Lisa and Karen harmonize
Sixties time-warp! I’m sitting in the friendly gloom, watching Lisa Sanders and Karen Hayes sing personal songs in dreamy harmonies. Acoustic, coffee-bar singing, outside.
2611 Congress Street, San Diego
It feels time-warpy in more ways than one. This space is in Old Town, but not where the drifting Saturday-night crowds go. We’re one block over, on Congress Street.
Havarti, basil, and tomato panini
I was looking for food. Usual jackal-sniffing about. And as usual, Congress was not making great promises. It was mostly dark.
Doesn’t look hopeful, but I head up the lit boardwalk anyway,
I get up to Twiggs Street, head down toward Rockin’ Baja Lobster. Then I think: Uh, no. Saturday prices. I cut across a dirt corner lot, find a gap in the split-rail fence, and end up by a little blue house and a sign. “Java Joe’s Coffee. Gelalo.”
I look around for some menu, but the only thing I spot is this wall sign.
Think it means “gelato.” Doesn’t look hopeful, but I head up the lit boardwalk anyway, toward the back. An arrow tells me to turn right. I clog noisily on the boards through a kind of timber passageway till I’m looking at a little tented space with sharp-tipped pickets all around, like a little stockade from some western movie. And down on the right, two ladies on a tiny stage are playing guitar and singing an intimate kind of song to maybe a dozen people sitting on folding wooden chairs arranged for a concert.
I cut across a dirt corner lot, find a gap in the split-rail fence, and end up by a little blue house.
“That’ll be $10,” says this big burly guy.
“Actually, I came to eat. Do you sell food?” I ask.
“Yes, around the corner,” he says. “Ten bucks. For the concert.”
Lisa introduces Dave Howard.
What the heck? Now he’s got me intrigued. I pay over the Hamilton and head around the corner. Aha. Heavy ancient counter maybe six feet long with a see-through plastic croissant/bagel display case on one side and a cash register on the other. And Julie, hurrying out from the kitchen.
“What would you like?” she says, but quietly, to not interrupt the gals’ singing. Unlike the serious guy who took my money, she’s cheery and bouncy.
I look around for some menu, but the only thing I spot is this wall sign: “Grilled panini: Havarti cheese, fresh basil, and tomato, on grilled sourdough or gluten-free bread, $6. Add turkey, $1, add bacon, $1, add both, $2.”
Well, any port in a storm. I ask for that, with the turkey and bacon adds, plus, an Earl Grey tea. Two bucks.
I sit with my tea at a tall table nearby. Take a slurp, look around as the ladies sing of love and pain. The folky, personal music makes you think ’60s. Through sails of tenting above, lights in the trees glow like a night sky. The sharp-pointed wooden fencing also makes you think ’60s — the 1860s. This patch would have been part of Juan Francisco López’s 1835 hacienda, 50 yards away, preserved today as Rockin’ Baja Lobster.
Now Julie’s coming out from the kitchen. She has my sizzling panini. I chomp in, just as a new singer steps onstage. Dave Howard. He starts tuning his guitar. “It’s because we’re outside,” he says. “Affects the strings.”
Dave tells us how he got so mad at what happened in the election, he wrote an entire album of songs he calls Fate Rumbled. I swear, “Rich Man’s Troubles Are a Poor Man’s Dreams,” about a limo passing a panhandler by, could be a hit.
Meanwhile, I’m racing through this panini. It’s more filling than I expected because of the triple layers of cheese and turkey and bacon. It is a nice combo, and the steaming-hot, slightly perfumey Earl Grey tea gives each bready mouthful a sweet swill-down assist. I mean, Cordon Bleu? No way. But eating it in this whole magic scene? It might as well be.
“This place is new, here in Old Town,” says Julie, “but Java Joe’s has been around since 1991. He was in O.B., Hillcrest, Oceanside.”
“Java Joe’s is the hub for composers and acoustic music, the number-one open-mic place,” says Dave when he comes up after his set. “Jewel started at Java Joe’s. Jason Mraz started at Java Joe’s. Steve Poltz? Java Joe’s.”
“So, Java Joe’s a real person?”
“That’s him at the mixer,” says Dave.
I look across to the big guy who was at the door. Now he’s over at a table near the counter, driving the sound system mixing board, his big hands careful on the tiny buttons.
Seems I’m the only one who doesn’t know about Java Joe. Joe Flammini. Used to be a tuna fisherman, loved music. In 1991, he opened a coffeehouse in Poway.
“He made the whole coffee-house-with-a-mic idea happen,” Dave says. “He took it seriously. We all came, brought our little covey of fans, sang, and some of us got launched. All because of Java Joe. He’s San Diego’s Bill Graham.”
Turns out Dave himself is pretty legendary as San Diego’s most-covered songwriter. A.J Croce, Carolann Ames, Berkley Hart all sing his songs.
’Course, too late I discover that I could’ve had a quiche — ham or veggie — for $4.95. Plus, they normally have a bigger selection during the day, when the place is plain JJ’s coffee shack/eatery. Things like a ciabatta bread veggie pizza ($6.95), frittata with broccoli, potato, egg, and cheese, also $6.95, and sandwiches like Texas BBQ chicken, pesto-mozzarella chicken, and Italian chicken marinara (each $7.95).
But no complaints about my panini. It’s got some tangy taste beyond the turkey-bacon-cheese. I’m catching, well, some deeper notes. I ask Julie if they’ve added anything special.
“It’s our secret spice mix,” says Julie. “If I told you, I’d have to…make you sing onstage.”
OMG. My Achille’s heel. Can’t handle real audiences.
2611 Congress Street, San Diego
Hours: 8 a.m.–5 p.m., daily (till 10 p.m., Friday, Saturday); closed Mondays
Prices: Grilled panini with havarti cheese, basil, tomato, $6 (add turkey, $1, bacon, $1, add both, $2); quiche (ham or veggie), $4.95; ciabatta bread veggie pizza, $6.95; frittata with broccoli, potato, egg, cheese, $6.95; Texas BBQ chicken sandwich, $7.95; pesto-mozzarella chicken sandwich, $7.95; Italian chicken marinara sandwich, $7.95
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 84, 88, 105, 150
Nearest Bus Stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town Transit Center