Boy, so many good places to choose from, from O’side to the Other Side of the line. The major discovery for me has been the incredible bargains you can get in the exploding world of Happy Hour. From Bertrand at Mr. A’s to the Plaza Bar at the Westgate Hotel; get there at the right time, and you’ll come out under a Hamilton poorer, but pampered, fed, spoiled like a rich guy.
The other thing that’s popping right now is TJ. Eateries that go into foods from Aztec and Mayan times, combining with Spanish and Chinese influences — and beer and wine that’s actually made right on the Baja spot — take the idea of locovore to new heights. From that first snail pizza I had at El Taller near the bullring, I knew Tijuana was in a state of, well, ferment.
Pasaje Rodríguez #29, Zona Centro, Tijuana, 011-52-664-685-0137
This little jewel — okay, still a rough diamond — in Pasaje Rodríguez off Revolución in Tijuana has cheap food, yes, beer brewed right here under the stairs, but above all, atmosphere. Poets come and bleed beautifully, singers too. You just sit at a clump of tables in this long commercial passage and try to keep up with, well, basically Mexican culture en vivo before your very eyes. Mario Cano does good chicken breast and papas, and Juan José Quesada is right there making his beer. Soon he’ll be making wine, too, he says. But that’s it. The whole place is in ferment. Think Paris, Piaf, back in the day.
1055 Second Avenue, Downtown San Diego, 619-238-1818
1055 Second Avenue, Downtown San Diego
All praise to Happy Hour and Richard Nixon! Happy Hour lets you in to this 18th-century tapestry-covered palace they say was built to accommodate the hoped-for Republican Convention of 1972. It’s the Plaza Bar at the Westgate Hotel. The place is all chandeliers and grand pianos and marble tables. The HH deal? Seven, seven, seven: $7 cocktails, $7 appetizers, 7 days a week. And the food choices are good. Like, when I was in, they had satays with peanut sauce (you got beef, shrimp, chicken sticks), three sirloin sliders, dim sum, a California cheese platter, or a “Spanish platter” (serrano ham, cured pork loin, chorizo sarta, Pamplona morcilla sausage, and salchicha de vic, maybe 60 pieces of sausage on a thick marble platter), plus hey, a bowl of picholine olives — and for seven buckeroos? All praise to Happy Hours!
It’s A Dog’s World
Catch them if you can. Bessie Johnson, the owner, is from the South, so y’all know the cookin’s gonna be easy. But “It’s a Dog’s World” food truck, often at Mission Brewery, 1441 L Street, East Village, goes beyond standard sausage and bun to really original. Like the Thai One on Dog has Thai veggie salad and Sriracha sauce. “Ain’t No Shrinking Violet” has sunny-side-up egg, chorizo, spinach, cilantro salad, and manchego cheese inside. “Goofy Foot Dog” has four cheeses with macaroni, queso, and chives. Really, that Goofy Foot is some dog. So much crispy melted cheese you can’t see no dawg at first. Plus plenty of salad leaves. Most dogs cost around six bucks. They also do sliders, some with mango and pineapple. The grilled beef, the tangy gouda, and the sweet mango meat make a beautiful little combination of sweet and savory.
137 West D Street, Encinitas
(No longer in business.)
Kealani is a real person. She’s real Hawaiian and a real character. And her restaurant is a real gathering spot for all walks. She cooks a free hot meal for the homeless every Wednesday, and she also closes early for hula classes. She’s a dog whisperer.
She also makes great pork adobo — basically pork steeped in a garlic-and-vinegar marinade. And yes, it’s Filipino, not strictly Hawaiian. “But that’s what Hawaii is all about,” Kealani says. “It’s a crossroads.”
So is Kealani’s. Great dishes include loco moco (two ground-beef burger patties, grilled onions, gravy smothering everything, with two eggs, sunny-side up, on top, and two scoops of rice, and one of macaroni salad), all for under eight bucks. But that’s Hawaiian, folks. Over-generous food, way-generous personalities. Won’t take no for an answer.
3120 Euclid Avenue, City Heights
Nate’s Garden Grill
In front, a sign reads “City Farmers Nursery & Café.” Behind, a hillside of mini-canyons, trees, gardens, animal pens, farmyards. Country.
Go through the gate and another sign pops up.
“Nate’s Garden Grill…21 Craft Beers on Tap.”
Get here in happy hour, in time for their huge and delish flatbreads. They’re half off. You’ll pay about five bucks for, like, “MeatMen.” It has pepperoni, mozzarella, tomato sauce. Or the pancetta, with potato, pancetta (basically pork belly bacon), house-made ricotta, plus harissa, a North African spicy spread. Or one with rapini (think lettuce-meets-broccoli), caramelized onion, bleu cheese, and a garlic mix.
Organic? I mean, this is an eatery that hires a full-time gardener to grow its food, right here, plus gals to milk goats. In the middle of town, just south of University. If Nate’s has its way, country’s coming back to the city.
6925 Linda Vista Road, Suite B, Linda Vista
(No longer in business.)
I like going to Bale (“Baa-Lay”) Restaurant & Deli, because you learn so much about Vietnamese food and the life behind it. Yes, they have pho beef broth and banh mi French-inspired sandwiches. But I’m hooked on Com Tam, Bale’s “broken rice” dish. For $8.99 you get this incredible selection of foods, including barbecue shrimp, barbecue pork, fried egg, shredded pork with peanut crumbles, pork sausage slices, shrimp patty.
And the key is piled under it all: broken rice, part of the Vietnamese soul, they say. Traditionally, it’s the broken leftovers of rice that farmers dry in the sun on roads. The poor man’s rice. It has a different flavor, a kind of starchiness. “We like it with barbecued pork,” says Mr. Tanh. “We are a sentimental people. It reminds us of when times were hard.”
411 Broadway, Downtown San Diego
(No longer in business.)
Spike Africa's is dedicated to one of the great trading schooner captains of the Pacific. You can pay $25 for a fish dish here, but Spike loved happy hour, and it shows. You sit up to the island bar, near a full-size wooden sculpture of Spike, and check the HH menu, and what deals!
My three faves, after getting the cheapest beer (Bud Light, 20 ounces, $4)? A large mug of clam chowder ($3, and that’s a meal, with clams, king crab, scallions, Fanny Bay oysters, celery, onion, croutons, and heavy cream). Then a live “buck-a-shuck” oyster ($1). And finally, the dish de résistance: seaside oyster roast, a totally scrumptious “Rockefeller-style” mess of smoked bacon, spinach, parmesan cheese, Fanny Bay oysters, heavy cream, Pernod, that licorice-flavored French liqueur, among other stuff, for $6. You come out ready to set sail.
404 Euclid Avenue #119, Lincoln Park
(No longer in business.)
Talk about hole in the wall gang… You’d never find Frank in a thousand years, if you didn’t know where to look. His Red Rooster Catfish is just one window slot that looks out onto a field, far from Market Creek Plaza across the Chollas creek footbridge. Yet Frank, from Shreveport Louisiana, is always busy. From his catfish sandwiches to his breaded tilapia with cheesy corn nuggets (both around $5), he is the real thing. And his specialties, catfish (two pieces plus fried tiger shrimp, for $15) and frogs legs (you get three sets plus spicy breaded beans for about $10) are worth every penny. Heck, just shooting the breeze with Frank is worth that. “Okay, kinfolk,” he’ll say. “What else can I get for you, champion? Pond chicken? (Frog?) Alright! Make that 15 minutes.”