At first, I’m thinking Tacos El Gordo, because it’s near Chula Vista’s H Street trolley. Then I go in. Wall-to-wall! Three lines stretching right to the doors. Fuggedaboutit.
And, actually, a steak’s what I’ve got the hots for. Just got paid. The lovely Carla’s eating out with her brother. Ideal opportunity.
Aha! Near H and Broadway, a sign.
534 Broadway, Chula Vista
“Center Cut,” it reads. Seems to be pointing at a cream-and-gray building in a huge parking lot. I hoof it over there. It says “Open,” but I peer through the windows and it’s totally empty.
I head in anyway, through a side door.
Boom! Party! The back part’s a bar. Crowded. People are drinking, shouting over booming karaoke, and eating.
I hitch up to a bar chair.
Even the barman’s joining in.
“Peligro de ser feliz,” (“The danger of being happy...”), he sings.
Karaoke screen leads us along with the words.
“Still serving food?”
“Till nine o’clock,” he says. Name’s Ray. Working here 7 years. Says the place has been going 25 years.
Now a customer’s giving a terrific karaoke performance of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” “There’s an old man sitting next to me/ Making love to his tonic and gin. He says ‘Son, can you play me a memory…’”
“So, Ray, any San Diego drafts?”
“We’re a dive bar, man. Only bottles.”
I go for the dark Negra Modelo, five bucks.
He nods at a waitress. She drops me a menu.
I look. I gulp. Dive-bar prices? Not exactly. Appetizers run $10–$20, pasta around $20; chicken, too. Steaks, $20–$45. “Chef Ramon’s signature dishes,” like rack of lamb, $23 to $40.
Everything tells me to run, except, hey, just got paid, right? Besides: steaks.
Lessee... About the cheapest item on the menu is, uh, garlic bread, for $7. Potato skins are $9, eight chicken wings, $10. Shrimp-and-crab-stuffed peppers, filled with mozzarella, wrapped in bacon, $10. Caesar salad’s $9.
But steaks? Up there. The waitress, Rebeca, says they’re grilled on a mesquite fire and come with soup or side salad, sautéed veggies, and garlic mashed potatoes or baked potato. Cheapest is an 8-ounce arrachera (skirt steak) with chimichurri (kinda parsley and garlic) sauce for $19. Rib-eye steak — okay, it’s a 20-ouncer — costs $30. Filet mignon’s $22 for the 6-ounce, $25 for the 8-ounce.
“Prime rib good?” I ask.
“Chef Ramon ages each steak for two weeks and slow roasts it for six hours,” says Rebeca. “It’s so tender you can cut it with your fork.”
I see the prime rib “petite cut” is $19; the “regular cut” is $25, “Supreme cut” is $30.
I go for the petite cut, praying it doesn’t turn out to be a black mini-blob on a huge white plate. And for the soup, because it’s seafood chowder “with fish, shrimp, crab, potato,” Rebeca says. And baked potato. Mash? No match.
There’s a swelling of voices. Bilingual version of “Stand by Me.” Ray’s helping out.
“Junto a mi.”
Then, two OMG moments. The first is with the chowder. It’s rich, velvety, orange, and kills you with its thick, addictive, sweet-savory deliciousness. Dang! I’d come back for this alone (a bowl’s $5). Plus they give you a big chunk of bread and a pot of au jus.
“Chef Ramon trained at the CIA,” says Rebeca. “He has a lot of French influence in his cooking. Everything is fresh. Nothing he cooks comes from frozen.”
It takes a moment to remember “CIA” means Culinary Institute of America. New York. Famous.
Second OMG? When Rebeca brings the “petite” prime rib. Petite? The thing’s huge. “Well, it is 8 ounces,” she says. “The regular’s double that. And the Supreme’s nearly three times as big. You need a real big appetite for that one.”
The meat is tender as the night, and has bowls of au jus and horseradish, and along with the spud, a pile of sautéed carrots and broccoli. And, yes, you could cut this with your fork. I haven’t had a better prime rib.
Pretty soon, it’s like a club. Eva, lady on the stool next to me, is swapping some of her calamari strips (a $10 appetizer) for some of my prime rib. Ray’s singing out the Los Freddys weeper “Que ganas de llorar?” (“What’s the point of crying?”)
“This is a locals place,” says Rebeca. “I hug and kiss everybody. Everybody tries the karaoke. Nobody minds if they’re off-key. On Wednesdays we have birthday parties. People go crazy. They dress up as pirates, bullfighters, Chargers, burglars. We had a pajama party the other night.”
It’s past nine when I leave. A group, Sol Luna, is belting out Gloria Estefan–type Cuban music. People are dancing. And at the door, I see they have a sign that reads “$8 cover charge.”
But, hold it. Outside, I smell onions sautéing. This guy Abraham is sizzling a bunch of them on a bottle-gas-fueled griddle. It’s set up here on Chef Ramon’s orders.
“I can make chicharrones, with, like, beef, potatoes, and red peppers inside, or chorizo and potatoes, for $2 each,” says Abraham. “Or burgers for $3, or bacon-wrapped hot dogs for $2.”
“And I can take them inside?
Ayee! Third OMG. So, I could have spent 5 bucks instead of 25 on food and still had a brewski.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t have missed that prime rib for all the tea in China. Or the chowder for all the coffee in Brazil.
The karaoke? Jury’s out on that.
534 Broadway, Chula Vista
Kitchen hours: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, 8 a.m.–9 p.m.; closed Monday, Tuesday
Prices: (Dinner) Shrimp-and-crab-stuffed peppers, $10; garlic cheese bread, $7; potato skins, $9, chicken wings, $10; Caesar salad, $9; arrachera (skirt steak), $19; pork spare ribs, $19; 20-ounce rib-eye steak, $30; 6-ounce filet mignon, $22; prime rib, $19 (8 oz petite cut); $25 (16 oz regular cut); ) $30 (“Supreme cut,” 20 oz); Lunch (11 a.m.–3 p.m.): all items $10 or under; weekend breakfast buffet (8 a.m.–2 p.m.): $9.99; outside griddle prices: Chicharrones (with beef, potatoes, red peppers or chorizo and potatoes), $2; burgers, $3; bacon-wrapped hot dogs, $2
Bus: 701, 703, 709, 932
Nearest bus stops: H and Broadway
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: H Street Chula Vista