2041 University Avenue, San Diego
She buries her face into his shirt. He stares, bug-eyed, out the window. You know he’s pondering a bi-ig problem. They’re sitting on the side seats at the back of the Number 7. He gets out his cell phone and calls someone. “She lost it,” he says. “At the Greyhound. Yeah. We looked and looked. It has her whole life in there. Her social, her cash, her rent money, both of us are completely…John? My battery’s fading. Can you…?”
He claps it shut. She looks up at him. All he can do is shrug. She drops silent tears. There’s silence. Then this 40ish guy across from me starts fidgeting in his pocket. Brings out a wallet. Pulls a $20 bill from it and reaches over. He doesn’t say anything. Just shoves it in the guy’s hand. Then the girl next to him does the same and hands them a pack of crackers. The guy is welling up. The lady breaks open the crackers and starts munching hungrily. Now I’m shuffling, see what spare I’ve got. I scramble some notes to them as I get out at Park and University.
Man. No noise, no questioning. Perfect strangers. Beautiful, and all thanks to that other guy who had the guts to listen to — what was it Lincoln talked about? — “the better angels” of his nature.
And here’s the weird thing. I’m climbing over the viaduct at University. At the top, where Georgia Street crosses, somebody has daubed a message on a garden wall.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” —Aesop.
I’m still lost in thought when I come past El Sol, the Mexican restaurant I was heading for.
“Over here!” says this guy sitting at a plastic table outside the place next door. “Owner’s a crack-up.”
“And the best Philly cheesesteaks in town,” says another guy.
That’s when I hear a lusty voice yellin’ inside.
“Ed! Sweet and hot!”
Ed? I must look at the first guy funny, because he says, “You Ed too?” He holds out his hand. “Two Eds are better than one, right, Ed?”
He says the cheesesteak he ordered has hot chili peppers and sweet relish in it. “My first, even though I’ve been coming since she opened.”
Now I’m really curious. I follow him in.
“Hey,” says Ed to the lady behind the counter. He points at me. “This is Ed. First time.”
“Be right with you, Ed,” says Suzanne, the lady. She heads back to a griddle where she has two torpedo sandwiches stuffed with a squiggly mess of curly-cut meat.
“So, which are you having?” she asks another customer named Gary. He’s a lineman for AT&T.
“The chicken pepperoni,” he says.
“And your buddy? Where’s he?”
“He’s stuck up a pole.”
Me, I’m soaking up the atmosphere and garlic smells coming from her stove. The walls are hand-painted imitation brick with posters from Philadelphia, showing what look like 200-year-old brick doorways and a sign saying “French Quarter.” Huh. Who knew Philadelphia had a French quarter?
In front, above a WWII picture of Rosie the Riveter, hand-painted instructions: “How To Order A Steak, by I.M. Hungry. Step One: Specify if you want your steak with (wit) or without (wit-out) onions. Step Two: Plain, Cheez Whiz, provolone, American cheese??? Step Three: Have your money ready. Do all borrowing in line.”
Suzanne’s a solid, hearty woman with a big laugh and an eagle eye.
“No! Out!” she suddenly shouts. “Sonya. Out!”
Turns out Sonya’s a pudgy, slobbery old bulldog, trying to wedge her way in through the screen door.
“Now,” she says, looking squarely at me. “What’ll it be?”
It’s quite a choice. You can have the basic traditional Philly cheesesteak sandwich with onions and cheese in 8- or 12-inch buns ($8.19 and $12.99) or with chicken ($7.79 and $12.09). With mushrooms added it’s $8.49/$13.59 or $8.09/$12.99. And down the list, at roughly the same prices, you’ve got pepperoni, Italian (with marinara sauce), garlic, pesto, barbecue, chili, and a hoagie (basically a Philly with lettuce, tomato, and cheese). They have a combo too, of course, with a 7-inch cheesesteak, fries, and soda, for $10.69. Or Philly chili fries ($8.49). She even does an “Atkins Lite,” a Philly on lettuce, instead of a bun.
Suzanne says she learned the art of Philly cheesesteak cooking at “Jim’s Steaks” in south Philly. “If you dithered this long in Philly, they’d send you to the back of the line.” She laughs out loud.
Hmm…okay. I go for the Philly Combo, with fries and a can of “Barq’s famous olde tyme root beer, since 1898.”
I sit at one of the few inside tables and watch Suzanne’s flying hands. She passes my Philly over the counter. And for sure, this is tender, garlicky stuff. Can see mushrooms in there too. Gadzooks, it’s good.
“It’s all rib-eye, and I slice it myself,” Suzanne says. “Thin. That’s the secret. Plus my seasoning. Fourteen different ingredients.”
The other secret is she created this all herself. She’d been a UPS driver. Had an accident. Fell three stories. When she finally mended, she decided she was going to work for herself. She borrowed nothing, used all she had, and set this place up. “See these ‘brick’ walls?” she says. “I painted every brick. My dad reminded me that 80 percent of all new businesses fail in their first year. Well, September 15 was five years.”
“The Captain of Her Heart” comes on the system as I head out. I tell you. I feel kinda uplifted. The Aesop sign, Suzanne, the guys on the Number 7 bus — who says this town don’t have heart?
The Place: The Philly Grill, 2041 University Avenue (between Florida and Texas), North Park 619-688-9437
Type of Food: American
Prices: Philly cheesesteak sandwich with onions and cheese in 8- or 12-inch buns ($8.19 and $12.99); with chicken ($7.79 and $12.09). With mushrooms, $8.49/$13.59 or $8.09/$12.99; also with pepperoni, Italian (marinara sauce), garlic, pesto, barbecue, chili; Philly hoagie (with lettuce, tomato, cheese), $7.29/$11.79; combo (7-inch cheesesteak, fries, soda), $10.69; Philly chili fries, $8.49; Atkins Lite Philly (on lettuce), $7.29
Hours: Open four days, Wednesday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.; closed Sunday–Tuesday
Nearest Bus Stop: University at Alabama