Flaco plays the flames like a conductor. He thrusts his hands into them and flips half a dozen patties in short order. Smoke bulges up like a Nevada test cloud.
“Sundays are always crazy,” he says. “Tonight we stay open later.”
Man. I’m so glad. I had just missed the 28 bus back to Old Town from Liberty Station. Only one per hour this time of this night. Quicker to walk the mile and a half down Rosecrans. So I’m humping my way east, when I get to the Arco at Lytton. Huh. Maybe save time if I take that. So I walk down this gloomy street along the edge of Liberty Station. Starting to wonder if this was a good idea, when I notice a little sign glowing red through bushes: “OPEN.”
But what is it that’s open? Cross the road to find out. Get closer and I see the whole corner is hidden in a mini-forest. Another sign peeks over the bushes.
“The Hole In The Wall.”
2820 Lytton Street, Liberty Station
There’s a guy at a table outside. Behind him, a gate with steps leading down through the trees. I’m hearing music, crowd sounds. “Do you guys have food?” I ask. “Sure. Just go down and ask for Flaco.”
Huh. Mysterious-er and mysterious-er. Natch, I head down the stairs to — whoa — a packed patio of people dancing all at different levels and drinking around fire pits. It feels tropical. It keeps on going down to where I can see a grill flaring with flames, and beyond that, a lower bar. Another sound there, karaoke, sounds like. It’s all kind of open to the stars, with occasional corrugated iron roofing.
Man. Talk about secret San Diego! This is so cool. Am I the only guy who hasn’t heard of this?
“I don’t know,” says this barkeep, Krysta, “because this place has been here a long time. Since 1924.”
Wow. Almost a century! I ask for a pint of the house IPA ($7), and get set to ask Krysta about that history, but she hauls off to serve up a Bacardi house pitcher called the “Mai Guy,” ($14).
Besides, now I’m picking up whiffs of that flaming grill.
“The Holey Grill,” says the menu. Cook’s name is Luis. (“But everybody calls me Flaco,” he says. It means “skinny,” and I guess he is). I scan through the menu. It’s basically burgers and hot dogs. The burger choices are “the skinny,” (“El Flaco”), and “the fatty,” (“El Gordo”). But the skinny ain’t. It’s “a heaping half-pound of all-beef burger with cheese.” Costs $7. “El Gordo” ($9) is “El Flaco” plus “bacon and heaps of avocado.” They also do a turkey burger ($7), and a veggie burger ($6).
Then there are the dogs, filled with their own innuendo. “El Grandote,” a 12” hot dog “cut for flavor,” ($4); the “Spicey Pole” (Polish sausage), also $4; and the “Mexi-Pinga,” which is El Grandote plus cheese, bacon, and grilled onions ($6).
These prices are really good. You also get a free bag of chips with each burger. I go for the El Gordo. Flaco throws it together in one minute, snatching the patty and onions from the flames and then carving out a huge chunk of avo and dunking it on top.
In the party atmosphere, it is totally delicious. Specially with their house IPA. It goes down real easy.
“Where are you?” It’s my friend Mary, texting. She’s just out of her night teaching class. So I tell her what I’ve discovered, and it ain’t too long before she’s walking down the steps, eyes wide open.
“Wow,” she says. “I thought I knew every dive bar. Nobody told me about this.”
I go with her to the food stand, and she orders a Flaco Burger. Hmm. Forty minutes since I gulped mine. Why not? I order up a Mexi-Pinga hot dog. (I like that you can get as many grilled onions as you want.)
Things are getting nicely crazy. Group of guys and gals are Karaoke-ing “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places,” but really professionally. Cheers ring out as somebody wins a raffle, which has earned $500 for a good cause, and now the Holey Grill is so busy, Flaco’s partner Sirenia is taking the orders. “We’ve made about 130 burgers already tonight,” she says.
Mary says this has to be one of the tastiest burgers she’s had in a long while. My dog is spicy on its own, but twice as much with the onions and a hot sauce I sprinkle on. Tons of avo cool it down.
I order another IPA, and a lager for Mary. Have to ask Krysta what this place is doing in a, like, hole in the ground? Turns out it’s an actual hole people dug about 110 years ago to access an aqueduct that ran between Mission Bay and San Diego Bay. She says this location has a special feel, a reputation as a refuge. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, a picnic spot, and in the 1940s became a safe place for the gay community, “which is what we honor on Sundays,” she says. “The rest of the week, this is just an ‘everybody’ bar.”
I notice she’s looking a little stressed. “I’m supposed to be catching a seven o’clock flight to Boston tomorrow morning, see my family for the first time in three years,” she says. She slides our beers to us. “Didn’t expect such a crowd. Guess I’ll just have to forget sleep. Make it a daylight red-eye.”
- The Place: The Hole In The Wall, 2820 Lytton Street, Liberty Station, 619-996-9000
- Hours: Thursday, Friday, 4pm-2am; Saturday, 4pm -12am; Sunday, 12pm - 10pm; closed Monday - Wednesday
- Prices: El Flaco burger (1/2 lb patty, cheese), $7; “El Gordo (El Flaco plus bacon, avocado), $9; turkey burger, $7; veggie burger, $6; El Grandote 12-inch hot dog, $4; Spicy Pole dog (Polish sausage), $4; Mexi-Pinga (El Grandote plus cheese, bacon, grilled onions), $6. Some days, food trucks
- Bus: 28
- Nearest Bus Stop: Rosecrans and Lytton