Welcome to Mat Kulaaxuuy — Land of Holes.
’Course, you may know it as “La Jolla.” But to the Kumeyaay, always and still, Mat Kulaaxuuy’s the name. Mat means “land,” Kulaaxuuy means “holes.” Ergo, Land of Holes. Probably talking about the sea caves right beneath us. What “La Jolla” doesn’t mean, says everybody I talk to here, is La Joya, “The Jewel.”
Whatever, all this info is bubbling away on the front burner because — talk about ancient — I’m at The Spot, our era’s oldest watering hole in this Land of Holes.
1005 Prospect Street, La Jolla
It turns out people have been chowing away here since — can you believe? — 1915. Back then, it was called the “White Rabbit Roof Garden,” one of the original buildings of this town. And then, from 1919, “Country Cupboard.” In 1978, Jerry Herman came out from Evanston, Illinois with the name of his old place, The Spot, and relocated. So now, after 103 years, this is the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in La Jolla.
I came in after a guy sitting on his guitar box at the corner of Wall and Girard told me that right now, five-ish, you probably can’t get a better deal than The Spot’s happy hour.
Inside sure looks like it has survived eras. With style, too. Wide, heavily varnished vertical timbers line the upper walls, a beautiful bar counter looks like it was ripped from some sailing ship, and a model of a rake-masted ketch nails the whole impression. I notice a top shelf behind the bar has a hat on a folded flag with a bottle of J&B Scotch Whiskey and a sign saying something like “Argh! Matey…get liquor and talk like pirates.”
“That was Larry,” says Kim, the waitress. “Long-time customer.”
She passes me the menu. The average dish price: maybe $15. That’s cheap? Gotta remember, average annual household income here in Mat Kulaaxuuy is around $150K. To say nothing of assets.
But wait: Happy hour. It says $3 off appetizers, plus $5 draft beers and house wines. So that makes their “famous basket of fries, voted ‘best fries in town’ for over a decade!!!” only $3.95. And their buffalo wings (eight of them), or their fried jumbo shrimp, $9.95. Seared ahi tuna strips go for $10.95, and three carnitas or steak tacos are $11.95. Four chicken fingers (“grilled, blackened, fried, or buffalo style!”), $7.95.
“You have got to have the lamb chops,” says Bill, this older gent. “I’ve been coming in here 25 years. I have the lamb every time.”
Hmm. “Four 2-ounce Cajun-seasoned lamb chops, garnished with crispy onion strings.” And it’s among the appetizers, so the HH deal applies. They cost $12.95.
Last on the HH appetizer list are three nacho pretzel rolls with a jalapeño-cheese dipping sauce, $4.95, onion rings for $3.95, or fried pickle chips with a chipotle aioli dipping sauce, $3.95.
But if you want more interesting, peek beyond HH to the rest of the menu. You could have a soup of the day with garlic toast for $7.95, or a cup for $3.95, or hey, French onion soup — over a sourdough crouton, and under a blanket of melted Swiss cheese — for $6.95. Or a 1/3-pound BYO burger (meaning your choice of bun and cheese) for $9.95. And one of the better deals here: at weekday lunches, you can get a soup or salad plus a half sandwich deal for $9.
Oh Lord. Know I’m gonna over-order, because I want that French onion soup, and I know it won’t stop there. The appetizer I can’t resist is the spicy chorizo skins ($10.95). It’s “8 crispy potato rounds topped with pork chorizo, habanero-jack cheese, pico de gallo, micro cilantro and tomatillo-cilantro sour cream.”
Crispy baked potato rounds and chorizo. Got to have them.
Meantime, Kevin the barkeep’s waiting. And they do have one or two good local beers in on the HH $5 deal. I go for Pizza Port’s Chronic Amber Ale. Hmm. Malty. Kinda sweet aftertaste. Good all-rounder.
This is when a couple of tourists come in. Lena and Nikklas. From Sweden and Germany. Wow. She’s ordering some lobster deal – think it’s about thirty bucks. He’s ordering a roast beef sandwich with melted cheese, sautéed ’shrooms, onion rings, and an au jus dip. Twelve-fifty?
In the end, I go for the French onion, plus those eight spicy chorizo skins. The soup is a bubbling cauldron of angry cheese. But once you get through to the gloopy-delish soup underneath, and that big tender crouton on the bottom, you realize this little brown ceramic tureen contains a complete meal. Next time, I’ll just get that.
But, oh man. I can’t compete with Lena’s lobster dish. It looks spectacular, a clackity collection of claws and legs with lemons and a butter sauce.
On the other hand, when my skins turn up, they’re pretty spectacular too. The mini cilantro looks fresh and tastes mild. And is that bacon crunching up through the cheese and tomato and pico de gallo? Oh no. It’ll be the chorizo.
But eight of these things. Demasiado! You can see, these are supposed to be shared. It’s a labor of love to get through them, but a labor just the same.
Just as I’m leaving, Bill’s leaving. With a bunch of yellow tulips. “For a young lady up the road. She’s going away. We want to surprise her.”
Makes you realize: This rich town is also a community. People live here, take flowers to say goodbye. And if La Jolla has a Cheers, maybe this is it.
It’s been around long enough to qualify.