‘Donkey Kong’s at the back left,” says the guy at the welcome podium. “Go for it, brother.”
789 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
My friend Annie and I head inside, and into the ding-dong cacophony of a hundred different arcade games going at once. First thing you notice: this neon sign saying, “You’re killing me, Smalls.”
“What da?” I mutter.
“Don’t ask me,” says Annie. “I’m Scottish.”
Turns out it’s a line from The Sandlot, the coming of age movie from 1993. Ho-kay.
Second thing you realize: there’s nothing from the present in here. This is Coin Op. And everything is coin-op games. It’s all eighties kitsch, video games, basketball-throwing contests. It’s an arcade, an ‘80s carnival midway. Right here in the Gaslamp.
They have a bar and they have eats, but where it’s at is the machines: the video games. You can see the players here grew up on these machines, from the way they lay their hands on them, light up, and regress thirty years. Eating’s just to fuel up. What I like is people are doing stuff. Not just hanging around, guzzling. They’re all like kids again.
I specially want to go try Donkey Kong, because my friend Lucas is big on his Donkey Kong prowess. “First time I went there I scored 122,700. By far the top score,” he told me. “Next highest was around 50,000. I saved Princess Pauline!”
Uh, right. Whatever. But first, fuel up, right? And the good news is it’s happy hour. “Okay. Let’s eat,” I say.
“No, no,” says Annie. “No way I’m eating arcade food! Buy some for Princess Pauline. I’m going to play.”
She starts off into the dark recesses, towards the pinball games. I head for the square bar in the middle of the room and set myself up on a li’l orange stool chair.
“Happy hour?” I ask this guy who’s big enough to be on WWF. But with a merry face. Felipe.
“You’ve got it!” says Felipe and slaps a plastic menu in front of me.
So first off, I look at their liquor list. “All draft beer, $2 off,” says the menu. That means everything’s between $5 and $7. I get the Nut Farm Walnut Milk Stout from Silva Brewing in Paso Robles. Their HH price, $6. Wines all go for $6, too.
But it’s the food menu I really like the look of. I mean, it ain’t no encyclopedia of choices, but pricewise, what they have is great. Starts off with big pizza slices for $2.50, chicken wings (choice of buffalo, spiced rub, Vietnamese, or orange chicken) for $7, or nachos with queso sauce, chorizo, avocado, and sour cream. In the burger department, they do BBQ pulled pork sliders, “slow braised,” with slaw; and quinoa sliders with pickles, arugula, tomato, and “Coin-Op sauce.” Each costs... $3! Or, for $10, you can get the full Coin Op burger and a beer of the day. A side of fries costs $3.
For me, no contest. I order one each of the $3 sliders and a slice of pepperoni pizza. Total, $8.50. With the beer, $14.
Honestly, I don’t hold out hope for a great gastronomic experience. It’s the deal which feels really good. But here’s the thing. Arturo the chef brings out my order and I start noshing in on his quinoa slider, because I’m curious, and half expecting vegan nuts and twigs that are good for you and totally tasteless.
Except, mamma mia! First up, it’s crunchy. The “meat” patty is crispy-edged and nutty-flavorful. Savory.
Next, I pick up the BBQ pulled-pork slider. It’s a wet and messy affair, but with a toasted bun, and a beautiful sweet flavor to the pork.
“It’s the slaw in there that has the flavor,” says Arturo. “I make it sweet and savory. And there’s the BBQ sauce. But also, at the end, I pour in some orange juice and Mexican Coke, plus our secret confit, and I mellow it with green salsa. This is pulled pork Mexico City-style. The quinoa recipe I got from San Francisco. I like to try things. I started here as a dish washer. Now I’m chef. Have been for the last year and a half.”
Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing right. Because these two sliders are totally delish.
The pizza is fine, but I really don’t need it. Get talking to a guy named Mark. He’s actually playing Pac-Man, the granddaddy of this video games revolution.
“Been playing it for 20 some-odd years,” he says. “It still gets me.”
I notice this long strange room behind him, all lit up like a, well, teenager’s bedroom. It’s loaded with bunks, stacks of video cassettes with titles like Gremlins, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mad Max, Back to the Future, About Last Night, Rocky, and of course, Ghostbusters. One wall has Rubik’s Cubes dotting it. Mr. Potato Head’s here too, plus ancient video games, and Nirvana and AC/DC posters, old boom boxes, you name it. “We have a guy who comes and lives in here, three evenings a week,” says Felipe. “He just talks to people and flings his yoyo around. We call him Yo-Yo Joe-Joe. Ain’t nothing he doesn’t know about the eighties.”
I swear. Eighties museum!
I find Annie at the pinball arcade, playing The Munsters.
“Just a minute!” she says. “Concentrating here.”
I hang around for five minutes while she dings her way to some fantastic score. Then suddenly she’s done. “Can we go?” she says. “I’m starving.”
“You’re killing me, Smalls.”
But hang on, dang it, I forgot to play Donkey Kong! What to tell Lucas? Think I’ll say, “Lucas? Guess what? I scored 122,701. Beat you by one, pal.”
Yes. That would get a rise. Now the question is, how we gonna feed Scottish Annie?
- The Place: Coin-Op Gaslamp Game Room, 789 6th Avenue, Gaslamp, 619-546-6441 (Also North Park)
- Prices: Happy hour items include pizza slices for $2.50; chicken wings for $7; nachos with chorizo, avocado, sour cream, $7; BBQ pulled pork slider, $3; quinoa slider, $3; Coin Op burger and beer of the day, $10; side of fries, $3. Regular prices include French dip sandwich, $14; fried chicken sliders, $13; buffalo cauliflower, $9; loaded potato bites (cheddar, bacon, chives, sour cream, tomato), $11; carnivore pizza, $19 ($4 by the slice); Coin Op burger, $14; banana split, $8; tres leches cake, with caramel, mezcal, $8
- Hours: 4pm-2am, daily (Kitchen open till 1am)
- Happy Hour: 4-7pm Monday-Friday