2600 Calhoun Street, Old Town
The charro and the pioneer lady set the kids into teams. “Now, don’t worry about breaking the eggs,” says the lady. “They’re made of wood. First team back with the egg still in the spoon wins. Okay?”
This is Friday afternoon at the grassy-green plaza at Old Town, beside the flagpole, just below the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Casa de Bandini that was. Carla never lets me forget the name because she’s vaguely related to that family. Get a couple of drinks in her and she’s ranting about the “gringos who came in and put their flag up our mast,” and singing “Ay yay yay yay! Canta, no llores!” Which she translates as “Sing so you don’t cry.”
Me, I’m only crying because it’s way too early for happy hour, and I know they have a pretty good one at the Casa. Oh, what the heck. They may have early-bird deals.
“Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant,” reads the sign. “Choicest Refreshments Constantly On Hand in our Saloon.”
I climb the steps and cross the porch that rings the old building. Then you’re in this little forest with tables, chairs, and umbrellas among the trees. Then I realize it’s actually more of an orchard. Lemon trees, avocado trees, banana trees, fig trees, myrtle trees, and herbs growing on the ground.
Plus, a-ha! To the left I see this bare-wood structure that’s an outside bar, the kind where they hinge out the shutters when it’s open.
“Happy hour?” I ask hopefully to the gal with blond pigtails and a pink rose in her hair.
She looks around slowly, like, are you serious?
“It’s one-thirty. Our happy hour is from four till six.”
Pity, because I see on the menu card here the draft beers are $4 and dishes like the quesadilla start at $5, and, ooh: mac ’n’ cheese fritters go $5 for five, with a dipping sauce. Or $5 for “bacon bourbon” wontons, whatever they are, $7 flatbreads, $7 fish tacos, plus $7 for a burger and fries. Oh, man. Could do with that. With a $4 brewski that would be $11. Just about doable.
Sigh. I look at the regular menu. Main dishes are out of the question. Like, the marinated skirt steak is $18.45. The delish-sounding short-rib burger goes for $13.95, but it has Angus burger meat, slow-braised short rib, plus “crispy onions” and fries. In a potato bun.
The regular Cosmo burger comes with grilled onions, herb fries, and a “house-brined pickle.” For $11.95. Anything extra, such as egg, bacon, avo, or blue cheese, costs 75 cents.
“You should try it,” says this guy who has turned up, sat down, and ordered one. “Niko makes really awesome burgers. He’s the chef.”
So far I’ve ordered a Dos Equis draft. Not a great draft selection. It costs about $7.
“So, what can I get that’s a little filling for my gut and not too emptying for my wallet?” I ask the gal. Laurie.
“Well,” she says, “the mac ’n’ cheese fritters, you get five for $7.45. Unless you wait till four. Then they’re $5. You can fill up on the mushroom, artichoke, and spinach dip. Just dip away with the house potato chips. It’s 7.95 right now, $5 at happy hour.”
Hmm... I see “crispy Brussels sprouts with goat cheese” are $7.95, too, the bacon bourbon wontons go for $7.45, a bruschetta is $7.95.
“Or the fig and olive plate, $4.95. Sometimes we use our own figs,” says Laurie. “Chef Niko grows lots of things in this garden, right in the patio.”
Huh. I start with the mac ’n’ cheese fritters. Not that I have ever been a total mac ’n’ cheese fan. Not tasty enough. But need to order something.
Oh, what the heck, I go for a plate of figs and olives, too. That’d be great if they actually get them from those trees down there. While I’m waiting, I take an amble. And there’s a guy feeling the figs in the tree next to the kitchen. His black jacket says “Niko de la Riva, Chef.”
“Not ripe enough yet,” he says. “But they won’t be long. Figs, avocados, lemons, herbs. It’s surprising how much we can grow.”
Chef Riva says he trained in Spain. “And that was the emphasis: Always use what you can grow, grow what you can use.”
He shows me a row of bottles of olive oil. He has stuck figs in one, laurel (bay) leaves in another, about a dozen in all. Pretty cool. Flavors customers’ salads with them. “The whole thing in Spain was don’t try to be too clever. Let the plants, veggies, herbs speak for themselves. I believe in that.”
Back up at the deck bar, my food awaits. The mac ’n’ cheese fritters with their cheesy dipping sauce are the fillers. But it’s the fig plate that’s the real surprise. For starters, interesting olives. They’re sharp and they contrast beautifully with the bunch of semi-sweet fig halves you get. And, breadwise, the stars are two long, rough, sesame-seed-covered strips of crispy flatbread that tone down the other flavors coming at you.
Bunch of regular customers turn up. Laurie knows their cocktails. Looks like this is a Friday thing. People are starting to fill up the leather-wood chairs out on the deck, too. Can’t be long before the mariachis arrive.
Carla’s ancestors would have enjoyed this. Hey, when she finishes work, I’ll get her down here. Commune with the ancient ones. Hopefully, by then, it should be happy hour.
Prices: During happy hour, quesadilla, $5; mac ’n’ cheese fritters, $5; bacon bourbon wontons, $5; flatbreads $7; fish tacos, $7; burger, fries, $7; regular dishes include mac ’n’ cheese fritters, $7.45; mushroom, artichoke, spinach dip, $7.95; brussels sprouts, $7.95; bacon bourbon wontons, $7.45; bruschetta, $7.95; marinated skirt steak, $18.45, short-rib burger, $13.95; Cosmo burger, $11.95
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street, Old Town
Trolley: Green Line, also Coaster, Amtrak
Nearest Trolley/Coaster/Amtrak stop: Old Town Transit Center