‘The long and winding road,” sing the Beatles on this bus’s sound system. And, boy, have they nailed it. I look out the bus window and see rocks, bluffs, isolated houses with dusty trucks in their yards. Horses watch us over their corral railings.
Then we come up and over and into a valley with a bunch of scattered buildings, car parks, and, hey, a parking structure, a hotel, a casino, and beyond, somewhere further along the valley, the Barona Museum and cultural center. I grab a minibus down there, because I want to see a chef who’s come to talk about Kumeyaay food. I’ve always thought acorns could make the basis for a truly San Diego bread. So I wanna listen, and I want to throw that idea at him, see if he laughs or maybe thrusts a million-dollar contract in my face, har-de-har.
Long story short: never really get to talk, because there’s another couple dozen people who also want his undivided attention. Sigh. Well, guess I could eat. I’m famished.
First I’ve got to get back to the main action. The casino. I ask one of the ladies which way I have to walk.
“Sir, I wouldn’t do that,” she says. Victoria. “We have coyotes out there, and they’re starting to have their families. Meet a pack of those hungry critters and we could lose a customer. I’m going to call you a shuttle.”
And she does. Jes’ for li’l ol’ me. I’m impressed that they care that much.
So, now I’m in the main casino. I kinda follow my nose. Wander past what looks like their main buffet. “Seasons Fresh,” think it’s called. All right! Lobster, steaks, all you can eat. Except, ulp! You pay $44 for the privilege. Today’s price. What happened to casino prices?
I head around the corner, into a way-big food court. Starts with the 24-hour Sage Café, with not bad prices. Like $8.95 for an “Iipay Benedict” breakfast, $11.95 for a New York steak and eggs, ten bucks for any omelet, $7.95 for bacon or sausage and eggs, $3.95 for flapjacks, short stack. And breakfast’s on 24 hours a day.
Oriental chicken salad’s $11.95, and if you want cheap and healthy, it’s $5.95 for an iceberg wedge with cotija cheese and bacon. Sandwiches are $8-10, half-pound burgers (or 6-oz grilled chicken breast), or spam and fried rice are $8.95. Big plates like baby back pork ribs start at $14.95 (half rack, full is $19.95). And, uh, steak and lobster’s $40.95.
They don’t stop there, Bolalo oxtail soup (we’re talking Filipino) is $11.95. “This item is available 24 hours a day,” it says. Guess Barona has a loyal Filipino following.
And, wow. Checked the time. Buses only every hour. Gotta have something quick. So moving on down the line here, Italian Cucina, Plaza Grill, Barona Oaks Steakhouse, and Ho Wan Noodle Shop, all mostly open 5 p.m.–10 p.m. And a rack of smaller outlets like Three Amigos and, hey, Feisty Kate’s Burgers & Malts. She’s next to the Ho Wan, a basically Vietnamese noodle shop. The two of them look the most crowded. Guess I’ll follow the crowd.
So I’m up to Feisty Kate’s counter. The guy ahead of me, turns out, is picking up a moby steaming plate of chili-fries. Oh, wow. This chilly night, chili fries? That would fit the ticket.
“How much?” I ask him.
“I can’t believe it, but $3.50,” he says. “And no taxes. This is Indian land. And 50-cent gelatos, too.”
Huh. “I’ll have what he’s having,” I say to the gal, Tannia.
Here’s the thing: While I’m waiting for my little buzzer thing to buzz, I can’t resist wandering through to Ho Wan. Because I notice they’re basically Vietnamese. Have banh mi, like their #5, BBQ pork, for $4.25. But what hooks me is a “specials” sign, something about congee. Congee = Chinese porridge, which I’ve always loved. They’re offering standard congee choices starting at $2.95 for plain congee and topping out at $28 for abalone and chicken congee. But the one I notice is the sweet congee, for $4.88. Karla, the gal behind the counter (who tells me Ho Wan means “Good Luck” in Cantonese), says yes, sweet is beautiful.
Result: I’m sitting, with 20 minutes to spare, with this wacko two-course meal in front of me. The mountain of a ground meat and onion mess on fries topped by melted cheese, and with a pretty tasty house hot sauce I pour over it all, plus this bowl of slightly pink Chinese porridge, steaming its sweet raisin and bean and bulgur wheat and rice fumes up my nostrils. In Asia, it’s what you have for breakfast, or if you’re feeling off. But sweet congee? Never had it. A new gastro experience. At Barona.
I take my first slurp. Mm. Nutty, beany, warm on the belly, gentle. Truth be known, this could be a complete meal, too. Also, what a perfect late-night snack to warm your gut, calm you down. Man. Gentle on my mind. It’s so good I forget to go get one of their 50-cent bargain gelatos.
Then I’m in the bus, heading down into the complete black of the long and winding road of Wildcat Canyon. It’s like leaving Shangri-La, descending back to reality. Guess I should be grateful I’m not coming down like some fellers here, stone broke. Me, I’m just a little broken inside. But you know that story.
The Place: Feisty Kate’s, in the food court of Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino, 1932 Wildcat Canyon Road, Lakeside, 888.722-7662, or 619-328-6009
Hours: 11 a.m.–2 a.m. daily
Prices: Buffalo chicken wings, $5.50 for 6 pieces; quarter-pound burger, fries, $3.50; chili fries, $3.50
The Place: Ho Wan Noodle Shop (n.b. it will be closed for expansion through May, but the food will be available through Sage Café), 1932 Wildcat Canyon Road, Lakeside, 1-888-722-7662, or 619-443-2300
Prices: Sweet congee, $4.88; plain congee, $2.95; lean pork congee with century egg, $6.95; chicken or beef congee, $6.95; seafood congee, $8.95; abalone and chicken congee, $28; BBQ pork banh mi with pickled daikon, $4.25; beef banh mi, $4.25; veggie banh mi, $4.50; Thai-style tom yum noodle soup, $11.95;
Bus: Barona Casino bus
Nearest Bus Stop: El Cajon Transit Center, at trolley stop