Heading south again. Blue Line. Chula Vista. Glaring sunny day. Have to transfer at H Street. I cross the tracks.
This is when I notice a pop-up tent right between the northbound platform and the bus area. Actually, it’s a bit more permanent than pop-up. I see they have the full array of coffees, a display unit with pastries, and a fold-out table and chairs.
745 H Street, Chula Vista
I’m kinda drawn to this. Not exactly starving, until I start thinking about it. Trouble is, I’m thinking about it.
“Do you have anything that’s, like, savory?” I ask the woman. She has a generous face with lots of laugh lines. Maria Lopez. Yeah. Suddenly, I’m liking the idea of sitting right here in the sun, watching the red trolleys come and go just yards away. Ringside seat.
“Oh yes,” she says. “I have these burritos, $1.50, with ground beef and potatoes. Or chorizo and potatoes. Or beans. Frijoles. But not refried. Healthier. I make them myself. I make everything.”
Huh. I look at them. Not that huge, but I remember the burritos I’ve had in Tijuana. Much slimmer. And these ones here sure go for a slim price. Can’t argue with $1.50. “You know, they became a thing during the Mexican Revolution,” says Maria. “Fast food for the men — and women, the Adelitas — heading into battle. And wrapped in flour tortilla, not corn, because they’re mainly a northern item. My customers love them. I make about 100 a day.”
I see that she also has sandwiches, chicken or turkey, for $4.50, $6 with a drink. Plus croissants ($1.50) lemon poppy croissants ($2), and coconut cake ($2.50). Nice, but not exactly what I’m craving.
“Anything else?” I ask.
“Well, you’re lucky today. I make my English meat pies, Thursdays only. I think I have two left.”
And she says they’re $2.50 each, so yes, hell yes! Now I think about it ,I haven’t had a decent savory home-made meat pie for many a moon. And when they’re good, they’re very very good.
Maria claws out the two from the back of the cabinet. They’re deep little pies with thick crusts, a mashed potato hat, and meat juices oozing out. Maria tosses them in a microwave, and pretty soon, here they are, steaming on a sheet of white paper in front of me. Oh mama! Umami! Taste buds dance a jig. Savory’s the word.
“To drink?” she says, and pretty soon we settle on a ginger-lemon combo (“Refreshing summer fizz,” says a temporary summer sign. “24 oz., any flavor, $3.75 simple, $5.25 Red Bull.”). With Red Bull! Who knew? Natch, I go for that, which she mixes with the ginger and lemon syrups and sparkling Perrier water. Soo refreshing in this midday heat.
I take it all to the stowaway picnic table, and it’s that ringside seat alright. Trolleys come and go. People stream around nearby, then suddenly evaporate. You feel like you’re either at Grand Central or the last café on earth.
But the main thing is these pies. They have oozy meats inside. Ground beef, in a savory caldera of celery, yellow onions, carrots, peas — all under pastry and the dollops of mash.
“I also put in thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves,” she says.
You can taste those bay leaves.
But the other great thing is the pastry. Crumbly yet rich. Not flaky, but makes you think of filo, like baklava pastry, with its lightness. “I make it with cheese pastry, butter, cream cheese, heavy cream, flour, and pastry flour. That gives the flakiness,” she says. “People do become addicted to these meat pies. Specially men.”
Heavy cream? In these li’l meat pies? That is wild. Whatever, they’re not just scrumbo, they’re filling. And it turns out they have a back story.
“In 2010, I spent three days in Oxford, England,” Maria says. “My friend and I were backpacking through Europe. I had retired from the UCSD Health system as soon as I turned 50.”
She loves everything British. The history, the architecture, the cozy tea shops, the ceremony of eating.
“I went into a coffee shop at Oxford’s long-distance bus station. I bought two meat pies there. It was love! I try to make mine exactly the same. But they’re hard to copy. We can’t get the right English mustard, the water is different, the butter is different. But I aim to get the flavor, so it’s not too salty, or sweet.”
Talking of sweet, this is when I notice a brick of carrot cake. Ooh. I’ve got to have a chunk. It costs $2.50. She baked this too, of course. “This is from a recipe of a dear old friend. I changed it up a little. Like, I put pineapple in. I think that’s unique. And walnuts, raisins, apple sauce, and of course, carrots.”
By now I’m noshing and nodding. Nearest thing it tastes like: dark fruit cake, my total fave (don’t tell my friends). That rich, dark, brandy taste, embellished by the fruits.
“And you make this all?”
She nods. “I start cooking every night at one, and cook through till maybe 4 am. Then we open at five. Not me. I sleep till twelve, then come back here and take the afternoon shift.”
I have to ask her why she charges such low prices. “I’m very proud of my culture,” she says. “I was born in Tijuana, very poor. Here I make enough profit to sustain myself and my business. That’s all I need. I know the people who come by at 5:30 in the morning. They struggle every day to make ends meet. I’ve been lucky. I want to give back.”
Wow. Me, I’m looking forward to coming back, early-early next time, glugging that morning joe with a banana cake, lemon poppy croissant, or, if it’s Thursday, probably another pie.
Plus I’ll be taking my front seat at the daily show.
- The Place: The Whistlestop Cafe, 745 H Street, Chula Vista, at the H Street trolley station, 619-755-9107
- Hours: 5am-4pm, Monday to Friday; 7am-12pm, Saturday; closed Sunday
- Prices: Meat pies, $2.50 each (Thursdays only); burritos, with ground beef and potatoes, or chorizo and potatoes, or frijoles, $1.50; chicken or turkey sandwiches, $4.50 ($6 with a drink); croissants, $1.50; lemon poppy croissants, $2; coconut cake, $2.50; carrot cake, $2.50
- Buses: 701, 709
- Nearest Bus Stop: H Street Transit Center
- Trolley: Blue Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: H Street Transit Center