411 Broadway, San Diego
Hey, didn’t this used to be a Payless shoe store at the corner of Broadway and Fourth? Horton Plaza. Same old chocolate-colored brick building, but brighter lights coming from inside. People moving ’round. People having a good time. Folks sitting out on a deck on Fourth, looking over to the plaza. It’s around 6:00 at night.
Carved wooden sign reads: “Spike Africa’s Fresh Fish Grill & Bar.”
Spike Africa? Who the heck is Spike Africa?
Inside, it’s a big barn of a place, with bare-timber rafters, alcoves, and an island bar.
“Happy hour?” I say to the reception gal. Because I checked a menu posted at the entrance on my way in and saw scary prices, like “Port Townsend Seafood Simmer, $25.”
“Another 15 minutes,” she says.
So I head straight to the bar, where three gals are moving at max efficiency, serving drinks, taking orders, explaining the name.
Bar servers Jenny, Denise, and Kristin explain that Spike Africa was a “legendary trading-schooner captain.”
“Spike Africa? He was a legendary trading-schooner captain. They called him ‘President of the Pacific.’”
That’s Kristin, talking to a couple on the barstools next to me.
I look around. Gray, brown, and brick walls. Black-and-white photos of sailing ships. One mighty four-master lies tied up next to a jungle. Kids swim off a weathered old schooner in a place I bet is Tahiti.
Meantime, gotta order while the ordering’s good.
Kristin lays the main menu out, then slides the little stand-up happy-hour one over to me.
“Spike’s favorite hour,” it says. Drink deals on one side, food on the other.
First thing you notice is “Fresh shucked oysters, $1 each.”
“A shuck for a buck,” says this guy, Kevin. He sits on the other side of the bar, facing me. Lawyer. Been a fan since this place opened at the start of the new year. “Hey, that’s a good line,” he says. “Buck a shuck!”
I see that part of the happy-hour deal is half off all appetizers — they’re in the “Under Way” section of the menu.
That includes clam chowder. Only $3 for a “large mug” with “sea clams, russets.” A half-pound of beer-steamed peel-and-eat shrimp is $4. A grilled artichoke with chipotle aioli goes for $3.50; crab hush pups are $4.50; ahi and mango poke (raw-fish mix-up) with seaweed salad, soy-ginger ponzu (sauce), and wontons is $6.
But the one that really gets my juices flowing is called “Seaside Oyster Roast, Rockefeller style.” Also $6.
I catch Kristin’s eye and ask for the cheapest beer, a 20-ounce Bud Light ($4), and then, in quick order, the clam chowder, the seaside oyster roast, and, oh, gotta have one buck-a-shuck oyster. The total comes to — can you believe it? — exactly $10. Before tax, that is, and without the beer.
Kristin wants to know, what kind of oyster?
“Fanny Bay or Kumiai?”
“The Fanny Bay’s from British Columbia. It’s large, meaty,” she says. “The Kumiai is smaller but tastier. From Baja.”
“Guess I’ll go for the bigger one,” I say.
“It really is tasty. You get lemon and cocktail sauce with it.”
A stone bowl arrives. The oyster, in its shell, sits in ice and water.
“Is it still…alive?” I ask.
“Of course,” says Kristin. “If it’s not alive, we don’t sell it.”
Wow. Never thought I’d kill something by eating it.
“So, how do I, like, do it?”
“First,” she says, “you’ve got to put it in your mouth and taste it. You’re looking for the taste of the sea. Give it a moment, then take two bites and swish it around again; and then, when the flavor fills your mouth, swallow it.”
“So, when I bite those two bites, I’m…killing him?”
She nods. But I can see it in her eyes, what she’s thinking. Another townie. Get a grip, man.
I squeeze the lemon on, dump the red sauce on, lift the shell, suck this poor little critter in, hold it there, taste the briny flavors, and — I’ll gag if I don’t — bite, and bite again.
I feel bad for two seconds, until the flavor floods my gills. Then Kristin’s back with the clam chowder. This $3 wonder is the bomb. Honest. Filled with interesting stuff, but not gloopy like most clam chowders.
“It has clams, king crab, scallions, Fanny Bay oysters, celery, onion, croutons, and heavy cream,” Kristin says. “No wheat or roux. So it’s not glutinous.”
Beautiful. But the climax comes when Paul Rinaudo, the chef, brings out a bunch of plates for the bar customers. One is my seaside oyster roast: four big shells that Kristin tells me are loaded with smoked bacon, spinach, parmesan cheese, those Fanny Bay oysters, heavy cream, and Pernod, the licorice-flavored French liqueur. Tee-yotally delicious. Savory, squelchy, seaweedy, bacony, and filling as heck.
At the full price, $12, I never would have tried them. At $6, they’re a window into what I’ve been missing.
“This is an old 1890s building,” says Rob Ham. He’s one of the owners, and he’s doing the rounds, checking on customers. “It was once the King’s Club, a burlesque place. We, uh, stripped it back to its old bones. They’re beautiful. All the tables, the floor, the bar, they’re reclaimed timber. We kept the original cast-iron columns — see? — in the middle of the bar. We feel it fits in Spike’s world.”
So, Spike Africa was real? Not just a corporate-brand character?
“These pictures, they’re the schooners he sailed the Pacific in,” Ham says. “His family gave us permission to use his name.” There’s also a life-size wooden sculpture in an alcove. “That’s Spike carrying his buddy Mac McCullough, who was a cooper. Made barrels with Spike at sea. The family lent it to us.”
Outside, I count my shekels. Spent $15. Deal. Plus, cliché, yes, but you feel like you’ve made your own little voyage of discovery around the Pacific. For a former shoe store, that’s a lot of magic.
Happy Hour Prices: Large mug of clam chowder, $3; half pound of beer-steamed peel-and-eat shrimp, $4; grilled artichoke, $3.50; crab hush pups, $4.50; ahi and mango poke with wontons, $6. Regular dishes include “Port Townsend Seafood Simmer,” with scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp, fish, $25
Hours: Happy hour 4:00–6:30 p.m., Monday–Friday; regular hours 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Sunday–Thursday; till 11:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday
Buses: All downtown
Nearest Bus Stop: Fourth and Broadway (westbound); Fifth and Broadway (eastbound)
Trolley: Blue, Orange Lines
Nearest Trolley Stop: Fifth Avenue (at Fifth and C)