It's hard to be original with burgers these days, but these guys have nailed it.
"Buona sera, signore,” I say.
“Buona sera, buona sera,” says Nick Pecoraro from his gold-encrusted porch. I’ve stopped by to pay my respects to Little Italy’s unofficial ambassador. This is the time of night when he’s sitting in his easy chair with his after-dinner glass of wine, watching the world go by, chatting with people he knows and plenty he doesn’t.
1490 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego
There’s something comforting about Mr. Pecoraro being there. He and his house are part of the real, working Little Italy from the time when tuna fishing was king. He started a business right here as a house painter. Now his sons do the painting, and he has time for this glass of wine.
Nicholas with Nick Pecoraro behind him.
I leave him and go sit at a sidewalk table at Caffe Italia nearby, to mull food options for the night. Now I see he’s talking to a young gent wearing, huh, a top hat and tails. I check my watch. Going on 8:30. Way beyond most happy hours. I ask the Caffe Italia barista if anything in the area still has a happy hour. “Oh, yes,” he says. “King and Queen. I used to work there. It’s kind of new. Was Romesco and then Bracero. They have a late-night happy hour every night. Nine till close. They’re the best for happy hour around here.”
Pork belly nachos
Great, but first, gotta place this time-travel guy:...oh, yes! I remember him. Another Nick. Nicholas. Always dresses like the gents of yesteryear. Catches the bus like me.
It’s love at first bite.
So I get up, go join them, and have to ask about the top hat. It’s tall, shiny black, has sharp edges, and a big concave curve to it.
Note cutaway in morning suit.
“It’s covered in long-haired beaver hairs,” says Nicholas. “And the secret to keeping it black and plush is I polish it with a sponge that I’ve dipped in white wine.”
He says he got the advice from a famous butler who wrote a book on sartorial trade secrets back in 1827.
“Yes,” Nicholas says, “I am a perfectionist. I like to express myself, my ideals, through the way I dress. I believe in civility, etiquette, the classical philosophers, and the values of balance and order that produce prolonged happiness.”
So, natch, I have to ask him to join me at the King and Queen.
K&Q is down on Kettner, at West Beech. “Happy hour?” I ask. “Absolutely,” says the barkeep. He looks at Nicholas. Guess he’s surprised that a fella in a topper would even consider happy hour.
You have to go up to the second level to get it. The building’s tall, modern, but with lots of skulls and Day of the Dead paraphernalia, done light-touch, not heavy. Barkeep named Heather asks what we want to drink. “I’m working tonight,” I say, “so, coffee. But Nick, you go ahead. Pimm’s Number One?”
I’ve read the toffs drink that at Royal Ascot, in the UK, where Nicholas would fit right in.
“Lemonade,” he says.
The HH menu (topped with smiling “his” and “her” crowned skulls) has a lot of oh-so-standard offerings. And not that cheap. Like guac and chips, for $9. That’s HH price? Bean-and-cheese tacos (“de la Sierra”) are $8; house fries are $5.
But things do get more interesting. They have three Korean tacos with roasted pork belly, chili soy sauce, serrano sauce slaw, mango, and lime crema, for $9; three oysters or a fish ceviche for $5; a shrimp ceviche for $8. “Los 3 Animales” (after the famous Tucanes de Tijuana song about coke, heroin, and marijuana), which are tacos of cochinita (slow-roasted pork), short rib, and tinga (shredded chicken).
Nicholas asks for the shrimp ceviche. Me, crazy as this sounds, I go for a plate of nachos ($9) with a pork belly add for 2 bucks more. And I can’t resist testing the “pressed cheeseburger,” whatever that is. Tonight, it’s going for $7.
Plus, Heather says the nachos are really filling and that they’re loaded with tomatillo cream and avo purée and pinto beans; pico de gallo and jalapeños supply the burn.
Have to say, the nachos are delicious with that pork belly. Mr. Ignacio (“Nacho”) Anaya, who created the dish in 1943, doesn’t get enough respect for his invention. Especially these ones tonight. They’re lush and strong-flavored.
And, wow, when the pressed cheeseburger arrives on a wooden plank, it — they — look great. Because it’s two halves, standing vertically, with arty squirts of aioli and a sweet tomato-based sauce tracking across them. It’s love at first bite. This compressed burger seems to compress the flavors, too. I swear I can detect some pork belly here, and it helps the sweetish flavor, along with the cheese and the onions.
So Nicholas and I talk top hats. I think he says he had his made in Ottawa, Canada. How much for? “I got a good deal, $1000. On the open market, you might pay $3500.”
He says the only U.S. officials who are required to wear top hats now are the solicitor general and attorneys at the Supreme Court.
He says what he’s wearing is a “morning suit.”
“This cutaway jacket is the identifier.”
And what would he wear to, say, the beach?
“Oh, a morning suit, of course, but with a bright yellow waistcoat.”
Time to go. Good meal. Will definitely come back for the pressed burger. And, must say, it’s refreshing to talk with Nicholas. He thinks through his eccentricity. Would I dare wear his duds? Guess I don’t have to answer that question till I can at least afford the thousand bucks for the hat.
1490 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego
Happy Hours: 3–6 p.m.; 9 p.m.–close, daily; Monday, happy hour all day
Happy Hour Prices: Guacamole and chips, $9; cucarachas crispy shrimp, $9; fish ceviche, $5; tacos de la sierra (bean and cheese), $8; house fries, $5; Korean tacos (3) with roasted pork belly, $9; fresh oysters (3), $3; fish ceviche, $5; shrimp ceviche, $8; “Los 3 Animales” tacos (cochinita, short rib, tinga), $8; nachos, $9; add chicken, asada, or pork belly, $2; pressed cheeseburger, $8
Buses: 83, 280, 290
Nearest Bus Stops: Kettner and Cedar (83, southbound); India and Cedar (83, northbound); Pacific Highway and Cedar (280, 290)
Trolleys: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy