Morrocan tourists Redouane and Hadda loved the mussels but not the calamari.
3890 Twiggs Street, San Diego
"You happy?” I ask Heidi.
“I’m happy,” she says. “For another 30 minutes, anyway.”
Erk. Thirty minutes? We’re talking happy hour. Heidi’s in charge of the bar. I look at my watch. Gadzooks, she’s right. It’s 5:30 already, and happy hour here’s 3:00–6:00 p.m. Better stop screwing around. Meeting Carla and her buddy Jan in Old Town Plaza at 6:00.
I’m in an old Spanish hacienda, bottom of Twiggs Street. Got drawn in by the sign over the gate, “Rockin’ Baja, Coastal Cantina.” Oh, yeah. One of those. Seen them in Oceanside, Gaslamp. Expensive...like, $40 for a bucket of lobster tails and shrimp, with carne asada and chicken. But the welcome gal standing outside under a corrugated shelter said, “Yes, we do have a happy hour,” so I carried on in under the “Rockin’ Port of Entry” door sign. Noticed a plaque beside it: “Casa de Lopez. Built by Juan Francisco López, one of San Diego’s early Spanish settlers, about 1835.” Wow, this is an actual Rockin’ Baja house, built 176 years ago. Love to think of all those Silver Dons back in the day, galloping into this yard in a cloud of dust.
Inside’s spacious, open, full of tables, wicker chairs, low-beamed ceilings with red-painted rafters. There’s a big fountain out in an open backyard patio and a stage. Guess they have music at night. An island bar separates another area to the left. I haul up there. Heidi slides a coaster toward me. This is when I pop the happy-hour question.
“You want the menu?” she says. “Let me explain it a little.”
She opens it up at “Outrageous Tacos.”
“So, all these things listed under ‘Outrageous Tacos’ are part of the happy-hour special,” she says. “Also the ones listed on the actual happy-hour page.”
I look over the list. Man, these tacos don’t come cheap. The normal, non–happy-hour prices range from $10.99–$13.99. That’s for two tacos, plus rice and beans. Like, Tacos Chingones — “really frikin’ good tacos!” — basically, carne asada and cheese ($10.99); Dirty Tacos, “crispy pork carnitas, smoky chipotle, cheese, beans, avocado, and onions,” ($10.99); and Tacos Del Patron, “battered slipper lobster tails with cole slaw, avocado, and a creamy taco sauce.” This usually goes for $13.99.
For happy hour it’s one taco, ungarnished, but cheaper. I ask Heidi, “How much?”
“Three dollars,” she says.
“For any of them?”
“For any ‘Outrageous Taco,’ yes.”
My $6 calamari in the cone holder; the $5 plate of mussels under the shell-discard basket.
A real deal. But I’m seeing other things on the menu’s happy-hour page, like fried calamari for $6 and a cheese-fondue dish with chorizo for $5.
First off, I order a beer. Only local one listed is the Coronado Brewery’s Golden. It’s $3 for a 14-ounce glass ($5 for a 25-ounce) during happy hour. Then, I order a calamari. And — why not, at these prices? — a taco. How about the Surf and Turf (shrimp and carne asada, usually $11.99)? Or an Angry Taco (usually $10.99), with grilled chicken, beef, and pork chorizo?
Just as I’m about to choose between them, I notice this couple sitting at one of the high tables in the bar area (actually, you have to sit here for the happy-hour deals), slurping away at a big bowl of mussels, dipping toasted garlic bread, and rolling their eyes at the result. I look back at the menu. Steamed mussels. Wow, $5.
The man looks up. “Delicious,” he says. “And we ought to know. We’re from Morocco. Land of seafood.”
I order them from Heidi at the bar. She brings out a bowl of over two dozen mussels in their garlicky steaming liquid, with a couple of chunks of toasted garlic bread, and then the calamari, breaded and collected in a cornet of brown paper in a wire holder. Only then do I realize I forgot to get the Angry Taco.
Oh, well. The couple invites me to come eat with them, and I move over to their table, glad for the company. Redouane and Hadda. Touring the States. We’re right under a sign that reads “Teeth-Chillin’ Beers.” Soon we’re all picking and slurping away at our mussels and — what I love most — sopping up the dee-lish broth with the garlic bread. “Yes,” says Redouane, “the broth is good. But the mussels that we get from our Atlantic coast are maybe three times as big.”
I offer him some calamari. He tastes. Not impressed. “Cardboard,” he says. “Honestly, you should taste Moroccan squid.”
Hadda chides him. “But it’s true,” he protests. “I’m not criticizing America. I love this country. Morocco was the first in the world to recognize the United States of America after the U.S. declared itself independent from Britain. San Diego and Casablanca have the same climates. We’re on the same latitude. Morocco’s 14 miles from Spain, about the same distance you are from Mexico. But I still think our food is tastier. Except for hotdogs. You have the best hotdogs.”
For me, the squid are — well, till this moment, were — fine. Now I’m thinking maybe they do taste a little cardboardy, bland. But so has the squid I’ve had all my life, except maybe when I was bumming around Asia, back in my lost youth. But now I discover the little bowl of calamari dipping sauce — it has a tomato, mayo, mustardy, and, I’m guessing, smoky chipotle flavor to it. Really addictive.
Heidi comes by. Says it’s almost 6:00. “Still want one of those ‘Outrageous Tacos’?” she asks.
“Which one has the strongest flavors?”
“Probably the Angry Taco. The chorizo peps up the chicken and beef.”
I decide to go for it, but get it to go. Carla’s a chorizo fanatic.
Ten minutes later, I’m in the plaza.
“See? Late,” Carla says to Jan. “Ten minutes late. Every time.”
“Peace offering,” I say. I hold out the Angry Taco. “Try it.”
We sit on a bench. Split it in three. Get into the chicken, beef, corn-tortilla flavors. Guac kicks in. And then…ah, yes. Chorizo adds muscle. Should’ve had Redouane try this.
“Mmm…” says Carla. She’s flapping air against her mouth. “Hot. Spicy hot. Tasty.”
“Nuh-uh. What’s it called?”
“Funny,” says Carla, “because after eating it, I’m not. Angry anymore, that is. With you.” ■
The Place: Rockin’ Baja Coastal Cantina, 3890 Twiggs Street, Old Town, 619-260-0305 (and other locations)
Type of Food: Californian Mexican
Happy Hour Prices: Dirty Tacos (crispy pork carnitas, smoky chipotle), $3 each (normally $10.99 for two); Tacos Del Patron (with battered lobster tails), $3 (normally $13.99 for two); fried calamari, $6; cheese fondue with chorizo, $5; steamed mussels, $5
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:30 p.m., daily (till 10:30 p.m., Friday–Saturday); Happy Hour: 3:00–6:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; 9:00 p.m.–close, seven days
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
Nearest Bus Stop: Old Town Transit Center
Trolleys: Green Line, Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town Transit Center
Nearest Coaster Stop: Old Town Transit Center