4653 University Avenue, City Heights
First up, I’m not an early-morning guy. But on this perfect food day, you’ve got to start at the crack of dawn. Because that’s when the dja kwai are at their freshest at Trieu Chau (4653 University Avenue, City Heights.)
Trieu Chau is a sunny, cheery place in the morning. What I like best is the back room, where mostly Cambodian men gather to chew the fat, tell jokes, argue politics (meaning Cambodian politics), and dip their dja kwai in their coffee.
Dja kwai are Chinese deep-fried bread sticks, kinda like croissants, but shaped like an H. They’re for dipping into your morning joe. And at Trieu Chau, that means Cambodian-style joe. Khmer coffee usually has chicory in it, and maybe soybeans and corn, too, and a puddle of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom. You talk a lot. You learn a lot. Like that the dja kwai represents two lovers in ancient China who disobeyed their parents and were tied up and drowned in each other’s arms.
3003 Grape Street, South Park
Across town to breakfast: Judy’s place is the Big Kitchen (3003 Grape Street, South Park). For starters, I love reading Judy’s walls. Like, “Lord, help me be the person my cat thinks I am.” For seconds, I like the racket when she’s around. Her voice barks through: “Très bien! Très bien!” For thirds — and now we’re getting to the nub — her 10/12 shingled bacon is about as thick as it gets. Couple that with my fave, a huge Mexican cheese omelet with strong-tasting chorizo, and notch out your belt.
2476 San Diego Avenue (in the Whaley House gardens), Old Town
Lunch in the Whaley House’s garden at New Orleans Creole Café (2476 San Diego Avenue, Old Town) should be a lengthy affair. You don’t want to be rushed. I come here for the brick patio, the ghosts of the Whaley children running around those old California pepper trees, and for Louisiana’s fruity Abita Andygator beer. And for the rich gumbo recipe chef Mark Bihm says has come down through seven generations of his family. Bottom line: the fact you can make half-orders on their pricey main dishes, like crawfish étouffée or the fried-shrimp platter.
So, by now — jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! Gone four already. Jump on the Blue Line trolley. Head south. Palm Avenue. And straight across Hollister, to a low little place with a magic sign: “99-cent fish tacos, Budlight Beer, $1.50.”
658 Hollister Street, Imperial Beach
What a deal. This is Mariscos Germán (658 Hollister Street, Palm City). You get the beer and a generous-sized fish taco. Plus, free fish soup with onions, tomato, shredded cabbage, and chips and salsa to go with it. And Mexican TV talk shows! It feels criminal to leave after paying all of $2.69, including tax. I call this truly happy hour.
965 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Then, we’re up in Coronado, heading for our dinner rendezvous, the 100-year-old Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill (965 Orange Avenue), home of Navy SEALs, and the famous Slamburger. Bill Clinton came to Danny’s Palm Bar for the same reason. I just love these big gut-busters. You could go for the Grand Slam (two half-pound patties, fixin’s, $13). But I choose The Frogman with the ’shrooms, grilled onions, guac, and an extra ($1) of bacon. Costs $13.25. What I like: crunchy outside of the grilled hand-shaped patties.
1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado
And what better way to cap off the Danny’s experience than hiking over to the Hotel Del’s outside Sunset Bar (1500 Orange Avenue) for a cocktail, looking over the moon-splashed ocean? The cocktail? Mine’s my old dad’s, what he called a “French and Italian.” Mostly dry vermouth (“French”), sweet red vermouth (“Italian”), Tanqueray gin, a lemon twist, and maybe a drop of Angostura bitters ($15). Bitter, sweet, intriguing. Like all the best love affairs.
And for Carla? Lavender Lemonade, with lemon, agave nectar, vodka, and crushed lavender plucked from the Del’s herb garden ($16).
1912 Coronado Avenue #105, Nestor
And, on this perfect day I’d be whipping down to the palapa hangout in the Baja Oyster Bar (1912 Coronado Avenue, suite 105, Nestor) for a post-cocktail snack: their awesome smoked-marlin taco with a big slab of avocado (about $3).
419 F Street, Downtown San Diego
Then, around midnight, we hit downtown and Café Lulu’s (419 F Street, Gaslamp) sidewalk patio for a latte in a tall glass. Two chunks of chocolate come with it. Technique: put one in your mouth, then swig the latte. It melts the chocolate. What a swallow. The other pleasure here? Watching the crazy Gaslamp late-night scene parade by.
And — this for diehards only — drive up to Vista, to the Yellow Deli (315 E. Broadway. Vista), to catch the dawn. It’s okay. These guys are open 24 hours most days. Atmosphere: little old hobbit house. Awesome: carrot cake. Awesomer: Coachella Valley date square. Great with: their fresh green yerba mate.
And, dawn’s cracking. Soon, breakfast time! They bake their muffins right there. Perhaps just one... Guess I’m an early-morning guy after all.
Early coffee: Ryan Bros (1894 Main Street, Barrio Logan)
Breakfast: Sunrise Deli (9945 Campo Road, Spring Valley)
Lunch: Cafe di Roma (633 9th Street, Imperial Beach)
Happy Hour: Bertrand at Mr. A’s (2550 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill)
Dinner: Tita’s Kitchenette (2720 E. Plaza Boulevard, National City)
Cocktail: Rare Form (795 J Street, East Village)
Dessert: San Diego Desserts (5987 El Cajon Boulevard, Rolando)
Snack: La Gran Tapa (611 B Street, downtown)
Late Coffee: Café Bassam (3088 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill)