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Venissimo Cheese

871 G Street, East Village

Holy cow. This might be a first in San Diego.

“Yours?” I ask the gal. Her name’s Verena. Verena Garnett.

“It’s me and my sister’s,” she says.

We’re looking at a little red three-wheeled auto-rickshaw, angle-parked here on G Street, within a whiff of Pannikin, the coffee pioneer of San Diego. Verena is roasting the stuff right outside on the sidewalk. “That’s Caroline,” she says.

“You call the rickshaw Caroline?”

“She’s from India, a Bajaj. You only need a motorcycle license to drive her.”

Yes, Verena says, everybody stares when she and her sister and her mom drive around in it. “They wave at Mum, sitting in the back seat, as if she were the queen. But at 65 to 85 miles to the gallon, you can’t beat it.”

Huh. Mum. They must be British. But, well, time to carry on. I’m on safari, hunting down lunch.

I’m almost at Ninth when I bump into a chalkboard sign: “Hungry? $6.50 sandwich. Your choice. Any cheese, 100-plus to choose from. Bread. Fruit. Lip-smacking good!”

Hmm…100 cheeses: rings a bell. I peer through a window, see loaded cheese cabinets, signs on the wall with names like “Stinking Bishop,” “Prima Donna,” and “Old Québec.”

Oh, yes. I remember now. Washington Street, Mission Hills: Venissimo Cheese. Was there, back in ’06. This gal Gina and her mate Roger had set out to “do for cheese what Starbucks did for coffee.” Like, educate us about the world’s cheeses, beyond American, Swiss, and cheddar.

Since then, it looks like they’ve been pretty darned successful. There are four shops now selling 1500 cheeses from around the world, with 150 in any store at any given time.

“So go ahead,” says this bright-eyed gal, Samantha. “Which would you like?”

Right. Hadn’t fully committed, but I already like the idea. A simple lunch, with a sophisticated cheese, good French bread, and fruit. For six bucks, including samples. They give you as many as you want, to help you make up your mind.

Samples it is. We go through little chunks of far-out cheeses I’ve never heard of. Like Humboldt Fog Grande, a goat cheese with — get this — a ribbon of ash running through the middle. It tastes herby and tangy. A couple of other customers have arrived and they start sampling, too. Armond and Linda. They’re into cheese parties. She goes straight for a Caciocavallo di Bufala, while I’m tasting a Québec Vintage. Oh, man. Buttery but sharp. It’s a cheddar but so much more intense. There’s also a cheese with Jameson whiskey in it. Irish, natch. Then Samantha comes over with a cheeseboard of Point Reyes Blue Cheese. Each has a shiny dollop on top. “That’s honey from Wisconsin, from bees that pollinate cranberry bushes,” she says. Man, this is getting like wine. Except, a little wine is supposed to be beneficial, right?

“It’s true that none of these cheeses is actually healthy for you,” says Rob, the other fromagier here. “But in moderation, they’re worth it. They’re as complex as wine, and less fills you more. But, yes, we’re drug peddlers. We get people hooked.”

Rob says the healthiest cheese comes from goat’s milk. “Cow’s is middling, and sheep’s milk has the highest calorie count. It takes ten gallons of sheep’s milk to make one gallon of cheese. That’s how concentrated it is.”

I end up ordering a sandwich filled with two different cheeses. One half gets a soft Irish cheese called Ardrahan, which comes from the Ardrahan farmhouse of Eugene and Mary Burns, in County Cork, from their herd of Friesian cows. It’s soft but tastes kinda farmhousy — pungent, I’d say. Also zesty.

The other half has a chunk of hard goat cheese from Holland. Balarina goat Gouda. It’s chunky, dry, tangy, but a little bit nutty and sweet, too. See? They’ve got me going now. Rob sticks the cheeses in a length of sourdough sesame French bread, adds a bunch of grapes (I could have had an apple), and takes my $6.50. “Uh, where can I eat this?” I ask. ’Cause there ain’t no chairs here.

“Well, you could take it over to Java Jones. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, if you get a coffee there. Or Pannikin…”

Oh, right. Pannikin: Verena and Caroline, the three-wheeled Bajaj. Two minutes later I’m back, this time inside the 1906 building, ordering a cup of French roast while — as it happens — French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, that hot chick Carla Bruni, sings a sexy song on the sound system called “Raphaël.”

“Two dollars exactly,” says Verena, who’s behind the counter now.

“No tax?”

“No tax. They tried that with tea, remember?”

I guess they did. But now we have taxation with representation, and she’s gonna have to pay. She must have built the tax into the price.

Verena’s twin sister, Vivienne, sees me looking around. She finds a solitary chair and table in among a thousand ethnic items — from Indian masks to Tarahumara drums — where I can eat and drink. I sit underneath this guitar-playing Mexican skeleton, lost in the whole big, beautifully overstuffed space, and pig out on the Ardrahan, and ’specially, that hard, nutty Balarina. Love the tangy, tough, sweet thing it has going.

Pretty soon Vivienne and Verena and their mom Lydia — they’re all from Newcastle, England — and a couple of other regulars, Marilyn and Herb, are yapping away. They’re up front, sitting on a couple of comfy sofas in another glade in the forest of stuff. I swear, this place reminds me of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop.

Twenty minutes later, I stumble back onto the street. Wow. Feel like Alice, returning through the looking glass. Mexican skeletons, Indian Bajajis, cheese education, tax-free coffee, revved-up taste buds — all for $8.50. A simple lunch? For sure. So how come my head’s reeling?

Venissimo Cheese

871 G Street, East Village

Type of Food: Cheese
Prices: Lunch special, sandwich with choice of any of over 100 cheeses, $6.50
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Monday–Friday; 10:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m., Saturday; 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m., Sunday
Buses: 3, 5, 11, 901, 929
Nearest Bus Stops: Tenth and Market (Park — stop was previously called 12th and Market for the 5 bus)
Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Park and Market

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