549 25th Street, Sherman Heights
You puff up to this hilltop eatery. You see the gang behind the counter. You think one thing: ZZ Top!
Because darned near everybody here has a beard. Okay, only Kevin has the full-on ZZ Top whiskers. But all his buddies have some sort of bushy growth.
This place is new, but also old. It’s now called Sister Ray’s, as of just a couple of weeks ago. Before that, it was the Garlic Shack. Before that, Sherman’s Shack. And before that, oh man, Urban Chicken? Then Sonny’s BBQ Joint? And for 30 years before that, they say, a tamales place.
So the spot has history. Last time I came, it was The Garlic Shack, and packed with Golden Hill and Sherman Heights élite: urban intellectuals, mechanics, landscapers, moms with little kids. Heckuva variety for such a small, bricky box. Thing I remember eating: sexy wet garlic fries with actual garlic chips on top. Scrumptious with a glass of nice, dark Mother Grundy porter.
I’ve been telling all this to my friend Annie, as we foot-slog our way up Market Street. (Figured she’d be good for a hill or two since she comes from hilly Scotland.) It was my Golden Hill buddy Mike who tipped me off about changes at this corner landmark. And hey hey! Turns out today is Sister Ray’s first day open. Annie and I head across Market. We’re steaming hot by now on this beautiful chilly-sunny day.
“This is it?” says Annie. You can see she feels like she’s climbed Everest and found nothing up there. Not even a guru in a cave.
Except, here inside, four gurus! Tom, Angel, Luigi, and Kevin, all wearing bushy face spinach and black Sister Ray tee shirts. In this black and gray interior, we’re talking Goth. The place’s logo features an image of a bearded dude in shades wearing a nun’s outfit. So who is this Sister Ray?
I’d ask, but I gotta eat. Although, first things first: kill the thirst. They have four beers on tap, Modern Times’ Black House stout, Three Weavers, Mikkeller IPA, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I get the IPA, Annie goes for Three Weavers, a kind of lager. Now we look at the new menu. Under “burgers,” they have three, the standard ($8.25), The Sisters Flat Top Burger ($7.50, a kind of Cuban-style squished version, I’m guessing), and, in large print — so we’re talking their main item — the Chili Burger (9.75), with house spicy meat chili, onions, and shredded cheddar cheese.
Uh oh. There’s another large-print item. The Chili Dog, with the same adds, spicy meat chili, onions, cheese ($8.25). A simpler Convent Dog ($7.50) just has mustard and onions, and the even simpler Plain Dog ($6.25) has “bun, dog, that’s it.”
“The Golden Girl” ($9.75) is fried chicken, with salad and sauce. But then we come to the third featured item: Sister Ray’s Chili, “The Sisters all-meat chili,” or vegan soyrizo and bean chili, for $3.50 or $7. Hmm. Sounds a deal, if it’s enough.
Annie thinks so. That’s what she asks for, the small version of the vegan soyrizo and bean chili, plus a salad (a deal at $3).
I see a couple of extra things like chili cheese fries ($4.50 or $9), and fried pickles ($4 or $8). But in the end, I go for the chili dog, and, for $1.50 extra, I add a fried egg on top, because, truth be known, this is also brekky for me.
Annie sets to, quietly but intensely eating away at her bowl of chili. Then she looks up, licks her lips, and says, “Och, man. Macbeth’s witches couldn’a stirred up a better brew.”
Way to go, Scotland!
What I have is a fulsome plate of shredded cheese on chili, all on top of this way-big sausage, deep-fried, by the look of it, in a bun. And on top, like the snows of Kilimanjaro, an over-medium fried egg. Burst the egg, let it flood, fork it up with the hot, sweet chili and chopped onions. Ooh, that combination of chili, cheese, egg yolk. But it’s the slightly-burned, crisp, almost bacony sausage that makes this so yummy in the tummy. Specially that crunchy sausage skin. Yes, can’t resist another cerveza — coffee stout this time, to help it all down. And boy. It makes for a sublime combo.
“Chili was our basic idea,” says Luigi , who — hey! — Turns out to be the Luigi of Pizzeria Luigi across the freeway in Golden Hill. He and Tom and Kevin of Balboa Bar and Grill teamed up to buy this place. “We were thinking lowbrow American food. We wanted a menu that was simple, and easy to control.”
“So what’s with the name Sister Ray’s?” I ask Tom as I pay. “We looked up the origins of chili,” he says. “And we came across this reference to Sister Mary of Ágreda in Spain. She lived in the 1600s when they were trying to convert the indigenous peoples of their conquered territories. She said that she could actually ‘bilocate,’ tele-transport herself in her sleep out to the New World around Santa Fe, talk to real people there. And that’s how she learned about chili, and kinda tele-ported the recipe back to Spain. And became the mother of chili.”
But a nun with a beard called Sister Ray? What does that have to do with the Spanish “mother of chili?”
“You’ll just have to listen to Velvet Underground,” he says.
This is when I hear Annie’s voice from outside.
“The Number 5!” she yells. “I’m not walking down that hill!”
Saved by the bell. I haul out. Guess we’ll have to come back and get the rest of the nun’s story next time. Maybe try tele-transportation instead of the #5?
Buses: 3, 5
Nearest bus stops: 25th and Market