Just imagine: A shipload of starving, scurvy-ridden Spanish sailors struggling ashore through the tidal mud flats and seeing...this? A deck full of tourists and well-heeled Diegans scarfing away at ribs, burgers, and cervezas?
They missed the chance to join us by only, like, 250 years.
Guess I’m watching too much Outlander. I’m sitting on this bayside patio near Spanish Landing. Back in the day — actually, the day was May 4, 1769 — two ships, the San Antonio and San Carlos, dropped anchor right off of here to rendezvous with Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra, who were marching north from Loreto, in Baja, to set up missions and basically start the European colonization of Alta California. And this Spanish Landing is the exact spot where the ships’ exhausted crews set up camp and waited six weeks for the overland party to arrive.
Me, I’m waiting for Carla to arrive. And downing a deliciously cheap pint of Coors Light draft. Three buckeroos.
I look around. A sign, “JFAT,” is everywhere, including on Vanessa the barkeep’s T-shirt.
I have to ask. “What’s ‘JFAT’?”
She points to the menu. “Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern. That’s us.”
It’s a social crowd. Talk’s louder than the music. Always a good sign.
“Dagdurn it,” says this woman as she sets down on a bar stool to my right. “Boat’s gone without me.”
Name’s Lisa. She’d signed on to a “Travel Buddy” program, a cruise from here around the bay. Instead, she’s been sitting stuck in Friday-afternoon traffic.
“Eleven miles. Took 36 minutes,” she says.
“We still in happy hour?” I ask Vanessa.
“You’ve got 38 minutes left.”
Vanessa’s one of the crew hauling ass behind the bar, doing messy multipours from the draft-beer spigots and playing registers like pianos. She sees Lisa is in need of comforting, gets her a beer, takes her order for buttermilk onion rings ($11, not on the HH menu), and drops a happy-hour menu on me.
Man, hope Carla makes it. Heck, if onion rings are $11, what’s a whole plateful of non-HH anything gonna be?
“Most filling?” I ask.
“Oh, the ribs’d be right up there,” Vanessa says. “They’re awesome.”
Hmm... “BBQ Baby Back Ribs with french fries, $9.” Not the cheapest, but for ribs, can’t complain. For a dollar less you get Angus sliders with onion fritters. Or spicy fried-chicken sliders with jalapeño slaw.
Actually, they have quite a bit here. Like a “nest of jalapeño bedeviled farm eggs” (six for $6). And a chowder poutine that I almost go for: french fries topped with clam chowder, bacon, and scallions ($7). Or “Dueling Southern Dips,” which are a pimiento cheese and a roasted corn and poblano guacamole with tortilla chips, for $7.
Charred brussels sprouts looks doable, too: they come with bacon, pine nuts, and maple syrup. Cost $6. Then there’s a clam chowder for $6 or an “herbed tomato bisque” for $5.
But where’s Carla? Think I’m gonna have to buy for her. I order the ribs, the tomato bisque, and can’t resist a “warm cheddar, spinach, bacon and beer fondue with “herbed croustades,” for $7.
So, yes, about 30 bucks. But it’s our blow-out.
While I wait, I read the blurb about the man himself, Jimmy. From Boston. Started off here eight years ago and has expanded to Brea, Dana Point, Santa Monica, and Woodland Hills. “Jimmy’s become famous for his unfussy, nostalgic, Frycook-Meets-Foodie specialties,” it says.
His place is modern, stark from the outside, but redwood-timbery inside. Sports bar meets green spareness. And, turns out, they’re Green Restaurant Association–certified, serving “organic livestock, fruits, and vegetables” and committing to a Long Beach Aquarium program to only serve “sustainable species of seafood.”
A cook unloads all three of my plates. “All for you?” he says, kinda grinning.
Because, well, it does look like a heckuva lot. The lake of top-burned cheese and cluster of “croustades” of the fondue, the red-on-red bowl of tomato bisque with all its crostini, and then this mountain of ribs sitting on a pile of herby-looking narrow-cut french fries: Carla better turn up.
At first the fondue is the stand-out. It has plenty of those “croustade” thingies to scoop the cheese with. And you do notice the bacon tang and the spinach. The tomato bisque is pretty sharp for my tastes on its own but makes a great counter-balance to the fondue.
And, natch, I have to try one of the six big ribs steaming in front of me, even though I really got them for Carla. Oh, man. Fall-off-the-bone delicious and rich. And the fries are really herby. All in all, these ribs would have been plenty much on their own.
Lisa’s sending a “wish-you-were-here” picture of her onion rings to her boyfriend.
“Like to try one?” she asks. “They’re a little hot for me.”
I do. These are slices from huge onions — so big, they almost look healthy for you. And that’s even with the buttermilk batter encasing them. And, yes, the batter does have a zing to it. Also, there’s a house chipotle ketchup that kicks it up. But, eleven bucks?
Call. “Dahling. Not going to make it. Can you bring me something home?”
“Ribs?” I say. “Plus fries? You won’t finish them, guaranteed.”
“Don’t even think of touching them before you get home, okay?”
No problem. I’m already stuffed like an overnight bag. I grab my beer, turn to the bay, and raise a toast to all those scurvy-wracked marineros who lay exhausted on this very piece of grass, maybe, 250 years ago.
“But look what you began,” I say out loud.
4990 North Harbor Drive, Point Loma
Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. (till 10 p.m., Friday, Saturday)
Happy Hour: 3–6 p.m., Monday–Friday
Happy Hour Prices: BBQ baby-back ribs, french fries, $9; Angus sliders, onion fritters, $8; spicy fried chicken, $8; six jalapeño “bedeviled” eggs, $6; clam chowder poutine, $7; “Dueling Southern Dips” (pimiento cheese, corn and poblano guacamole), tortilla chips, $7; charred brussels sprouts, bacon, pine nuts, maple syrup, $6; clam chowder, $6; herbed tomato bisque, $5; warm cheddar, spinach, bacon, beer fondue, herbed croustades, $7; normal menu prices higher
Buses: 28, 923
Nearest bus stops: Rosecrans and Garrison (#28); North Harbor Drive at Nimitz (#923, eastbound); North Harbor Drive at Laning Road (#923, westbound)