The view comes with the meal at the County Administration Center.
I am the captain of my ship. I stride my bridge deck. I scan the scuddy blue seaway ahead of me. Tallships bob everywhere below.
That’s how it feels anyway. Star of India, HMS Surprise, the Californian, bunch up below me. And now here’s the San Salvador, the (replica of the) ship that brought the Spanish flag into this port nearly 500 years ago. This part of the waterfront looks similar to an ancient Spanish Pacific seaport.
And on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building, you get food with your view. Like, right now I’m lunging into a blue-cheese bacon-burger loaded with a half-pound patty, plus “Tiffany’s Salad,” with feta cheese, raisins, and cranberries.
Today I was wandering the waterfront, looking for grub, when I came across the new park area they’ve made, with shallow wading pools for kids (and the kids love it), and gushing low fountains, right by the county building.
And that’s when I remembered the day my buddy Joe, who used to row to work across the bay in his skiff dressed in a suit, said, “Wanna know the best-kept secret in San Diego?” And he hauled me into the county building and up four flights of stairs to this entire corner given over to “the Cafeteria.”
“Can we be here?” I asked Joe.
“Totally,” Joe said. “This is the people’s building, right? That’s us, in case you didn’t know.”
So, today’s my first time back. I head in that great entrance under the carved phrase “Good government demands the intelligent interest of every citizen.” Date’s “MCMXXXVI”...d’uh... 1936. The building was part of FDR’s Great-Depression rehab project. He actually came and opened it.
I have to take off my belt, empty pockets, to get through the metal detector. I head up four levels, pass the county clerk, the passport office, the “County Counsel” office, the “Ethics and Compliance” office, and, finally, into this, well, penthouse. The People’s Penthouse. Cool.
First you notice the windows. Or, rather, the view through them. Look one way and there’s the USS Midway like she’s sailing past you. Next to it’s the carriers across at Coronado, or those sailing ships below. It’s like you’re on the top deck of a cruise ship coming into port.
Food? I can tell I’m late: The specials board already has stuff scratched out.
“We only make one batch,” says Oscar, the chef behind the counter. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
So, I’ve missed a chicken teriyaki bowl with white rice today. It was going for $6.99. But here, a big plus: breakfast is on all day. So, they have items like buttermilk pancakes with bacon or sausage going for $3.99. The CAC (“County Administration Center”) Scramble, with sausage, spinach, mushroom, jalapeños, tomatoes, and feta cheese with homestyle potatoes and toast goes for $5.50.
Room seems filled with officials from the building or the citizens who’ve come for appointments with them. I notice this gent eating a burrito (“Carne asada,” he says. “Good”). Menu board says it costs $6.75, so not expensive, but not that cheap, either. And don’t company cafeterias give employees some kind of discount?
But what grabs my attention is “Grass-Fed Burgers.” (So, okay, I can just imagine: “Come on, li’l burger. Eat this grass or you’ll never grow up to be a big burger.”) The basic “dry-aged” burger goes for $5.50. And that includes a mini Caesar salad or fries. Add cheese and it’s $5.95. The “Blue Cheese Bacon Burger” goes for $6.95.
Blue cheese? I have to go for that. “And it’s seven ounces of meat, too,” says Oscar. That’s just under a half-pound. Plus, I’d been thinking about a salad. The one I like the sound of is “Tiffany’s mixed field greens with feta cheese, cranberries, golden raisins, and toasted almonds served with sesame vinaigrette.”
It goes for $4.99. Do I want to spend that?
America and Oscar
“Not a problem,” says America. She’s Oscar’s sidekick. “If you make it your burger’s side salad, then it’s only $1 extra.”
So, cool. I go to the gal at the iPad cash register and order it up. And an endless refill coffee (deal at $1.25). I get the number 38 and wait for the call.
It comes just after I’ve toured the deck outside with its tables, breezes, and that view. Café in the sky! Why isn’t this famous?
“Thirty-eight! Number 38?”
It’s Oscar’s voice.
That’s blue cheese hiding in the center
The burger is big, steaming, and with a ton of bacon slathered right under the hood. And the patty is huge. When I bite in, okay, meat’s a teeny bit dry until I access the blue cheese and the pickles. Then it becomes plain delicious, especially when you tip the sesame vinaigrette over everything.
I get talking with the burrito guy. Also named Joe. Turns out he has worked for the county’s Child Protective Services. He says the biggest tragedy is when kids get cycled through family after family, they learn not to open their heart to each new “mom” because they’ll only get emotionally wounded again. “It’s horrible. They clam up. You can’t stop it.”
A couple comes in. Want to get married right here in the building. Civil ceremony.
Man. Love to get married up here. Especially if you could have your wedding feast in this spot, too.
Must call Carla. Re-propose.
1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego
The Place: Cafeteria at County Administration Center
Hours: 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Monday through Friday
Prices: Buttermilk pancakes with bacon or sausage, $3.99; CAC Scramble (sausage, spinach, mushroom, jalapeños, tomatoes, feta cheese, homestyle potatoes, toast), $5.50; chicken teriyaki bowl with white rice, $6.99; carne asada burrito, $6.75; “dry aged natural grass fed” burger, fries or salad, $5.50; cheeseburger, $5.95; blue-cheese bacon-burger, $6.95; Tiffany’s salad (mixed greens, feta cheese, cranberries, raisins, toasted almonds), $4.99
Buses: 280, 290, 923, 992
Nearest bus stops: North Harbor Drive and Ash Street (280, 290, 923, 992, northbound); Pacific Highway and Cedar, (280, 290, southbound); North Harbor Drive and Ash Street (992, southbound); Pacific Highway and Ash Street (923, southbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy (at Cedar and California)