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Jake’s Tiki Bar at Mission Bay Deli

1548 Quivira Way, Mission Beach

Do I follow the crowd? Hell, yes. This one, anyway. It’s Sunday afternoon, down at Quivira yacht basin. I’ve been wandering past boats with names such as Sonny Daze, Bad Habit, Sea Ya, and Bad Buoys. But now my curiosity’s up. People seem to be heading toward the river.

Where’s everybody going? We pass the Aqua Adventures Kayak Center and round a corner.

“Oye como va, mi ritmo
Bueno pá gozar, mulata…”

Wow, a scene. Folks at outside tables under tattered umbrellas, others dancing next to a three-piece band, which is doing Santana pretty well. And in the middle, a four-sided palapa bar covered in weather-worn palm fronds. It’s packed with customers.

Man. I feel robbed. How did I never hear of this? The sun-shagged umbrellas — red faded to salmon, black bleached to gray — don’t give a heckuva lot of shade, but it’s breezy, so nobody cares. I’m hearing guys with big voices topping each other’s joke lines and quaffing brewskis with an enthusiasm that feels like “This is what we work for.” Three waving palm trees sprout out through the palapa. Between them, a green, yellow, and red surfboard is painted with the name “Jake’s Tiki Bar.” Below, other signs nailed to the palm trunks say things such as “Mustang Ranch, $100 from Vegas”; “Pago Pago, 4942 miles”; “Dog Beach, 50 Butt Sniffs”; “Pacers, Just a Kiss Away.”

But it’s the smell of grilling meat that grabs me. In the deep shade of the palapa, a gal lifts the lid on a barbecue and flips the patties, letting out a waft of beautiful smoke. Gets my nostrils twitchin’.

So, hey. Plonk myself down on a stool at the bar. Nice, varnished wood counter. Coconuts with faces carved into them dangle like shrunken heads (“Your Mama,” says one). Stanchions with heavy ropes wound around them share space with cork floats and fishnet that’s got model sharks caught in it. I see the gal, Lisette, is operating with a mobile kitchen here. Roll-out barbecue, carry-out cooler for the meat patties, and a portable draft-beer dispenser with two beers on tap — Budweiser and Beach Bum Blonde Ale, whatever that is.

“This only happens Sunday afternoons, with the beer and music and all,” says Darrell, the guy on the stool to my left. “We’ve been coming to this for, oh, 15 years. Me, I like the beers. Food? It harshes my mellow.”

Another guy, R.D., begs to differ. “Next to Ruby’s and Hodad’s and maybe Cheers in Ramona, these are the best burgers in town.”

Whatever...with Lisette tossing the four-ounce patties on the grill and flames leaping up at them as the fat drips down, I’m hooked. But someone says they have more stuff inside, so I make a quick inspection. It’s the simplest of delis: a counter, a TV, racks of beer and soda-coolers. Wall menu offers sandwiches for $4.95, hot dogs for $3.60, and chili-cheese dogs for $5.60. A breakfast English muffin with egg and cheese goes for $3.95, and a salad is $4.25. They even have a Monday-night spaghetti dinner for $4.50, “made fresh right here, from 5:00 p.m. till close,” says Jim, the owner.

So, okay, better selection inside, but nothing to beat the smoke, the music, the palaver of the palapa scene outside. So I’m back at my stool, trying to catch Lisette’s attention in all the hubbub. A little chalkboard lists the choices out here. Hamburgers are $5.25, cheeseburgers $5.50, a double-cheeseburger’s $6.25, a grilled chicken patty goes for $5.25, and a hot dog or spicy link costs $3.60. That’s it. I ask Lisette for the double-cheeseburger. “Something to drink?” she says. I look around. Draft Buds go for $3.75 (small) and $4.75 (large), and the Beach Bums are $4.25 and $5.25. I go for the large Beach Bum.

Turns out it’s Budweiser’s attempt at a “craft” beer. Pretty bland, in other words. But here, in this atmosphere, who cares? Lisette delivers my double-cheeseburger. Two patties with lots of melted pepper-jack cheese, sesame bun. Uh, that’s pretty much it. She sees me looking under the lid.

“The sides are at the deli,” she says. And so they are, on a shelf outside: lettuce, tomato, ketchup, relish, mustard, red onion…suddenly, we have a burger here. I notice a rosy-cheeked older guy beside the fixin’s shelf, elbows in the air, hooped over a scarlet-and-yellow mess of hot dog. “That’s Dad,” says this gal Julie, here with her sister Leslie. “He’s been coming for 20 years. For the dogs.”

I take my burger back and chomp in. The best thing? The beef patties, seared crunchy outside but with juiciness inside and the slightly burnt flavor. Killer-diller. Darrell sighs. “I love this place. We used to call it the Dog Bar because you could bring your dog and no one complained. Still can. Hell, ‘Jake’s Tiki Bar’? Jake was the owner’s German shepherd.”

Gotta go. Back among the slapping yachts’ halyards and snapping terns, it all feels like some wild dream. Then the wind picks up. It carries a scraggy chorus of voices singing.

“Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’
if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot…rod…

The Place: Jake’s Tiki Bar at Mission Bay Deli, 1548 Quivira Way, Mission Bay, 619-223-5056
Type of Food: American
Prices: breakfast English muffin with egg, cheese, $3.95; sandwiches, $4.95; hot dog, $3.60; chili-cheese dog, $5.60; “Ville de Paris” salad, $4.25; Monday-night spaghetti dinner, $4.50; hamburger, $5.25; cheeseburger, $5.50; double-cheeseburger, $6.25; grilled chicken burger, $5.25
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. daily; palapa’s open Friday–Sunday, 2:00–6:00 p.m. Palapa draft beer, live music, Sundays only
Buses: 8, 9
Nearest Bus Stops: West Mission Bay Drive at Dana Landing/Quivira Road (8, northbound); West Mission Bay Drive at Quivira Road/Dana Landing Road (9, southbound) (3/4-mile walk)

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