What’s missing? I keep looking at this thing. But nothing’s amiss. It is a complete burger, with slab of meat, slab of red onion, slab of cheese melting over the patty like a Salvador Dali watch, slab of tomato, lots of lettuce, pots of ketchup and thousand island...and the danged thing costs only $3.
182 E. Main Street, El Cajon
And this at one of the best-known eateries/bars/live music/dancing spots in town. El Cajon town, that is. ’Course, you can only get it in happy hour and here at the bar, but happy hour stretches from 2-6 every day, and this bar is clearly the go-to reunion spot for Cajonistas.
That’s what it feels like when you come in, anyway. I had been heading towards the trolley on East Main when I found myself among sophisticated terraces of chairs and tables out on the sidewalk and spreading into a big internal patio.
I’ve been in and out of El Cajon a lot recently, and each time ended here, sitting up to this long black wooden counter not far from the courts and City Hall. Clientele’s an interesting mixture of City employees (I’m guessing) and East County denizens, mainly local people who seem to know each other. The bar has this huge backboard, loaded with likker and topped with a collection of growlers from all over, like Picnic Tap from Nashville, or Novo Brazil, from, hey, Otay. “Growler collecting dust at home?” says a box in the menu. “Bring it in for a free beer and cheese burger. Must be one we don’t have on the wall.”
“That’s Gabriel, our owner,” says Pam, who’s working the bar. She’s been here since this owner took over 19 years ago. “He is a serious collector. Growlers, rare beer cans, you name it.”
Lower cupboards are also plastered in stickers. One from Arrogant Bastard beer reads, “It’s not too expensive. You’re too cheap.”
“Celebrating 100 years of Cruisin.’ El Cajon Classic Cruise,” says this other poster. I mean, wow. They’ve had Classic cars doing their weekly cruise for a hundred years? That is amazing. Alongside are photos of El Cajon before there were cars. Coaches, wagons, kids galloping by on horses, captured scenes from right outside here. Guess El Cajon truly was the Wild West. As far West and wild as you could git.
The wall of beer cans includes names like General Pulaski Beer, celebrating the man famous for saving George Washington’s life at the Battle of Brandywine. Wow again. Wonder if that’s worth anything?
Gent next to me has ordered a “flat-iron bites appetizer.” Says it cost him $8, down from the standard $10.95. “This is the best happy hour in town,” he says.
I mean, saving three bucks sounds good, but not fantastic, deal-wise. Whatever, that gets me perusing the happy hour menu. Hmm. Fish tacos, $3, carnitas tacos, $3, cheese fries, $5, flatbreads, $6. (They include topping choices of BBQ, carnitas, spinach, margherita, or vegetable.) Also “tuna deviled eggs,” $5. Wow, deals? Now we’re talking.
And they ain’t done: over the page, there’s whole nother list of “bar food” with happy hour prices like potato skins for $6, down from $9.95, cheesy bread for $4 ($7.95), deep-fried mushrooms for $5, Louisiana chicken strips for $6.
But what really grabs my eye is this burger. Comes with every usual thing and costs three buckeroos. They have a $5 version, a “triple cheese” burger, too, but I have to check this $3 beauty out, as soon as I have ordered me up a lemonade (yup, working nights, and besides, I’m starting to get a taste for it).
The happy hour prices seem even better when I look at the standard menu. We’re talking $15 salads, $17 stuffed calamari, $21 ribs, $13 cheese burgers.
Ten minutes later, Pam brings my $3 bargain from the open kitchen. And really, this is a full-on burger. They haven’t stinted on the meat or the fixins. Slider this ain’t.
“The burger and fish tacos and carnitas tacos are best sellers every day,” Pam says.
But fact is, I’ve also got my eye on the mushrooms and tuna deviled eggs. So a couple of nights later when I’m back, that’s exactly what I go for. And I swear, together they’re just right, appetite-wise, even for a growing boy like myself. There are like eight mushrooms hiding inside golden batter. They are so lush when you liberate them from their shell, they’re almost like oysters. Plus, I have a cerveza this time, which makes it all go down well. And actually, it’s a toss-up between them and the eggs for the “dish of the day” prize. Because the deviled eggs are full of complex flavors. Each boiled egg yolk is mixed with tuna, jalapeño, bacon, paprika, and a chunk of avocado on top, plus bits of raw cabbage, and the sharp twang of the “devil,” the mustard. Five half-eggs. Per-lenty. Ten bucks for the two dishes is a steal.
This late update: I get another chance at the HH menu three nights later. Again, what a pick! Not exactly health food, heh heh. But so much, and soo delish. BBQ pork fries, $9 for happy hour (usually $12.95). We’re talking lots of shredded pork, a ton of cheese, onions, guac, crème fraîche, and of course, fries. Mama!
In the end, I get another meal out of it back at the ranch, so we’re talking say $4.50 per meal? I swear, I’m beginning to understand how people stay so loyal to El Cajon. They don’t gouge each other here. Maybe they have a generous bone the rest of us lack. No wonder everybody around this bar’s so danged happy.
- The Place: Downtown Cafe Bar & Grill, 182 East Main Street El Cajon, 619-440-5687
- Hours: 11:00am - 9:00pm, Monday, Tuesday; 11am - 10pm, Wednesday, Thursday; 11am - 11pm, Friday, Saturday; 10am - 8pm, Sundays
- Happy Hour Prices: Flat-iron bites appetizer, $8; fish taco, $3; carnitas taco, $3; cheese fries, $5; flatbreads (BBQ, carnitas, spinach, margherita, or vegetable), $6; tuna devil eggs, $5; potato skins, $6; cheesy bread $4; deep-fried mushrooms, $5; Louisiana chicken strips, $6; cheese burger, $3; triple cheese burger, $5; deep-fried mushrooms, $5
- Buses: 815, 888
- Nearest Bus Stop: E. Douglas Avenue & First Baptist Church