Ernesto: “This sign is my guitar. I can say or sing anything her
412 K Street, San Diego
It’s amazing what you find when you’re cruisin’, jes’ cruisin’. Actually, I’m threading my way up through the Gaslamp toward the bus stop at Third and Broadway. But I may be open to a snick or a snack on the way. Sun’s setting, evening crowds starting to fill the streets. Don’t feel like leaving the buzz quite yet. Also, kinda curious as to what I can pick up that’s not going to rip the throat out of my wallet. I turn down K, heading west. Opposite the Hilton Gaslamp, I spot that big ol’ brick building where the Rockin’ Baja Lobster is. Farther along a ramp that kind of goes aerial, a sign says “Ciné Café.” Oh, right. That used to be a movie-themed coffee lounge.
I head in. Guess the name stuck, though it now seems to be a place where cooks from the Hilton can come across and get themselves smokes or a sandwich. But not just cooks. Even now, hours since the lunch rush, the place is crowded. At least half seem to be buying sandwiches. Others, condoistas, I’d say, are getting stuff like butter and A.1. Steak Sauce and shaving cream. Makes the place feel like a country store in the middle of town.
They have only two people working here — the sandwich-maker and the gal at the counter, Jasmine. She looks at me. I look at the menu boards up above. Lordy. Huge list. ’Course, the sandwich I want most is the triple-decker, with three meats and three cheeses, for $8.50. But this is supposed to be a snack, right? They have double-deckers and club sandwiches for $7.50, from beef to pastrami, with lots of frills like bacon and avocado thrown in. Single-decker sandwiches run $6.50. Then I see they also do half sandwiches. And they look pretty big.
“Could I get full on a half?” I ask Jasmine.
“Depends,” she says. “Some only get half on a full.”
“For the full?”
“$5.50,” she sighs.
I notice a guy ahead of me walking off with a decadent-looking, overstuffed sandwich. “What’s that?” I ask.
“Chicken salad,” Jasmine says.
“I’ll take it, but a half.”
Trung, the sandwich-maker, doesn’t have the wheat bread I asked for, so I settle for rye. When he brings it up to the counter from his sandwich-making board near the kitchen, he winks. “I gave you a whole one, to make up for no wheat bread,” he says.
Wow. A full. That’s above and beyond. I’m impressed.
I’m even more impressed when I take it and a small coffee ($1.50) to the deck outside. It’s slightly elevated here, where K Street drops down a little. They have tables, chairs, and a long, varnished plank you can put your drinks or elbows on. It is so cool to be able to look down at the goings-on of the Hilton’s valet parking guys below. How the other half lives. Bentleys, Caddies, Hummers, older guys, trophy wives. Up on the deck, you feel like you’re in a front-row seat of a show.
The guy at the next table also has a chicken-salad sandwich, but in a pita bread. “Wish I’d waited in line now,” he says, eyeing mine. Aha…he picked his from the ready-made sandwich cabinet. He’s right; I probably got the fresher deal. And I’m glad I got the rye bread. Adds tang. The chicken and salad are lush, but the salad doesn’t totally kill the vigorous flavors. Plenty of chicken, mayo, and some red onion to sting them along.
“This is really excellent,” I tell the guy, John. He’s just ridden down from North Park on his bike, for exercise. Twenty minutes. He couldn’t resist refueling before the long grind back up. He nods. “Where else can you get these prices in the Gaslamp?”
Well, maybe there are places: ten minutes later I’m back on the street, heading up Fifth, when I hear a voice straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, except, you know, not set in London. “Tacos! Tacos! Tacos three for five bucks. Tacos!”
I can’t resist heading over toward where this guy’s bouncing around a big arrow sign. Name’s Ernesto. “I used to be a punk rocker in the Bay Area,” he says. “Now, this sign is my guitar. I can say or sing anything here on the avenue. People like it. It brings them out of themselves for a moment or two.”
“But is it for real?” I ask him. “Three tacos for five bucks?”
“Right there,” he says, pointing up Island.
The place is behind Cesar’s Cigar and Coffee Lounge. It has seating under a canopy, and an opening directly to the kitchen from the street. “Broken Border Bar & Grill,” reads the sign above. “We’re trying to celebrate our mixed culture here in San Diego,” says this big guy Bruce. “We want to be a neighborhood place. That’s why we’ve kept the prices down. Most dishes are under ten bucks.”
What the heck? I take a seat, order one carne asada taco and a Coke (I’d take a beer but gotta work tonight). Two bucks per taco or, yes, three for $5. Corn tortilla. Pile of meat with onions, cilantro, and a good brown salsa. All on a solid plate. No polystyrene. Plus, there’s a whole menu, burritos to BBQ, $7–$10 range. Could even dine out with Carla at this rate. But for me, tonight, it’s four bucks total. In the Gaslamp, that’s no way bad.
So, huh. Two cheap Gaslamp choices within two blocks. Who would’ve believed it?
“Told you it was good,” says Ernesto when I return to his corner. “You coming back?”
“Sure,” I say. “But taco here versus sandwich on K? I see a lotta street-corner arguments ahead.” ■
The Place: Ciné Café, 412-420 K Street, downtown, 619-595-1929
Type of Food: American
Prices: Sandwiches from $4.50 (for peanut butter and jelly) to $5.50 for half standard sandwiches, to $6.50 for full standard sandwich (e.g., BLT), to $7.50 for specialty sandwiches (e.g., Philly cheese steak or meatball); soup and half sandwich, $6.50; double-decker sandwich (with turkey breast, honey ham), $7.50; triple-decker (with turkey breast, honey ham, roast beef), $8.50; goat cheese salad, $6 (with chicken breast slices, $7); Julian apple pie slice, $3.50
Hours: 6:00 a.m.–midnight, daily (till 2:00 a.m., Friday–Saturday)
Buses: 3, 11, 901
Nearest Bus Stop: 6th and Market (3, 11); 10th and Park (901)
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp
The Place: Broken Border Bar & Grill, 524 Island, downtown, 619-544-1524
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: Tacos, $2, 3 for $5; most items, including burritos, $7–$10
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Sunday–Thursday; 10:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m., Friday–Saturday