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This restaurant is closed.

I put it down to the Emperor's fingernail. I was desperate. Seven at night, high on hunger, low on funds, and nowhere in the Gaslamp to eat -- at my level anyway. Everywhere was either too expensive or too shut. No point in going home. Cupboard bare, Carla out.

I came to where J crosses Third in Chinatown. Wheeled around the corner and whoa! A bronze statue, eight feet tall. A fine, stern old man, armed with a sword and a kind of ski-jump crown, full of life and power. Turns out it was made in China for San Diego's Chinese community. The plaque says it's the emperor Chin who, like, created China in 221 BC, standardized written language, the currency, weights and measures, and, oh yeah, built the Great Wall.

Quite a guy. That's when I notice the fingertips on his right hand have been rubbed until they're a shiny gold. People must touch them for luck. Maybe if I just rub the fingernail on his index finger...

I won't say it was instant, like rubbing Aladdin's lamp. But...

As I'm walking up First at G, past Horton Plaza's back entrance, I notice this older guy wearing a private security officer badge at his belt. He has a leather lifting harness around his waist.

Somehow, I don't think he's a security officer. He's dressed more for walking the Pacific Trail than the streets of San Diego.

"Welcome," he says. "This café is so filled with love." For a crazy moment, I wonder if he could be, like, the Emperor Chin reincarn...nah. Whatever, in a jiffy he's gone, across the street to a 24-Hour Fitness gym where a recumbent bike is parked out in front.

Wow. I would have walked straight past the café he's talking about -- a whole big café terrace, umbrellas, tables, and all -- because, except for ribbons of twinkle lights, it's not that well lit. "Beach City Market," says the sign above its brown, hooped-canvas awning. "Espresso. Juice Bar. Smoothies. New York Style Deli. Freshly Prepared Sushi. Gourmet Salads." Maybe it's the twinklers, but it makes you think of Van Gogh's painting, The Night Café. Arles, France, right? Now I look at it, a golden pool of light in the night. And, hey hey! It's open till 10:00 p.m., and when I bolt in and check the menu, yeah! It's affordable.

I'm glad to see they have a small soup and half-sandwich deal for $7.95. Of course, this is fast deli food. The soup pots are cardboard. The guy wraps your sandwich in butcher paper. So we're not talking clinky plates, glowing glasses of wine. Oh well. I can afford it. That's what counts.

I'm thinking the minestrone soup and half a Londonport roast beef sandwich "flavored with port, white herbs, and spices." Or the Deluxe, which has roast beef "coated with salt, pepper, and garlic," plus horseradish cheddar and "pub-style horseradish." Each goes for $6.95 as a whole sandwich on its own. I almost ask for Number 20, the veggie sandwich, because it has grilled eggplant -- love that oozy mess -- roasted red pepper, roasted zucchini, Italian yellow squash, grilled Portobello mushroom, lettuce, and tomato.

But the counter guy, Sam, cuts off my fantasy. "Soup's just off," he says.

"Okay," I say. "What's the most filling thing on the menu?"

He zings his finger up and down the list. I do too. Oh man. I should come at lunchtime. That's when they have an "outdoor grill lunch," 11:00 a.m.--2:30 p.m., Monday--Friday. For $7.95, you can have chicken fajitas, grilled BBQ chicken, chicken kabobs, or grilled salmon, on mixed greens and rice. Or noodle dishes for $5.95, or sandwiches like a half-pound burger sizzled right there for $5.95, or a jumbo hot dog for $3.95.

"Most filling?" Sam says finally. "Number 19."

That's a triple-decker turkey club sandwich. I tell him to fire away. He makes it and wraps it. I get a medium coffee ($1.75) and take it all outside to one of the brown, faux-wood plastic tables. Man. I look around. Van Gogh all the way. Geraniums spill out of hanging flower baskets. Twinkle lights climb the palm tree trunks and line the brown canvas canopy. It's all magic against the evening's aqua sky. The only spellbreaker is the echoey sound of Coke cans collapsing under the heels of guys collecting the day's pickings from Horton Plaza's trash bins.

I chomp into my toasted triple-decker. It's sort of a Dagwood sandwich, that's how stuffed it is. Lots of tasty, thin-cut turkey on the bottom, then a moby layer of bacon, lettuce, tomato, with dill pickle on the side. It's an honest sandwich. No mystery flavors, just nicely filling.

The place is emptying. Sam brings out a coffee and sits down. "You should see it at lunchtime," he says. "Everybody comes. The 24-Hour Fitness people, tourists, shop employees, lawyers, politicians. The mayor comes twice a week. It's quite a scene."

The older guy in the lifting harness and the security badge comes back. Johnny V. "It's like a European café, isn't it?" he says. "The people are so warm-hearted. They let me sit for hours." Johnny's 72 and is most famous locally for being kissed on the cheek by Sophia Loren, for helping deprived kids, though I can't tell if it happened here or in La Bella Italia.

I'd noticed that they sold wine and beer. "Can we drink it out here?" I ask.

"No," says Sam. "Horton Plaza management won't let us."

Oh come on now. Crazy. Just think of Van Gogh. He'd never have painted his café if it only served coffee.

But whatever. I raise my cardboard coffee cup in the air. "Here's to the Emperor," I say.


"The Emperor Chin. He's just down the road. He grants wishes."

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