Not for the faint-hearted: Wow Café on a stormy day
Everything happens at once: Igor the pelican flies onto my table, a monster wave rumbles through below (sounding like a near-miss by a jet), and Marianna lands my lobster in front of me.
Lobster taco, that is. Big chunks of sautéed lobster, cheese, salsa, double corn tortilla, with coleslaw and a mess of chowder on two buns next to it.
The pilings holding us up kinda sway so you feel like you’re on a ship running before the storm. Waves tumble by outside the window. The whole ocean is in motion. Makes you feel dizzy, sitting here fending off Igor, trying to get your first bite in.
This is at the li’l ol’ fish diner way out on the “longest concrete pier on the West Coast,” Ocean Beach Pier. It was the final windy day of last week’s storm, Monday, about 4:30 p.m. Onshore, the wind’s turning power-lines into violins. Tall palms’re looking like Donald Trump’s hairdo. But the sun’s starting to make a late appearance. I decide to hit the pier, get some decent lungsful of oxygen. And maybe even see some sunset green flashes.
I’m about halfway to the end of the pier when I meet Igor. He’s sitting on the railing, facing the buffeting wind like a pro. He spreads his whopper wings and coasts forward and lands on the roof of the eatery. Huge blue letters on its seaward wall say “CAFÉ.”
And it looks so cozy in there, with varnished thick-plank tables, warm wood cladding, fishing rods on display, port and starboard ship’s lanterns glowing, fresh-cut flowers at each table, and, like moving pictures, windows showing waves whooshing past outside. Beautiful. Scary. Scary-beautiful.
Uh, yes, they do have tables outside, and stools along the pier railing on the other side, but hey, I want out of this mighty, biting breeze. I head in. The lady, Marianna, gives me a menu. Huh. They have all-day breakfasts. Except, this kind of day I’m thinking warm fish and chips.
I check out the menu. Uh, not totally cheap. They have an “ultimate nacho supreme,” with a “huge portion” of chips, plus nacho cheese, shredded beef, lettuce, beans, sour cream, salsa, plus jalapeños on the side, for $12. A shredded-beef taco runs $5. Even chips and salsa are $5. Burger’s $9, but it is a half-pounder. “OB Sinkers” — jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and deep-fried — go for $5.
Fish-wise, we’re talking Captain’s Platter, which is a combo of breaded pollock, halibut, shrimp, “and a bun’o chowder.” Costs $14.
The rest — fish and chips, clams, shrimp, or a pollock-and-shrimp combo — cost $11 each. But right below, ooh. Lobster taco, “sautéed and grilled,” nine bucks. Then it reads, “Make it a meal — add coleslaw and a bun’o chowder” for $4 more.
I do. Order the lobster taco and whatever the bun’o chowder is. Thirteen buckeroos. Plus a coffee ($2).
So, I’m sipping my joe, looking at the waves, when two things happen. One, I realize that we are actually moving. This whole pier is swaying to the rhythm of the ocean. Two: Just as Marianna brings my meal, something grabs me. I look around. It’s this pelican. He has my arm in his beak.
Except he’s not hurting. He lets go, makes some gurk noise, and stands there staring at me, this little head with the crewcut hair and the way-big beak.
“He wants some food,” says Marianna. “But he only eats raw fish. And I have to scoot him out for health-regulation reasons, anyway. Also, he can peck if he gets annoyed. That’s why I use this.”
She picks up one of the heavy wooden chairs and backs Igor out the entrance, like a matador.
The lobster taco is the best. Two big corn tortillas, plenty of lobster, shredded cabbage, and a lush mix of pico de gallo, cheese, and a white sauce they make here. Plus, coleslaw and the “bun’o chowder,” which turns out to be a really filling side of clam chowder drooled over two toasted hamburger buns, a kind of fisherman’s biscuits and gravy.
Memo and Marianna
Guillermo (“Memo”) the chef says he makes the chowder from clams, bacon, celery, potato, and white sauce.
While we’re talking, Igor’s back, trying to hypnotize me with his unblinking stare. When I don’t respond, he spreads his wings and jumps and flaps his way onto my table. Man. Feel kind of privileged, even though...uh, Jurassic Park, anyone?
Igor fits in with the woodwork
“Igor!” Marianna cries. She grabs a chair and starts maneuvering him back out into the windstorm.
So, how does she stay warm, out here all day, every day?
“Look at me,” she says. “Three layers on top, two pairs of jeans, the scarf. You have to.”
She has been working here six years. Memo, five years. “The family who own it have had this place since 1996,” she says. “But it has actually been going since 1966.”
“Wow,” I say. That’s…”
“Fifty years. We are hoping to have a big party on July 2nd, the actual anniversary.”
Light’s fading. Igor has glided off. “We stay open till sunset,” Marianna says, “but in summer we’re open till 10 p.m., maybe midnight. Because people love to come out here in the cool of the evening.”
Wow. So would I.
Talking of Wow, I have to ask what’s with the name.
“‘Walking On Water,’” says Marianna. “We’re Christians.”
Come to think of it, all the music has been kinda religious pop.
I head up to the pier’s end. Mega waves. Mighty wind. Look for green flashes. But the only flashes I see are from these two guys taking photos of their girlfriends, laughing their heads off at their totally wind-wrecked hair.
5091 Niagara Avenue, on the pier, San Diego
What $15 buys: lobster taco, chowder on buns, coleslaw, coffee.
Wow Café (Ocean Beach Pier Café), on the pier
Prices: Nacho Supreme (chips, cheese, shredded beef, lettuce, beans, sour cream) $12; shredded beef taco, $5; chips, salsa, $5; half-pound burger, $9; four “OB Sinkers” (cream-cheese-stuffed deep-fried jalapeños), $5; Captain’s Platter (breaded pollock, halibut, shrimp, clam chowder over bun), $14; fish and chips, $11; clams, $11; shrimp, $11; pollock/shrimp combo, $11; lobster taco, $9; coleslaw, “bun’o chowder,” $4
Hours: 8 a.m.–5 or 6 p.m. (sunset) daily (winter); 8 a.m.–10 p.m. or midnight (summer)
Buses: 35, 923
Nearest bus stop: Cable at Newport