rings, or side salad), a basic chiliburger, and a "Don't Mess with Texas" burger, also a half-pounder but with BBQ sauce. I decided to mess with Texas. And onion rings.
So that's what I'm waiting on as Kevin comes up.
"Rich!" says Kevin, and he's not talkin' money. He's looking at Rich Grady, his chief cook (along with Josh Hernandez). Together, says Kevin, they spent three years planning this place. Rich is out here taking a break from the kitchen. This bar corner seems to be the "it" spot right now. I'm feeling kinda "in." "So, Rich," says Kevin, "if you had to go to a desert island and take only one thing from our menu to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
"No question," says Rich. "Steak sliders. They're the most popular thing on the menu. The caramelized onions, the French Gorgonzola, the little New York strip steaks, the Hawaiian sweet bread -- how can you beat that?"
"He's right," says Kevin. "He's always right."
Steak sliders? Dang. I look at the menu. Never noticed the damned things, but here they are, three for $8.50, with a side. A roar goes up. Somebody has slid home or scored a three-pointer. Depends what screen you're watching. "We've got 27 flat screens going in here," Kevin says. "We show everything from American football to Iraqi soccer."
Jamie brings my burger. Well, certainly looks attractive, with onion rings spilling out of the mouth of the angle-topped burger. It has a pot of BBQ sauce and token tomato and lettuce. It's a half-pounder, and the meat hasn't been grilled dry. It's nice and juicy. The BBQ sauce is fine, but...nothing exactly memorable here. Maybe it's hearing about those sliders.
And then I remember Carla. Why not get the sliders for her? Yeah! I ask for an order to go. Count out my shekels. Lord. That'll leave exactly enough for bus fare.
It's kind of hard to leave. That's a surprise. I mean, this mega bar scene's not totally my thing, but there's a lotta fun going on around here, what with the bowling, pool, and, miraculously for a barn like this, the feeling that they've created a not-so-little neighborhood pub for the downtown condoistas -- and ballpark visitors -- to come and hang out in.
"Last Charger game, orders in the kitchen were 30 tickets deep," says Kevin. Jamie says most of her customers are young urban professionals, like Tony. He's with an East Village (and we're talking this East Village, not the one in New York) software company that specializes in processing insurance claims.
An hour later, Carla says, "Oh, oh, incredible." She's chomped into one of the sliders. Must say I agree. The sweetish caramelized onions, balancing out the heavy-flavored chunks of Gorgonzola, the general wet messiness of the edges, the tender slabs of steak. Dee-lish. Now we're talking food. I can see us going down to East Village. Couple of brewskis, plate each of these, then we'd head next door so I could whup her bowling.
"Dream on," says Carla. "Where was it they called you 'Gutter Balls'? But let's anyway. Anything to meet the Food Dude."
The Place: East Village Tavern and Bowl, 930 Market Street, 619-677-BOWL (2695)
Type of Food: American
Prices: "Tavern Burger" (half-pounder with sautéed onions), choice of fries, onion rings, or side salad, $7.75; chiliburger, $7.75; "Don't Mess with Texas" burger, half-pounder with BBQ sauce, $7.75; steak sliders (three New York strip steaklets, caramelized onions, Gorgonzola, on Hawaiian sweet bread), $8.50; angel-hair pasta, $8.50; Caprese panini, $8.50; Cubano panini, $8.50; chicken wings brined in salt, water, herbs, $7.50
Kitchen Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; weekends, breakfast from 10:00 a.m.
Buses: 3, 11, 901, 929
Nearest Bus Stops: Market at Tenth (3, 11); Tenth at Market (901, 929)