353 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
It’s sunset on Fifth, Friday night. Gaslamp’s rocking. Pedicabs strain by with tourists squeezed three across in the back and reggae music blasting out. The cyclo guy’s calf muscles bulge as he hauls his load up the slope. And me, heh-heh, I’m watching, elbow on rail. Hmm... Sip at my ruby Malbec, chomp into an albóndiga, preen myself in the setting sun. Feeling like a certified fat cat.
Because I’m here in the prime spot at Café Sevilla. Even the table is classy. Tile top has to be from Spain. Beautiful patterns of yellow ochre, salmon pink, and blue shine out luminous in this last intense hour of sunlight. Thing I enjoy most: we’re on the right side of the street. Sunny side. Even pouring water from the flip-top Vero Water bottle into the sapphire-blue water-glass feels like a Rolex ad. The water swirls like pearls in the sun. Hey. Poetry, too.
I’d always avoided Café Sevilla. You thought touristy flamenco dancers, expensive everything, haughty Spanish attitude. But this happy hour is anything but. Pretty casual atmos prevailing. And, yes, I know it’s gonna end up, like, 20 bucks. But, payday. Better one half-hour splurge than dribbling it out.
And when the gal said yes, they have happy hour, and it’s on right now through till seven, I had to see what the menu might look like.
They have quite a bit of stuff that’s in range. The deal is you get $3 off food and drink items $11 and under, and $5 off items $12 and over. Then it says something like, “Wine: $5 off.”
Second thing I like is that they don’t corral us happy-houristas around the bar in the dark inside. You can sit out here on the patio, too. I get a seat right against the sidewalk, in the sun.
And third: the food. Spain’s the worldwide HQ of the whole tapa idea. I want to see what the mother lode looks like.
Server named Lailanie comes up. I order a glass of red, a Malbec from Argentina for $9. I figure, $5 off, that’s gonna be $4, right? Then I start worrying through the menu, looking to see how much I can get for how little. Pathetic, but, we’re in the stretch-dollar business here. Under “Tapas Clasicas” the one I’d go for if I had my druthers is the “Atún Tartare Tower, tower of tuna, avocado, mango, and orange-tarragon. Sounds to die for. But $14. Even with $5 off, still $9.
So I head to the tapas section (in Mexico you’d think botanas). Starts off with a Bocadillo Platter, basically Spanish cheese and cold cuts. Costs $17. So, that’d be $12. Dish of mushrooms with garlic, chile de árbol, and white wine goes for $7 ($4), and the classic Tortilla Español, the quiche-type tart with potatoes, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and goat cheese, costs $8 ($5). Stuffed dates (datiles rellenos with blue cheese and bacon) are $8 ($5), and three albóndigas al Jeréz, Spanish meatballs with sherry and garlic, are only $7 ($4).
So, albóndigas and the tortilla Española should do it. Then again…and here’s where I make my best move: I ask if you get bread with this. Lailanie says no, but their daily baked bread (which comes with little bowls of “homemade aioli and Andalusian tomato sauce”) is on the menu. “It’s fresh and delicious and so cheap now,” she says, “and big.”
Meaning enough for two, and usually $6. But should be half in happy hour. They have straight baguette style or a Kalamata olive loaf.
So, yes, I get that as well — the Kalamata version — and while I’m about it, some water. It comes (for $1, “Vero, 8x filtered”) in a bottle with a ceramic flip-top. Pouring it into the blue-glass stem feels like pouring champagne.
Result of all this? A brilliant little feast, right out here in the circus of the street waking up to its Friday-night craziness. Tortilla Española is just plain delish, with potato and roasted tomato and onions, plus a pile of mushrooms in a thick kind of vinegar sauce. Oh-so filling. The pork and beef albóndigas come in a black two-handled pan and you can taste the sherry in the brown sauce. Actually these and the totally scrumptious bread would be a meal on their own. And the bread on its own is fabulous, especially with this pot of addictive aioli sauce. The wine is fine, too.
Also, it’s good to alternate the strong taste of the Malbec with the water. Makes it go further, freshens your palate.
Also: kick myself because too late I see what I should have been looking for: paellas. Which seems to be the thing they’re famous for here. Okay, I saw the full-size versions. And they go up to — whoa — $58. Only now I notice the menu has a, like, tapa-sized six-sausage paella. Costs $12. But take $5 off, and you get it for $7. Sigh. Next time.
Only other shock: there’s no $5 off for my wine. Costs the regular $9. Almost half the en-tire meal. Lailanie points out the menu actually says — pretty clearly, now I look — “Wine: $5 off BOTTLES ONLY.” Still, I bet others make that mistake.
But it’s comforting to know that if I’m broke next time, I can always come here for bread and water. Seriously. The delish Kalamata loaf with its two sauces and the bottle of water. Guaranteed to fill you. And that’ll cost me what? All of three or four bucks? Here in the Gaslamp!
Now that’s a happy hour waiting to happen.
Happy Hour Prices: Atún Tartare Tower (tuna, avocado, mango), $9; Bocadillo Platter (Spanish cheese, cold cuts), $12; mushrooms, garlic, chili, $4; Tortilla Español, $5; dates stuffed with blue cheese, bacon, $5; albóndigas (three meatballs), $4; Kalamata olive loaf with aioli sauce, Andalusian tomato sauce, $3
Hours: 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily (till 1:00 a.m. Friday, Saturday); happy hour until 7:00 p.m., every day except Saturday
Buses: All downtown
Nearest bus stops: Broadway and Fifth (Fifth and Market for 3, 11)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest trolley stop: Gaslamp