901 E Street, 3, San Diego
Blue skies, smiling at me/ Nothing but blue skies do I see…
It’s an oldie but goodie, and Irving and I launched into it when he mentioned that the guy who wrote it had the same birthday, May 11, as him, and the same first name, Irving. Wow. Irving Berlin, just one of the greatest songwriters in history, right?
We met in this tiny space called the New Café. Chinese and American chow. I never would have known about it, except I spotted — all the way from Broadway — a lone, sandy-brown umbrella sticking out on the corner of E and Ninth. It was across from the main library and the main post office. I gave up waiting for the Number 2 bus and sprinted down to check it out.
Oh, yes. Used to be a Hawaiian joint, I think. A painted sign says something about American breakfasts, Chinese food. Specials are scrawled on a piece of paper Scotch-taped to the glass door. And, Lordy, the retro prices. Beef stew, $5.25. Teriyaki Chicken Bowl, $4.95. Pork Chops, $5.99. Liver and Onions, $4.50. Beef Meatloaf, $4.75.
The inside’s one long counter in front of a kitchen with four sit-up chairs at the counter and four two-chair window-side tables. It’s painted olive-green and brown, with big, clean, white and gray floor tiles, and the place is filled with great long leis of artificial flowers strung from the ceiling. It feels welcoming and cozy.
A guy was collecting his takeout as I came in. “I mean, come on, man, where else around here are you going to get a hamburger and fries for $2.75?” he says. Name’s either Buck or Bob. Didn’t quite catch it. “Or a bacon cheeseburger for $2.90?” he says. “But my favorite thing here is the chicken curry. I spent time in England. I know good curry. It’s great.”
He takes off, loaded with his burgers and a container of fries he says he’s going to leave with the homeless guys outside the post office.
It’s mostly older people coming in now. “We want to get in ahead of the evening rush,” says Evelyn. She’s here to pick up three pork chops and some veggies for the maintenance man at the Silvercrest Salvation Army–built apartments at Eighth and E. “We love it here,” she says. “Suzie knows us all.”
Suzie’s the Chinese-American lady in the pink cardigan who’s running in and out from behind the counter.
While Evelyn waits and I’m wondering what I’m going to have, we get to talking. She was born in Texas — “My granddaddy was a Texas Ranger” — and she and her seven brothers came to live in Old Town San Diego back in 1946. “It was out in the country then. You could buy three candy bars for 12 cents.”
Suzie passes by with a bowl of rice and something that looks absolutely scrumptious. “Shrimp rice bowl,” she says, “$5.50. You ready to order?”
Hmm…I’m looking. All-day breakfasts are such deals. Like, two eggs with hash browns, toast, and coffee go for $2.99. An egg sandwich is $1.70. Most of the Chinese dishes run $5–$6. I’m almost tempted by the New Café Chop Suey with chicken, pork, and shrimp, plus soup, rice, and hot tea for $6.95. But Buck’s words ring in my ears. So, curry chicken ($6.25) it is.
In a nanosecond, Suzie has flapped out of the kitchen through the split curtain with the Japanese geisha painted on it and put down a bowl of egg flower soup and crackers. Part of the deal. For my taste, it needs a little something, so I splot in some soy sauce. The chicken curry takes a while to come. That’s good, because it means Suzie’s husband the chef is cooking it fresh. And fresh it is, with lots of chicken, onion, and green peppers, and a good prickly curry, all on a red-painted china plate, with a second plate holding a ball of rice. Good sign: the rice isn’t a sticky, gooey mess like you sometimes get. It falls apart. I toss it into the curry and plow in. Except, there’s a lot. So, I’m kind of relieved at the distraction when this gal in a rainbow-colored tie-dye shirt bursts in — Mary — and gives the guy at the last table a big hug. “Irving!” she says. “I’m having breakfast. How about you?”
“Me? The lo mein,” says Irving. ”Pork.”
That’s when we started talking. Turns out Irving has another claim to fame: he’s been living here in the Gaslamp for 50 years. Half a century! “Back then the Gaslamp was chock-full of sailors,” he says, “and locker rooms where you could change out of your uniform and take a shower before you hit the town. It was so-o different.”
I have to ask. “Which was better, the Gaslamp 50 years ago or now?”
He thinks a moment. “Better then. You didn’t have to be rich. All this development today, it’s for the big man. They ignore the small man. But ignore the small man and watch out. Because at some point the small man ain’t going to take it anymore. You don’t want it to get to like back in Russia, 1917.”
Irving’s getting up. Mary follows. “Suzie’s our mama here. She makes it like family. But she needs our space for other customers.”
Yeah, it is a bit cramped. We get outside. I look up. “Hey, Irving.”
The Place: New Café, 901 E Street, 619-595-1785
Type of Food: American and Chinese
Prices: Two eggs with hash browns, toast, coffee, $2.99; egg sandwich, $1.70; egg fried rice, $4.50; pork egg foo young (with soup, rice, tea), $5.50; New Café chop suey (with chicken, pork, shrimp, soup, rice, tea), $6.95; curry chicken, $6.25; kung pao chicken, $6.25; hamburger and fries, $2.75; bacon cheeseburger, $2.90; bowl of ice cream, $1.50
Hours: 6:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m., Monday–Saturday
Buses: All downtown
Nearest Bus Stops: Broadway and Ninth (westbound); Broadway and Tenth (eastbound)