Tons of meat in the lobster quesadilla at Kona Kai's restaurant, Vessel
First off: I challenge anyone to beat my speed-walking time, from Anchorage Lane at Shelter Island Drive to the Kona Kai Club at the southern end of Shelter Island. Ten minutes. A good country mile.
’Course, I was motivated. I came out to Point Loma to get to the Portuguese Market and Café, see what Portuguese people eat, only to find the danged thing had closed down, two years ago.
So, Plan B: Red Sails, the eatery just across Shelter Island Drive. They had a happy hour I’d always meant to go to.
Except...sails furled. Closed down.
Tunamen’s memorial sculpture tells you you’re almost at the Kona Kai
So now I know: gotta be Plan C. But I only have 20 minutes. Happy hour at the Kona Kai Club is till six. And it’s at the other end of Shelter Island. Almost out at sea. Heck, you can hear the sea lions barking at the bait barge from there.
But how to get there? No buses. No bikes. No Uber. It’s Shanks’ pony or starve.
1551 Shelter Island, San Diego
I steam in through the Kona Kai front entrance at ten of six. Make my way through a line of executives checking in, ask where “Vessel Restaurant” is, get sent down a corridor, turn left, up steps, and, bingo!
Here’s this spaceship-looking round room surrounded by water and yachts with a circular bar and a column rising into a kinda heavenly blue dome in the middle. The circular (okay, hexagonal) counter is translucent goldy-cream marble with lights shining up through it. Sexy. Very sexy. Star-Trekky.
So now, yeah, I’m hesitating. Beautiful people are sitting up to this circle with cocktails, silk dresses, iPhones, and loud laughs.
“Happy hour still?” I ask the bar guy, Cody.
“Oh, sure,” he says, “for the next five minutes. Drinks or eats?”
“Eats. And I’ll have an iced tea.”
Figure that has to be cheap and will help me keep awake tonight, all the work I’ve got to do still. Iced tea turns out to be $3 (HH draft beers are $6, bottles $5, house wines $5).
Cody hands me a menu. Classy little book.
Big group to the left is chomping and joshing and sipping away. Turns out they’ve got boats. From the sun on their faces, they’re just in from a day’s sailing.
So, I’m checking the menu. I mean, without HH, this place is really up there. Plates $17, $26, $30. So, big whew! to flip to “8 Bells Happy Hour” (2–6 p.m. every day).
Leaning tower of slider
There’s a Reuben slider on a pretzel roll with sauerkraut, swiss cheese, and thousand island dressing for $4. Or a Kona beef slider, with smoked bacon, cheddar, tomato, crispy onion, also $4. Lessee... In the $5 bracket, mac and cheese and a braised pork taco with “chipotle slaw, ginger bbq, and pico de gallo.” Then, for $6, grilled-fish taco with pico, guac, and Baja slaw; or a wild-mushroom flatbread, with fontina and mozzarella cheeses plus arugula and truffle oil.
Top price is $7. A lobster quesadilla with guac, fontina, crispy jalapeño, and Sriracha aioli; or a bowl of seafood poke. Includes ahi, salmon, shrimp, sesame-ginger ponzu (kinda lemon-soy sauce), avo, taro chips, and wakame seaweed.
No time to screw around. Yes, the Kona slider, of course, even though Cody says the Reuben is bigger. Then...one of the tacos? Ginger BBQ with the pork sounds good. But, no. Man, I have to have that lobster quesadilla, and, because we’re about one minute from HH closeout, I also go for the seafood poke. Have never taken poke seriously. Chunks of raw fish, Hawaiian, right? I’m not sure.
Lobster quesadilla: $7, but, bite for bite, cheap at twice the price.
I realize as Cody pings my orders through to the kitchen that I’ve gone over the top. Three bucks for tea, $4 for the slider, and $7 each for the quesadilla and poke. Mamma mia! Twenty-one buckaroos.
The $6 wild mushroom flatbread
“Here, try this,” says Peter. “It’s the best thing on the happy hour.” He and his wife Wendy should know. They run a restaurant. They’re having their one night off in the week. They have just gotten the mushroom flatbread, the one thing I didn’t even give a moment’s thought. But I take a little section and actually it’s lush and juicy, no way dry; bread’s crispy, and the mushroom-cheese-truffle combo is terrific. Also, there is a lot of it. It would be its own little meal right there.
But, mighty quick, here’s my stuff. Huh. The slider may be small diameter, but it’s a tottering pile of bacon, wild green avo, a layer of potato, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a generous chunk of meat. Caramelized onions, too, by the taste. Oh, boy. Too good.
But then the lobster calls my name. Just the colors, for starters. The golden tortilla, the green avo, and the scarlet-and-white lobster meat on a blue plate. And then crunchy jalapeño. It’s beautiful, and it’s not mealy-mouthed, like some quesadillas. But, oh the taste, especially when you have a bit of the orange aioli tanging things up.
Taro shavings contrast nicely with the fish
And the poke? Luscious. And to think it’s been a Hawaiian dish forever but only really popular here on the mainland for, like, five years... That ponzu gives it a warm, gingery flavor, and the seaweed isn’t too iodine-ish. The taro chips presented like three translucent wings make a great palliative.
Man. All three are good. The best? Toss-up between the lobster quesadilla and the poke.
“Actually, you missed the best,” says this gal, Mo. “The Reuben slider. Meat crispy, pretzel bun. This one here does it all.”
Mo’s a New Yorker, so you’ve gotta respect her on this. But we’re talking next time. Right now, wallet’s light and gut’s heavy. I speed-walked here, I’m gonna waddle home.
1551 Shelter Island, San Diego
The Place: Vessel Restaurant, at Kona Kai Resort
Happy Hour: 2–6 p.m. daily
Happy Hour Prices: Reuben slider, $4; Kona beef slider (smoked bacon, cheddar, crispy onion), $4; mac and cheese, $5; braised pork taco, $5; grilled fish taco, $6; wild mushroom flatbread, $6; lobster quesadilla, $7; seafood poke, $7; Taco Tuesday combo — one pork taco, one fish taco, one Mex beer — $12
Nearest bus stop: Anchorage Lane near Shelter Island Drive