Photo by Barbarella Fokos
How much does Ed Bedford love San Diego’s street-level food scene? As much as Carnitas’ Snack Shack owner Hanis Cavin loves his pet pig.
Photo by Barbarella Fokos
“What is this?”
“Uh...oh. You just eat it…straight?”
Yes, there have been moments when I wonder why I do this. But a thousand columns later — can’t believe it! — I have to confess, I’m addicted.
And it was all total serendipity. If Carla and I hadn’t landed in the apartment across the patio from where the late, great Judith Moore was staying, this never would have happened. Me? A column? Impossible! A thousand columns? You, my friend, need to see a doctor.
For starters, I’ve never stuck at anything for more than five minutes. Besides, what did I know about food, except what fed my face, based on the principle, the most for the least? My tastes in nosh have always been totally catholic, small “c.” Like, universal. It takes a lot for me to really go, “Eieuww!” at anything. I wouldn’t know if there’s too much paprika in the pie if it hit me in the eye.
But Ms. Moore came across and said she wanted a “meat and potatoes” guy like…me! I mean, okay, I thought I was more Errol Flynn than Russell Crowe. Still, wow. She was the paper’s star writer and sometimes editor, who decided the Reader, as the, like, alternative paper in this one-paper town, needed to branch out from just covering the fashionable, expensive eateries that most of its readers probably couldn’t afford anyway. Eleanor Widmer (God rest her) was great, but naturally she wasn’t so much into rough parts of town, greasy spoons.
The other thing we agreed on was that most of the “real” food that ends up in five-star restaurants actually percolates up from the street, from the farm, from tribal lore, from the real world out there.
“So get close to that,” Judith said. “And remember, if you can’t afford a place, you’re eating above your station. Just go to the cheap places that you’re addicted to anyway, from what Carla tells me, and write about what happens. Don’t try to go all gastronomic and complaining about the chef adding too many pinches of salt or the vines not growing on the south-facing slope. Just talk about the food the rest of us can afford to eat.”
I thought Hmm... She’s right. It’s what I do anyway. And what a territory: here we are on the border, two entire civilizations for the price of one. Good excuse to cross the line….
Actually, I think it was a conspiracy between Judith and Carla. They had become kinda tight, and Carla thought it would be good for me to “do something respectable.” Ha! If only she knew.
“But how do you write about ordinary places?” I whined.
“Simple,” says Judith. “Just open your mouth, chew, swallow. Then open your pen. Words will follow.”
Yeah, right. Still, the result has been what you might call mind — and stomach — stretching. An Ed-ucation, you might say, heh-heh.
And fertile ground? Fact is, Baja and San Diego County are both in a continual state of ferment. And what I have discovered is that the easiest and coolest way to break in to other people’s lives is by, well, being there, breaking bread together. Or chopsticks. Or (in the case of Russian meals getting too fun), glasses in the fireplace. I’m getting hungry right now just thinking about it.
By heading out aboard the stretch limos (read: public transportation) of ’Diego, and checking out everyday chow and the people who chew it, I’ve dipped my tootsies in far more puddles than I ever would have and crossed paths with people living a thousand different lives. I have discovered a dozen different San Diegos, too, each doing its separate thing: Little Italy, Little Mogadishu, Little India, Little Saigon, Little Seoul, Little Vientiane, Little Manila, and, hey, Little Munich, as far as the beer revolution’s concerned. And others, like the Thais and Japanese and Chinese and French and Poles and Hungarians and Southerners and Texans and Canucks and Mexicans, are so everywhere, you can’t nail them to any one spot in town. But once and for all, I’ve learned that you can forget the image of ’Diego as bland fish-taco-Bud-Light surf city. I swear, when it comes to eating cheap, we live in the richest city on the continent.
Ed Bedford's first and last interview
Ed Bedford shares some of his experiences and philosophy in honor of his 1000th Tin Fork column, where he has spent two decades writing about "the real world out there" through the lens of San Diego's cheap eats.
My M.O.? At first, busting in to places could be kind of hard. I mean eating, drinking, fine, but finding out what was going on, I had to lock up my shy side and just bumble in. I developed a system that made sure I didn’t get any special treatment but allowed me to do more than just slip food into bags to take home later and analyze. (The late Naomi Wise did that. She had to. Her thing was serious foodie stuff. She was dealing with $200 meals and chefs with attitudes up the wazoo.) So, what I have always done is just go in, order stuff, get the food delivered in front of me, make sure I get the paying for everything squared away, and only then start talking, making a nuisance of myself. Because people are the most interesting part of food. I mean, this is ancient. That Arab desert-hospitality thing of inviting even your worst enemy to break bread with you if he’s hungry must defuse a thousand crises.
So, here are just a few of the stories from the first thousand. So hard to pluck. No special reason I’ve chosen these, except they give me a warm feeling in my stomach. They’re spread as far as the four corners of the county. Not that I have ever set out to do anything as grand as a survey. I have just gone out and seen where the bus takes me, kinda like a dandelion parachute takes to the breeze. We’re both into serendipity.
Like, I was stuck in Popotla, south of Rosarito (this has happened a lot), met this guy they affectionately called El Locochón (“crazy guy”), who had a sort of eatery in a broken-down remnant of a house right at the water. He said, “You hungry?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Wait here.” He ran down to a fishing boat coming in, grabbed a wiggling fish, bonked it on the head, turned a hubcap upside down, poured in some oil, lit a fire, cooked it, and sold me the most delicious fish dinner I have ever eaten.
And that’s it, now that I think about it. For me, it’s the people, at least as much as the food that count.
Has stuff gotten more expensive? You bet. Looking at early columns, I see main dishes going for a buck-something. But not everything, everywhere. But the other day, down in Palm Avenue, Mariscos Germán. Beer and a really big fish taco and a cup of fish soup for…$2.67. I couldn’t have done better back when I started this wonderful gig.
Here is a plucking from some of those columns I found in the closet and on old hard drives.
August 1995: All the world’s a stagecoach
Cacophony! The nannies are bleating, the billies are butting, the geese are honking, and my gut is rumbling louder’n Mount St. Helens on a bad day.
Everyone’s the same around here, goats, guineafowl, geese, and me. We’re hongry.
We’re out on the Great Southern Overland Route of 1849, in the desert southeast of Julian. It’s 3.30 p.m. Hot as hell, and I’m here to see feeding time at the Butterfield Ranch zoolet. Even Ernie the heffer is making little charges, waiting for a guy called Ray to come with the hay.
The Butterfield stagecoach is gone, and so is the Butterfield Ranch Café where Bedford had one of his most memorable meals.
I’m parched. This is Anza-Borrego central, after all. A drink wouldn’t hurt while I’m waiting. I make for the shade of the porch, the big wooden door, and the cool of the Butterfield Ranch Café.
I lurch into the dark. As my eyes adapt, pictures of old stagecoaches start showing up on the walls. There’s a pool table. There’s a bunch of hombres with ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots. I swing aboard a high stool. See I’m already at a disadvantage: I’ve got one of those Spy-Vs-Spy beach hats on. Doesn’t cut it back here in the badlands.
Tall stranger in a Stetson takes a glug from a Coors longneck. Angles his eyes up to a high TV. NASCAR race. I order a Miller Draft. A lady, Pam, mentions the restaurant’s open all day. I ask for the menu. Maybe a snack.
“Cheeseburger,” I say. Then wish I’d asked for the turkey burger with teriyaki sauce, (same price as the cheeseburger, $5), or the third-of-a-pound sirloin burger ($4.75). But I don’t want to be your typical dithering Town Twit, so I keep my mouth shut.
Oh, man, this ain’t no snack. At least I shoulda heeded Gramma’s old rule: “Winter Cold, Eat Bold. Summer’s Height, Eat Light,” and had the Vegetable Plate with a broccoli, cauliflower, and carrot combo, plus salad, a roll, and a baked potato topped with sour cream and bacon. $5.35. Or something light like the Grilled Chicken Breast sandwich ($5).
“Country” Dale Jackson, the barman and cook and Pam’s husband, plops down the bottle of Miller Draft. “Salud,” I say to the cowboy next to me. “You live out here?”
“I’m lookin’. Come from Ramona. They’re building a Kmart up there. When Kmart moves in, I move out.”
He takes a swig from his Coors and looks back up at the racing cars.
But by the time Pam brings out the cheeseburger and salad, he’s waxing lyrical about the desert. “With the desert there’s no in-between. You love it or hate it. I always felt I was born two generations too late. I like to live without the bells and whistles. Put down a well, live off the 12-volt. That’s me.”
“We’re new out here,” says Pam. “We only came from San Diego ten months ago. What hit me wasn’t the heat, it was the silence! The first three or four nights I’d wake about 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’d have to get Dale to pick up the phone just to see if there was anybody left alive in the world.”
“There’s a lot of things town folks find hard,” says Dave, who’s actually a postman in Ramona. “Like the animals. Scorpions, lizards, snakes, tarantulas... My daughter grew up with ’em. She’d always be carrying a tarantula. They loved the warmth of her hands.... You should see them when they migrate. Thousands. Brown carpet across the roads. Nothing stops ’em.”
“We have a young mountain lion hereabouts, too,” says Pam. “But the guineafowl, they’re great watchdogs. Better than the geese. Better than the donkeys. You can hear their warning hum-vibration immediately.”
The cheeseburger’s gone. The salad’s history. The Miller’s dead. As Dale pfssts open another, I look up at an old photo of a stagecoach in front of the Fandango Dance Club in Yuma. Dave says this desert is pretty much as it was in 1849, when all those gold-crazed adventurers rattled by outside here in the Butterfield stage...butt-bruised and exhausted: It was a 25–38 day voyage from St Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco.”
I can just imagine the scene outside here 150 years ago. The gallops, the rattles, the whip-cracks, the “Ga’an!”’s and the flying dust as the Butterfield stagecoach rumbled past.
The moment’s nostalgic silence is broken when Pam comes out and lands a Pineapple Cake Sundae in front of me. “$3, but it’s on the house,” she says. “Dale cooked it. Dale cooks everything.”
It’s a scrumptious lemon cake baked in brown sugar with pineapple and walnuts and ice cream. I gorge on the trifle in silence.
Hmm... Come to think of it, it is a trifle silent. No goat-bleats, no heifer bellows, geese honks...
“Guess you missed the feeding of the animals,” says Dale.
The place: Butterfield Ranch Café (closed now).
The location: 14925 Great Southern Stage Route of 1849
September ’95: Medio-Camino: Life on a cliff’s edge
Even before we eat, my friend Joe wants to leave.
Why? We were out on the cliff where the trailers are, exactly halfway down the old highway between Tijuana and Ensenada, admiring the view. The unending Pacific. That sort of stuff. Really, if it wasn’t for the freeways behind, this could be Cape Horn, and not just the ancient Halfway House south of Rosarito.
So, the lady who invited us to see her view, Karla, called her three dogs, Lizzie, Dizzie, and Loco, all bitches, to her cliffside trailer. One of the three cuts across to investigate Joe, who’s a little behind. Joe holds out his hand to greet the canine...Grrrr — chomp! Dizzie has ignored the hand and clamped her jaws on his ankle. “Aaaargh!” Joe jumps a yard in the air, kicking. Karla doesn’t notice. “Come here, my darlings,” she says, looking for Dizzie. “Come to Mama.”
That was ten minutes ago. Now we’re back in the restaurant. Trying to get with the spirit of the place where Ronald Reagan and Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey all ate and drank and danced at various times, if you believe local gossip. Except while I’m looking for food and drink and a good time, Joe’s looking for blood, revenge, like launching the damned animal clear off the cliff.
Get some food in him, I figure. If he gets the food and drink, the revenge thing will fade.
Then Karla comes up. “Don’t do it,” she says. “We love it here, but we don’t eat the food.”
Too late. Joe and I have already ordered. My beef tacos arrive. I chomp in. And, hey, the meat they’re oozing with is rico... Maybe it’s the dark red picante sauce and the juices from the bottom of the pot, but I must say they’re squelching with rich flavor. Four of them for $3.75, plus lots of refried beans and rice and a covered tub of steaming corn tortillas.
“It’s cooked in lard,” Karla warns. But, heck: lard schmard. “Maybe that’s why it’s so damned good,” I say. This stuff is getting to my gills. In the best possible way, with a kind of deep-flavored kick — and palliated, of course, by a Pacifico cerveza($1).
Joe’s ordered the Mexican Combo. Chile relleno (green chili stuffed with cheese), beef taco, and an enchilada for $4.75. We’re sitting here in a kind of sunny tea-room atmosphere, with grass outside the windows for a few yards and then — whoa! That cliff. A massive drop to the great Pacific.
The restaurant has been here since 1928, at least. That’s the date on the photo beside the bar. It shows it looking exactly the same back then as it is today. Except for the Model Ts parked outside. A white, almost suburban, house with the sunny restaurant at one end, and a dark bar with space for dancing at the other. And everywhere, old wooden floors and white stone fireplaces. Legend has it a certain Señor Gonzales was passing by in his Buick during the Great Depression, came in, talked to the owner, and swapped the place for his Buick. Three generations later, the Gonzaleses still have it.
“We’re all poor-but-proud expatriates here,” says Karla, looking down the line of aging American barflies. “I just cannot afford to live in America. Simple as that. And here we get million-dollar ocean views, and at ver-ry reasonable rentals, darling.”
She takes a drink from her glass of red wine. She lights another cigarette.
She leans closer to confide. “I’ve had three loves in my life. But the love of my life was Seymour. Like me: Jewish. I’m originally from Israel. But — show you how crazy love is — he was a mobster. He murdered someone for the mob. Went to jail for it for 19 years. When he came out, the mob was waiting for him with his fee. $2 million. That’s when I met him. It was love! Marvelous! He was everything. He swept me off my feet. We went everywhere. He had style! Then, three years after he got out, he got lung cancer. Died. Even though he didn’t smoke! Three beautiful years.”
She swallows hard. It’s still painful. Me, I’m not eating a thing. My loaded fork is still in a holding pattern. I can’t believe it. Mob. Murder. Love. Death. She touches my arm.
“You really like the view?”
“Well, you might be able to have my trailer after me. I’m dying, you see. These.” She points to her cigarettes. She lights another one.
I stare out through the window to the blue sea. Teresa Gonzales comes over and asks me if I want dessert. Ice cream, creme caramel. $1.
But Joe’s muttering about rabies and getting back before dark. We pay up: just under $5 each. I give Karla a hug goodbye.
“Life’s a bitch,” I say, jumping into his truck.
Joe rubs his ankle. “Yeah,” he says. “A bitch with fangs.”
The place: Halfway House.
The Location: 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Tijuana.
November, 1996: The Sandwich Ironer
Tom irons away at my toasted-cheese sandwich. You heard right. Tom is ironing my toasted-cheese sandwich with a hot iron. Till it gets toasted.
Da Mom ’n’ Pop Decaf Café is that kind of place. Only one item over $1.50. Things like corndogs, $1; breakfast sandwich, $1.25. Soup, $1. Cookies — five cents, for God’s sake. A simple Spartan place with seats outside — second-hand school work-tables, actually — and a random selection of books you can borrow and without any two-week deadline. You can just come in, flop into a chair, and haul out a book to read. “That’s the thing,” says Tom as he flips my sandwich and irons the other side. “Kids can come in, read, do their homework, grab crayons, draw. You know how many mothers around this area are under extreme financial stress? The electric company’s on the phone telling them to pay by Friday or they’ll be cut off. The cable company’s hassling them, the doctor...soon they’re taking out their stress on their kids. ‘Stop whining! Get out of the house!’ We want to give a place for the kids on the block to come to at times like that. Adults, too. Get lost in a book, tension-free.”
I’m eating the corndog he microwaved for me and drinking the coffee (50 cents) he mixed. This is breakfast. I also ordered the toasted-cheese sandwich he’s wrapped in foil and is, ah, ironing.
He sees me looking. “Oh, this?” he says. “This is what we call the residential hotel method. It is the most hygienic way. Broilers accumulate crumbs and cheese from previous orders. Here you have fresh aluminum foil, the sandwich being heated with no contact from the source.”
When I asked for the toasted-cheese sandwich, Tom sent his son Joey to Vons, a block away, to check cheese prices. He came back. “$3.07, Dad.” Tom gave him the cash, he ran off to get the stack of slices, and returned puffing. Now, while Tom irons, Joey takes outside the tables and chairs and hand-painted signs that read “Cafe-Library.” It’s only 8:30. He props the signs up against the wicker fence his wife Pat has just painted green, next to the sidewalk.
“Hey, what’s happening?” says William James. He’s a local dude who has become hooked on the Lord of the Rings book series. He wants to lay his hands on the third volume. “Well, like I say, we don’t catalog here,” says Tom. “If you can find it, take it. And welcome.”
“Well, if you’ve got Edgar Rice Burroughs, that’d be great,” says James. James sometimes comes for coffee or a bowl of Cheerios ($1). But today he just wants to talk.
“You ought to get into Conan,” says Tom. “People think Arnold Schwarzenegger is Conan. No way! Conan comes from ancient mythology.”
He finishes ironing. I unwrap the massaged toasted-cheese sandwich, fascinated to see what’s happened inside. Sure enough, the bread has toasted, the cheese has melted. It turns out to be a passing-good sandwich, even though it’s a bit soggy on the underside. But what with talking and chewing the fat, I’m hungry. I eat it straight from the foil wrapper. It goes down in half a dozen fang-bites. Tom makes me a second coffee. The coffee is instant. The warm water comes from the Arrowhead dispenser. Warm, not hot. Most of the equipment, I realize, like washbasin and storage, is part of a cart that sits on wheels against the side wall. Tom built it to accommodate health department requirements. “Only difference is, we put the cart in the café,” he says. “That’s how we can charge low prices.”
Tom also plays with a band, the Blue DeVilles, but once, in Chicago, he was selected to join the Vienna Boys’ Choir. He was six. His grandma had been a concert pianist. His dad wouldn’t let him join. He didn’t want his son forever away at concerts like his mother had been.
So, Tom grew up playing the “traps” — drums — in bands, taking classes like Music and the Black Experience at DePaul University and living the hippie life. “I’m 42, the last of the generation of true hippies,” he says. “They were born ’39 to ’54. Pat and I have been 12 and a half years sober. Off drugs, that sort of stuff. We lived our times. Pat marched on Washington. I met John Lennon in ’76. It makes us who we are. Now we have four kids and 4000 books between us. That’s why the library. We named it after Benjamin Franklin, because he was the father of the idea of sharing books.”
So, the guy irons his sandwiches, like in Benny and Joon: What the heck! It works. “Come to the writing class on Saturday,” he says as I lope out into the sunlight. “We’re going to be writing to the president. Tell him what’s wrong with our lives.”
The place: Da Mom ’n’ Pop Decaf Café And Benjamin Franklin Lending Library (closed.)
The location: 569 Adams Avenue; 281-4000.
October 2007: To Help Them Sleep
(That October, the wildfires raced through the county. They killed 14 people, injured 70, and destroyed 1500 homes. Firefighters set up a base camp at Gillespie Field.)
“Gimme four cases of beef jerky, two cases of Cracker Jacks, servings for 200 of cheesecake individual, eight splits of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…”
Here at Gillespie Field, Rick Buffington is king. The king of supplies, anyway. Hank and I are standing beside his little electric wagon in the Thursday-evening gloom. The guy reels off order after order into a cell phone. The landlines are down. Somewhere behind him, you hear fwop fwop fwop: two Huey choppers coming in to land. They have yellow water bags slung underneath, like bumblebees with too much pollen hanging on their legs. Here, cops, sheriffs, state forestry flight crew, mud-spattered firefighters, and lines of prisoners in orange tunics all criss-cross between us and the chow tent. You expect the intro theme of M.A.S.H. to start up momentarily.
“…a case of Tapatio individual, ten cases of cranberry juice, ten cases of V8 Splash, ten cases of OJ….”
I’m waiting to see if it’s cool for Hank and me to grab a bite here, too. Even though we’re not fighting fires. This was late last week, and Hank had to bring video equipment to a firefighting buddy of his. I came along for the ride. Man. So glad I did. ’Cause here we are in Base Camp, an awesome, instant tent city, population maybe 1000. The place is filled with rows of sandy-colored square tents, laundry trucks, phone-bank trucks, red fire-crew trucks, and fire engines from, like, everywhere. A new bunch hauls in as we watch. Firefighters from Arizona.
“Food?” says Rick. “No problem. This crew here is the best. The only female Forest Service kitchen in the state.”
Great. We head off for the CDF chow trailer. “California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection,” says the sign above the lit windows. “Emergency Operations Support Kitchen.” I spot a chalkboard. Aha — the menu. “Roasted Chicken Halves, Asian Veggies, Rice Pilaf. Or Vegetarian Upon Request. Enjoy Your Dinner.”
“Don’t know if we should,” says Hank. “You order for both of us.”
“One chicken, one vegetarian,” I say to a gal in an orange jumpsuit behind the tiny window. The veg is for Hank. He’s borderline diabetic. Has to cut the cholesterol and stuff.
We carry our trays across to another tent, where bright lights shine down on salads and desserts. At the entrance, a sign reads, “NO FIREARMS.” “Must be so prisoners can’t grab a weapon and escape,” mutters Hank. Three orange-jumpsuited girls keep the food replenished. Guys ahead of us pile on the lettuce and tomatoes and mushrooms and add a plate for desserts — lots of fresh fruit, including pineapple, grapes, strawberries, melons, and peaches. And, ooh, yeah, baby: Creamstyle Cheesecake. It’s a brand. Individual slices in plastic wrap. What Rick was re-ordering, I bet. I decide to come back for this later.
“We shouldn’t be eating their food,” Hank says again. “They’ve been fighting fires all day. What the heck have we done?”
“Seems to be plenty of it, though,” I say. “And look at it this way: we get to meet all these guys and gals who put their lives on the line. Probably had plenty of their own company by now, day and night, strangers in town, some of them, stuck out here in their own bubble.”
Whoa. Feel emotions rising. Something about the real dangers of this monster and these kids who are taking it on. But I’m covered. The sun has gone down. Layers of blood-red clouds have turned inky. The smoke has killed the last of the day. It’s also gonna flavor our meal. That smell invades everything.
We pick up a couple of Gatorades from ice coolers out in the dark on the grass and head for a huge, brightly lit open-sided tent with rows of tables. I do a quick count. “Wow. They could fit 600 people in here,” I say. Straw has been laid over the dirt floor. Maybe a couple hundred people are chowing down. You hear talk in everything from English to Spanish to Somali. We find two seats.
“You take the vegetarian,” says Hank. “Not up to all that pasta. Carbs.” He’s already ripping the breast meat off the half-chicken stretched out on his plate. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Has to be garlic in there. Those ladies know good cookin’.”
Oh, man. I watch my chicken disappearing. Total miscalculation! — guy’s gone carnivore. I cut into “my” pasta. Never was that big a fan. Kinda tasteless, most times. Except, guess what? Inside these pasta shells...oh, yeah. Ricotta. Savory, quite delish. Sure helps the steamed broccoli and beans and rice pilaf go down.
Hank finishes his chicken in three giant gulps. He heads out to find his buddy and hand off the equipment. When my plate is clean, I head back to the dessert/salad tent. The three orange-jump-suited girls are having fun making up pizza boxes. They tell me working for the California Department of Forestry should reduce the time they serve by up to a third, but there are other reasons they love it. “We’re actually helping out. It feels good,” says a gal who says her name is “E.”
I get a paper bowl and fill it with grapes, pineapple, peach slices, melon, a couple of strawberries, and a chunk of that cheesecake.
When I get back to the table, CCC kids — the California Conservation Corps, also here helping — have already cleared away the entrée plates. I chomp into the fruit. All of it’s nice and fresh, or freshly thawed. And the cheesecake? Yes, it’s commercial, but sweet, tender, not too cloying.
I get to talking with a group of guys who’ve come down from Lassen-Modoc. Yes, folks, that’s in California, as close to the state’s northern border as we are to the south. They’re finishing up their chicken. “As fire food, I’d score it a six and a half,” says David. He and two of the other guys, Aaron and Jesse, are CDF captains. They direct helicopters on their fire runs, either onboard or from the ground. The fourth guy, Bob, is a pilot. Flies Hueys. Has been since 1970. Vietnam.
“Our Huey is a 1969 model,” says David.
“But their payload’s still bigger than the other single-rotor choppers,” says Bob. We talk about flying through smoke, knowing where the fire is, where the other choppers are, where the mountains are. Scary stuff. I’m listening so hard, I forget to appreciate all this fresh fruit I’m chowing.
“Got to get this guy to bed,” says David. He’s talking about Bob. Rules say pilots must have ten hours’ rest between operations. Pre-flight’s at 7:00 a.m. They all head off to their sleep tents.
Me, I wander through to — ulp. Half a dozen prone bodies in a shadowy tent next door. Fully clothed, of course. Women work over them, kneading their shoulders, heads, backs, legs. A deep moan comes from one guy. Another, lying face down, talks quietly about home. “Massage by Patricia, and Friends,” says the sign on the tent flap. When Patricia sees me looking, she says, “It’s just something I thought I could do.” She’s cool, cute like Dana Delany in China Beach, and a licensed masseuse. “Some of these guys have been out there for three days, no rest,” she says. “They come in tense and tight. In their heads, they’re still facing that wall of fire. After we’ve worked on them, at least they can sleep.”
The place: Firefighters’ Base Camp Chow Tent, Gillespie Field, Marshall Avenue, El Cajon
June, 2001: Breakfast at Al’s
Stop the presses! Drop what you’re doing! Jump on the 933 and get off at Palm and Seacoast. Is this the Sunday Brunch Deal of the century or what?!
Not that Babs would spout it that way. She’s just, like, “Hey, this is IB, man. We’re still human down here, ya know?”
Me, I’m standing in front of her, jaw on the floor. Can’t believe what I’m hearing. “Say that again,” I say.
“Okay,” she says, like she’s dealing with a slow child here. “I said you can have a si- ounce steak — or an eight-ounce steak if you want — with home fries and eggs. Pretty much as many as you want. Cost you $5.95. How many do you want?”
“Yes. One, two, six, nine? Just tell me, hon.”
“For the same price?”
“Okay, five eggs.”
“And what size steak?”
“D’ah, for the same price?”
“Okay, eight ounce.”
“How’d ya like it?”
“See? That wasn’t too difficult, was it? Now, take this ticket to the bar and pick up your Fortified C Vitamin Drink. Bloody Mary, Screwdriver, Salty Dog, Greyhound, or a Bud if you want…”
“Included in the same price?”
“The same damn price, man.”
So — gulp — to recap: For $5.95 you can get a 6- or an 8-ounce steak or six sausages (long, flat disk, Italian, or combo) or a slab of ham or a pork loin, plus from one to, uh, ten eggs, home fries, and a pick-me-up drink from the bar. Should I mention the price again? $5.95.
Oh. Coffee, you’ll have to pay extra. A quarter.
I mean, what’s with these guys? What happened to the good ol’ Robber Baron mentality? Screw the little guy to maximize profits for your shareholders?
Turns out this place has only one shareholder: Al. “Oh, come on,” he says. “How much do eggs cost? A nickel? Besides, most of the people here are our friends. It’s just like a weekend treat.”
You feel this laid-back, don’t-let’s-put-on-airs atmosphere as soon as you arrive. You walk in past a couple of heavy-rope bollards into the bar. A low palm-frond palapa hangs over it. Puffer fish, mini brass divers’ helmets, nets, fishermen’s colored glass floats, and lots of cards dangle from it. Bunch of women and men sit around joking and chatting. Biker jackets, long Nitty Gritty Dirt Band beards and shaved heads, sun-skinned long-time surfers.
They’re drinking but they’re not eating. It’s, like, 11:30, Sunday morning. “What’ll it be?” says the gal behind the bar. She looks a bit like Tony Soprano’s hippie sister, but prettier, and red hair. Name’s Nancy.
“You still have breakfast?”
“Just,” says another gal, Kat, sitting down at the bar with Butch, her boyfriend. “You’d better get out there now if you want breakfast.”
“Out on deck. That’s where we cook. I’m about to start lunches.”
And this is where Babs and I have our conversation. Out on a deck with tables and trees and green fiberglass protection. That’s since three storms in the ’80s sloshed right through the Plank. A seven-foot Captain Morgan stands peg-legged facing you. A tiki totem pole looks south.
So, now I’m in the bar again, with my ticket, and deciding if I can handle a Salty Dog this time of day. Uh, maybe not. I ask for a Bud.
“Here you go, guy,” says Babs with my breakfast. Oh, man. A yellow sea. Half the plate’s loaded with this soft-rock pile of scrambled eggs, and the thick, elbow-shaped steak squeezed in on the side. The home fries have their own plate. I’m smelling garlic. I’m smelling...A1? I chomp in and, miracle! Chowing down’s no problem. Even though two of my main molars are missing. Tells you how tender it is. I’m into it like a starving cat behind a restaurant. ’Course, a fork-load of egg every second bite. Wouldn’t like them to think my eyes are bigger than my stomach.
Pretty soon, conversation starts bopping back and forth across the bar. One of the shaved-head, bearded biker guys, Ed, turns out to be a border customs officer. But if you’ve been a problem for him at the border and he meets you here, don’t worry. “When I’m off-duty, I’m off-duty,” he says. Then there’s Rusty, gal who played a hooker in an episode of 18 Wheels of Justice. And Steve who’s had roles in Renegade, and Silk Stalkings. And it turns out that Nancy’s brother Vince Welnick played with the Grateful Dead. Wow. From 1990 to the end. “Put on 7805,” she says. “It’s Vince’s new band. ‘Missing Man Formation.’”
“Here, get this man another Bud,” says Dennis, a bright-faced guy with a long beard. He throws down a couple of bucks beside me. I can’t get over the, well, generosity. “We’re a kind of club,” says Al, sitting down. “Like, we’ve all helped put up a clinic down in Honduras. Or if someone has medical bills… But we have fun, too. Every year we have a birthday bash. Drinks cost the pub’s age. It opened in 1886, so this year it’s 115. Price is $1.15. Going up! A cent a year.”
Only one problem. By the time I finish, Dennis is gone. Can’t reciprocate. Dennis, buddy, don’t worry. I’ll be back.
Imperial Beach landmark Ye Olde Plank Inn is still in business, but they no longer serve food, much to Bedford’s chagrin.
The place: Ye Olde Plank Inn
The location: 24 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach. 619-423-5976
The bad news: The Plank no longer does food.
February 2009: The Lanterns of Aristotle
Clunk! Man. Umberto Falcone’s kinda surprised when I toss the bocce ball close to the jack. Call it beginner’s luck.
What they call sea-urchin roe is actually sea-urchin sex organs. No wonder they say it’s an aphrodisiac.
That’s how this sea-urchin thing started. He and the guys, Vito and Banny, spotted me hanging around the bocce courts at the farmers’ Mercato (here in Little Italy, waiting for Carla. “Come and try,” Umberto said. “Our fourth guy hasn’t arrived yet.” So I did. Got beginner’s luck.
“Have you tried the sea urchins yet?” says Umberto. “They’re here at the market now. We eat them all the time. Ve-rry good for you.”
Vito and Banny laugh. He reaches out to shake my hand. “The urchin stand is further down Date, right across India Street. Really good for you…”
Think I’m catching their drift. So, even when I’ve kinda eaten my way through the Mercato clear to India, I’m still curious, especially when I spot two ladies, right outside La Pensione hotel. Heidi and her daughter Rosemary. They have one spiny sea urchin on the table. I see it’s alive and kinda spike-walking across, trying to escape, poor little devil. “Last one,” Heidi says. “We’re just starting to pack up. Would you like this?”
I have to say yes.
“For here or to go?”
“Here,” I say. But I’m not prepared for what happens next.
I watch as Heidi grabs the fleeing urchin (the word means hedgehog) with a gloved hand, feels for a soft place to stab, and then...oh, man: cuts out the mouth. It’s a circle of five bony little teeth that the urchin uses to chew on giant kelp fronds. Suddenly this is getting personal.
Sea urchins with Matt Pressly
Matt Pressly gives the lowdown on scarfing sea urchins.
“These teeth,” says Heidi, holding them up, “are called ‘Aristotle’s lanterns,’ because Aristotle wasn’t just a philosopher. He was also a biologist and he described these very same teeth as looking like the bone lanterns the Greeks used back then.”
Now she’s splitting the shell in two. The little guy must be dead, musn’t he? One or two spines are still moving. She pours out the seawater (looks like) from inside, and then starts separating yellow and browny-black and orange squishy stuff inside. I don’t even want to know what the parts are. She tells me anyway. Some is fresh-chomped seaweed, some waste, and… “they call the rest, the orange parts, roe, like, eggs, but actually they are gonads. Sex organs. Their whole body is basically one big sex organ. That’s the parts you eat.”
She lays the orange gonads out on a paper plate, has me spritz them with a slice of lemon, and hands me a plastic fork.
It’s…interesting, kinda like… I’m thinking sheep’s brains. Sweetmeats. Or, yes, like roe. Yeah. You could imagine fishes’ eggs. Caviar. Mild, salty tasting. They almost slip down like oysters.
“What do you think of them?” I ask Rosemary.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t bring myself to eat one.”
“These are red sea urchins,” says Heidi. “They’re local food. Pacific coasters. By eating them we’re doing the giant kelp a favor, and eating locally means less carbon footprint. Don’t worry, there are plenty more where he came from.”
“Most customers don’t actually eat them here,” says Rosemary.
Turns out Rosemary’s dad, Heidi’s husband, Matt Pressly, actually dives and catches the urchins 80 feet down in the kelp beds off La Jolla. There are about ten fishermen who do this. They call themselves San Diego Kelp Bed Products.
“So, why would my friend Umberto say these are so-o good for you?” I ask.
Heidi looks at me.
“Because they’re a natural aphrodisiac,” says Rosemary.
“The local Italians here are mad about them,” Heidi says. “Also, because these sea urchins can live to 100, 200 years, people believe it’ll promote long life.”
“Uh, how old was this little guy?”
“About three years old.”
“So, I’ve just cut his life short by 197 years?”
I can’t believe this. This is Biblical. These little creatures must be the longest-living animals on earth. I mean trees, one thing, but what other animal comes close?
“Don’t feel bad,” says Heidi. “If we left them alone they would eat the whole kelp forest because there are no sea otters left to control their population. It would be a desert out there. The limits are very strict, so they won’t fish these out.”
Still, it turns out urchins have been around since the, uh, Ordovician period. That’s, like, 500 million years. Us humans? 1½ million years. We were probably these spiky walkers, back in the day. Like, grandpa! We meet at last!
Whatever. I slurp the last orange slab of gonads. Hmm...almost buttery, flavored by the salt sea. I hand over $3.50.
That’s when I spot Carla, a little farther up the Mercato at Viva Pops, the organic fruit-and-herb popsicle stand. Carla’s trying to decide between “Lavender Lemonade,” “Peach Ginger,” and “Nectarine Basil.”
“Oh, Ed. Just in time,” she says. “Do you have $3? And which should I choose?”
“Uh, peach ginger. But, darling, why don’t we just go home, the two of us, right now, and…relax for the rest of the afternoon? Wanna tell you about the Lanterns of Aristotle.” “Ooh. The Lanterns of Aristotle… that sounds muy romantica. Say, how come you’re being romantic? You’ve been flirting with someone, right?”
The Place: Heidi’s Urchins, (no longer at the Little Italy Mercato, but doing home delivery; 619-733-6315)
Oh, Lord, so many more memories come rushing out. Breakfast at El Fandango in Old Town’s Plaza at dawn with the lovely Carla, communing with the ghosts of her ancestors; eating chicken necks on a hot night in the red district in TJ, picnicking with the royal chef of God Save the Cuisine gastro food truck, eating sweet tacos at La Ermita, getting into paleo food on the roof of Whole Foods…
Tom’s Chinese BBQ is no ordinary cater-to-westerners Chinese restaurant.
But, oh yeah: the pig’s rectum? That was at Tom’s Chinese BBQ…
June, 2008: A RECTUM WRECKED HIM
I take the pig’s rectum, hold it on the fork. This is it.
Try not to think, I tell myself. I mean: if this wasn’t what it is, I’d quite enjoy it. A little rubbery, squishy, as animal tubes always are, but they’ve given it a good soy-vinegar, slightly sweet flavor. As Chow says, it’s the kind of stuff you have with a glass of whiskey at a nice rowdy game of poker.
This started when I was hoofing it west along University, up near 44th. I heard this loud talk — all in Chinese — coming through a metal mesh door behind a restaurant. I see the flash of cleavers, hear the chop chop chop of work on wooden boards.
Now I’m curious. I walk around to the front. I step into this fairly bare-bones shop, with one table and two chairs and a row of roasted ducks hanging by their necks in a stainless steel and glass cabinet, plus small sides of what look like pork.
Busy lady behind the counter is chopping a duck down the middle for this guy Gene, who says he’s been coming “for years.” Now she scoops what look like duck feet out of a soupy chafing dish. Then stomach lining and ears and wiggly small intestines. “I’m going to take this all home and eat it with a bottle of wine,” Gene says.
I check the chalk menu board on the wall. It’s written in Chinese and English. “Tom’s Chinese BBQ.” I see they sell most things by the pound. Like, roast ribs are $8.50, roast pork is $7.75, BBQ pork is $6.50, BBQ spare ribs are $6.35. BBQ pork fried rice is $3.50 for a large portion, $2 for a small portion. And “open duck” is $17 a pound. Then they have a bunch of dim sum (it means “heart’s delight” in Cantonese), like a BBQ pork dumpling with pork stuffed inside (80 cents), and a coconut roll (70 cents).
I see they have a trayful on the counter, along with platefuls of sweet sticky rice ($3) and a big flan-looking egg bun ($3.50).
The busy woman has stopped for a moment. She stands behind her cash register, which is placed over a family altar. All you can hear is the chopping and Chinese voices back-and-forthing in the kitchen.
“My husband, my brother, my nephew, six relatives,” she says.
“Can I eat here?” I ask. I point to the table.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she says. “Something like this?” She points to a reddy-skinned piece of pork hanging in the cabinet.
“Sure,” I say. “Uh, can I have rice with that?”
“No problem.” She takes it over to the chopping board, chops it into a dozen quarter-inch slices, stuffs hot rice around it, and charges me five bucks for the lot, including a pot of “special” soy sauce. “My husband made his secret soy recipe in Hong Kong,” she says. “Even I don’t know what’s in it.”
The only problem is, they don’t have drinks here. “All right if I go and buy a soda and bring it back?” I ask.
“No problem,” she says.
So I mosey over to the Apple Tree, get a 20-ounce Sprite ($1.61), and in two minutes I’m head-down attacking the BBQ pork, Chinese-style. It is delicious, too. The sauce is soy, plus what? Ginger? Something a little sweet. Okay, it’s in a polystyrene box, but who cares.
So, between my chews and her steady line of customers, we get to talking.
“I started this 21 years ago,” she says, “with my husband. But I’m ‘Tom.’ In Cantonese, my name is Man Tom.” She is from Canton. But her husband Chow is from Hong Kong, so they made it Hong Kong–style cooking, not Cantonese.
This is when another Chow comes out. Not Man’s husband, but her nephew. He’s a cool dude who has come from Canton, too. “Quangjhou’s one of the food capitals of the world,” he says. “But Chinese people love parts of the animal that we=sterners don’t know.” He’s pointing to the chafing dishes. The chicken feet ($4.50/lb), pork stomach ($4.50/lb), duck feet and wings (cheaper at $1.65/lb), intestines ($5/lb) and, uh, pig’s rectum, at $5.50/lb. Each rectum is pallid, wrinkly, maybe six inches long.
I know I can’t leave without trying it. I know they must scrub, steam, boil, simmer this stuff till, well, you know, it’s as pure as it has to be.
“Uh, give me just a couple of squiggles of intestine, and, like, half a rectum.”
“Great delicacy in Guangzhou,” says Chow, chopping off half a rectum, then chopping it into half-inch chunks.
“Here,” says Mrs. Tom. She hands me another pot of her husband’s secret soy sauce.
So I sit down, take a deep breath. This is a delicacy, I tell myself —
The tight curls of intestines feel and taste a little rubbery. It’s like chewing a nutty telephone cord. But you could get used to this. The rectum… actually it’s less rubbery, more tasty, more delicate. A bit more… gamey. That’s it.
Put it this way: this is no typical Chinese take-out. It’s the real deal. Walk in here, you feel you’re walking slap-dab into China itself. I’ll definitely be back to Chow’s Auntie’s place, at least for the whole BBQ pork deal.
The rest — I mean I know the Chinese must think we westerners are such wusses — and I know I’ll learn to handle chowing down these new parts, and maybe even love it.
The place: Tom’s Chinese B.B.Q.
The location: 4414 University Avenue, #A, 619-563-8225.