Cristina showed me color pix of “Kirlian” photographs which are supposed to show the energy given off by living things. The uncooked plants send out great auras, twice as big as the ones on things that have been cooked. “The secret is the enzymes,” she said. “Because there is so much more life in the food, you need less of it.”
But, sigh. Cristina seems to have faded (three locations have closed), and I’ve mostly gone back to greasy kid stuff. Not that it’s all bad. I mean, look at the Pekin Cafe restaurant (2877 University Avenue, North Park). It has been specializing in the original American-Chinese fusion dish, chop suey, since 1931. Some say this kind of food’s day is gone. But I say the food’s not the whole picture. I feel that if a place has atmosphere and history in its bones, well, that’s half the battle. It’s important. I don’t get fascist about food perfection: if it fills my belly, doesn’t give me salmonella, and has a good atmosphere, I’ll down it. The Pekin reeks of old China. Enter, and you feel like you’re in a 1930 film noir. The circle-glass swing doors, the rows of big, cushioned red booths, the mother-of-pearl pictures of misty Ming palaces, the red-tasseled black hanging lanterns with translucent picture-shades of painted songbirds, the five-foot-wide fans on the walls, the shouts in Chinese from the kitchen: Old China, for sure.
I felt that feeling too, at what I’m pretty darned certain is the town’s oldest continuously run eatery, McDini’s (105 East 8th Street, National City). They’ve been serving the same corned beef and cabbage since 1890 — 116 years. I’m not huge on corned beef and cabbage, but you should still get on down and eat your greens like granny said, just for history’s sake.
Likewise, the venerable Las Cuatro Milpas (1857 Logan Avenue, in Barrio Logan). Using lard since 1933. Bad, bad, bad for your arteries, but so-oo good for your taste buds.
And to stand in ye old dowager of the Stingaree, the Tivoli (at 6th and Island avenues), where Wyatt Earp and his lady leaned against the self-same bar that came around the Horn from Boston. Even if I’m just downing a burger and beer, I’m a sucker for that kind of frisson.
But that’s what I get all the time, doing this job. Frissons, all in the line of duty, like…
*Sneaking into the Whaling Bar at La Valencia in La Jolla, and getting free happy-hour chateaubriand sandwiches if you buy one $6 martini at the same bar. Drinking with the ghosts of Raymond Chandler, Greg Peck, Mel Ferrer, Dr. Seuss, and Art Buchwald.
*Catching people exercising their generosity muscles, like the Plank’s weekend brunches in I.B., and Tip Top Meats’ (6118 Paseo del Norte, Carlsbad) super-large lunch plates of braised ribs, or their bottomless bacon at breakfast.
*Smelling the grill smoke wafting down H Street in Chula Vista from Croom’s Catering and BBQ’s (573 H Street) 55-gallon half-drum cooker. Impossible not to stop.
*Gnawing (surprisingly delicious) chicken necks at Kentucky Fried Chicken Necks, at Constitución and Cahuila, Zona Rosa, Tijuana (when things settle down again).
*Frying a $5 fish in an upside-down hubcap straight off the boat at El Locochon, Popotla, south of Rosarito Beach.
*Breaking open a $5 MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) on a Camp Pendleton beach and heating then eating it.
*Munching a taco dulce from Tacos Salceados (Tacos La Ermita), 30-A, Avenida Ermita–Norte, off Agua Caliente Boulevard, Tijuana. Inside, it has shrimp with pineapple, raspberry sauce oozing all over the top. Chopped walnuts are scattered everywhere. Mint and orange-slice garnishes make it fit for a king.
*Eating the gonads of a sea urchin at the Little Italy Farmer’s Market, India Street.
*Eating fried grasshoppers for lunch at Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana.
*Eating turkey tails at Taste of Polynesia, 6937 Federal Boulevard.
*Eating pig’s rectum at Tom’s Chinese BBQ, 4414 University Avenue.
Okay, these are the far reaches of food-dom as we know it. But I like how they tell me: break out! Why get stuck on the three or four same old things, when there’s a whole Garden of Eatin’ out there? And what’s great is, most adventurous stuff is the cheap stuff. If that ain’t win-win, what is? Happy explorations — and let me know what you find.