In Japan, you'd call this an izakaya. In Spain, a bodega. Both of them are basically kinds of after-work snack and drink pubs. Mainly sake in izakayas (you pronounce it "i-ZAK-aya," as in "saké place"), mainly wine in bodegas. (Think "boutiques.") Spanish bodegas emphasize everyday wines and interesting snacks to tide you over till the 10 o'clock dinner hour.
"The bodega is where social life really exists," says Ken Karlan, the owner of Bar Bodega, a cute newish place in Little Italy. "This is truly the meeting place of the people. Nothing fancy. No main courses. No food that you need a knife to eat with. High chairs and tables so you don't have to bend over if you meet friends eating here."
I came across this on my way up Kettner, which is really starting to pop, restaurant-wise, now that India Street is built out. What stopped me here was their happy hour. This was way past the usual six o'clock witching hour (HH is normally 4-6) but Leanna, the gal serving sidewalk customers, said this was my lucky day. "On Mondays we keep our happy hour going all night. So no pressure."
1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
And the nice thing: Even though this is a wine-oriented bodega, it's no problem just to grab a bite from the HH menu and a glass of water.
So I check the menu. Happy hour prices are $2-3 below regular prices. Albondigas — three meatballs in a sauce — costs $9. Tomato gazpacho (a cold soup for summer, from southern parts of Spain like Andalusia) has goat cheese and a crisp ham, goes for $7. A plate of roasted Brussels sprouts is $8, chorizo deviled eggs is $4, papas bravas cost $6, and shishito peppers are $7. That's it. The drinks list is also simple: House red wines are $6, whites $8, sangría is $6, bubbly $8, and beers $2 off regular prices.
I go for the albondigas, because it looks like it'll be the most filling. And man, it is. The three meat balls are big, and the soup they're in is tasty, and feels middle-eastern. Turns out the Arabs or Berbers brought the dish — al bunduq — to Spain, back when they ruled there.
The chef, David Lopez Gutierrez, is a graduate of the Culinary Art School of Tijuana, the place where Baja Med-style cooking has been nurtured. "Albondigas is basically from Spain," he says. "But I make it Mexican by putting tomatoes in the sauce. Fresh, not canned. We do nothing frozen or canned here."
His favorite Baja Med dish that he cooks here is squid Ink Arancini, a kind of risotto. "It's $10," he says, "and not just in happy hour. You've gotta be into black ink though."
That's the thing here. Ken Karlan's passionate about Spain, David Lopez is a missionary for Baja Med. Tapa-wise, it looks like exciting times ahead.