2539 Congress Street, Suite A, San Diego
Sigh. Heading up Congress and two of my favorite places have gone by the board. Not total surprises: Congress can’t hold a candle to the next street over, San Diego Avenue, here in Old Town. That street’s burstin’ at the seams, filled with drifts of the long summer’s tourist invasion, while Congress languishes like the Ghost Town of Old Town.
First to go was the Wine Cabana, which had built this colony of Caribbean-cool cabanas in their courtyard. All that drapery, all those cushions. Looked like a bunch of Crusaders’ tents. They had bistro meals and were serious about wine. But last November 15 — I happened to pop in there that very night — they closed their doors and started hauling out the furniture. Just couldn’t make it.
The other place bucking the Old Town trend, 25 Forty, in the black-and-white house across the road at 2540 Congress, also closed up a while back. Mark Pelliccia, the chef-owner, was a great cook, even for simple things. And such happy-hour deals. Now it’s just an empty house.
But, wait. Back over the road…where Wine Cabana used to be…aren’t there signs outside? And people inside?
I hurry across Congress and, lo and behold, there’s a big wine bottle–shaped signboard. “Lunch Special,” it reads. “Tuesday to Friday, 12:00–3:00, small salad, flatbread, and a glass of wine or beer, $8.”
Wow. That sounds good…but who’s making the incredible offer?
I look up at another sign. This one reads “Courtyard on Congress.” Seems that’s the name of this group of businesses clustered around a patio. Above that it reads, “Christopher’s on Congress. Craft Wine Beer Bar.” And a sandwich board below: “…featuring cuisine from Chef Christopher Tatalovich.”
So, hey, I’m already up the steps to the…huh…the cabanas — they’re still up, leftovers from Wine Cabana’s time — and head inside. Want that lunch deal.
About four people are at the bar. One couple’s eating what looks like a cheese-and-meat plate. I take a spare stool. Tom, the friendly guy on my left, sips his wine. Then a bunch of people comes through, heading for a large room on my right that opens out to the cabanas. Someone is saying that they need space to talk company policy and sip.
A guy comes out from the little kitchen at the left end of the bar.
“Is that $8 lunch-and-wine deal for real?” I ask.
Chef-owner Christopher Tatalovich
“Absolutely,” he says.
“I’m not too late?”
He hands me a menu and points to the “flatbreads” section.
“Any flatbread you like,” he says. “And wine or beer.”
So glad this deal’s going on. Because the flatbreads normally ain’t that cheap: they go for between $9 and $12. Like, the grilled Angus steak, with garlic white sauce, mozzarella cheese, roasted peppers, and spinach, is $12. The grilled sausage with spinach, roasted garlic, red sauce, and mozzarella is $10. The Mediterranean (olives, artichokes, bell peppers, pesto sauce, and mozzarella) looks good, too. It’s also $10.
Turns out that the guy is Chris Tatalovich, the chef.
His other menu choices include smoked salmon, cured meat, garlic white sauce, and grilled vegetables, and sautéed garlic shrimp with pesto sauce and mozzarella cheese.
I go for that last one. Chris gives me a bunch of wines to choose from — there’s a list on the counter. Heck, he even has a bottle of 1964 Château Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux for $2000 (not included in the lunch deal). Most are around $25–$30 for a bottle, but some are amazingly cheap. A bottle of 2008 JanKris Viognier, from Paso Robles, goes for $15. The 2011 Armelli Pinot Grigio (from Italy) is $18.
“I try to avoid mass-production wines from, like, BevMo,” Chris says. “I’m always looking for boutique wines. They’re more interesting.”
I take his recommendation, a Costa de Oro (Santa Barbara) blend of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. “It’s a summer white,” he says as he pours it into a glass.
He slides the glass across the polished black marble bar.
It’s filled with a generous amount of frosty white wine. I take a taste. Oaky, only slightly sweet. I like it.
Tom and Chris now have a serious discussion about wines. They used to be wine reps together — Tom still is. Then Chris disappears into the kitchen.
What $8 buys
“He knows wines, and he’s a great chef,” says Tom. “He’s brave, taking the place on, this being Congress.”
I can see Chris getting the salad together in the kitchen. He’s got his black baseball cap on backward, and he moves quickly and confidently. It’s a one-man operation.
He brings out the salad: a pile of arugula on a scoopy stainless-steel plate, with carrot sticks and red onion and light and dark croutons, all in a vinaigrette.
Then he’s back with my cracklin’ hot flatbread. Ooh. Round, maybe ten inches, cut into six pieces. Lots of shrimp locked into the melted mozzarella. Nicely burnt edges, crispy but tender. And, man-oh-man, how well the wine goes with it.
I like that it’s thinner than pizza. Less filling. And, it’s maybe the most ancient form of bread-food around. Five thousand BC, anyone?
Chris is conscious of the history aspect. His family came here from Serbia, where they know their breads and wines. Whatever, this is a way-generous glass of wine.
I get up. Feel guilty about paying only eight bucks, plus 62 cents in tax.
“You know, that’s the biggest complaint I get,” Chris says. “People say I’m undercharging. They don’t believe it can be good if they’re not paying Gaslamp prices. But I don’t have to pay Gaslamp rents. I’m trying to show them that good doesn’t have to be expensive.”
- The Place: Christopher’s on Congress, 2539 Congress Street, suite A, Old Town, 619-450-4154
- Prices: Grilled Angus steak flatbread (with garlic white sauce, mozzarella cheese, roasted peppers, and spinach), $12; grilled sausage with spinach flatbread, $10; Mediterranean flatbread (olives, artichokes, bell peppers, pesto sauce, mozzarella), $10. “Charcuterie et fromage” meat-and-cheese plate, $18; happy hour (3:00–6:00 p.m. daily) $1 off any menu item, plus $2 craft beers and $3 wines; lunch special Tuesday–Friday ($8) includes small salad, any flatbread, glass of wine or beer
- Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, noon–9:00 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, noon–closing (around midnight); Sunday, 3:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.; closed Mondays
- Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
- Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center 4009 Taylor Street
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest trolley stop: Old Town Transit Center