Ginger beer and a chili dog, just like they ate in frontier times
It can be fun to play tourist in your own city, but that doesn’t mean we’re obliged to eat Mexican food when visiting Old Town. While traipsing about the historical park the other day, rather than sit down for enchiladas at one of the brightly decorated tourist trap restaurants, I wandered into Rust General Store, lured by a sign promising hot pretzels.
720 Calhoun Street, San Diego
This could probably be seen as trading one tourist trap for another, being that Rust General presents as an era-appropriate provisions shop, the sort we can imagine might have existed in the latter half of the 19th century. This would have been some time after Mexico ceded control, and the United States annexed our resource-rich state, thanks mostly to the California Gold Rush, which brought frontier fortune hunters even this far south.
Bulk candy in jars in Old Town
I don’t know that soft, Bavarian-style, steamed pretzels have anything whatsoever to do with this history, nor dill pickles on a stick — another advertised feature of the shop. But the ice cold sarsaparilla, housewares, and hand-forged iron goods, alluded to on the sign, at least sounds right. And walking into a general store stacked high on each side with bulk items on display in large glass jars certainly seems anachronous to any business operating in the current day that isn’t selling recreational cannabis.
A general store found within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Inside many of those jars sit a surprisingly thorough assortment of bulk spices. I spotted obscure offerings such as the Yemeni spice blend zhug, South African Peri Peri, and horehound, a cousin of the mint family. Actually, I found last one sitting among an equally comprehensive selection of teas. Alongside common blends including chai, Earl Gray, and English Breakfast are loose leaf imports such as assam black tea, lapsang souchong, and a variety of fermented pu-erh teas. On top of that, there are dried flowers and herbs for blending: in addition to the aforementioned horehound, there are jars filled with the likes of chrysanthemum, elder flower, and nettle leaf.
Which is to say, I ordered a chili dog.
Bavarian-style steamed pretzel with a spicy mustard blend
Apparently, Rust General Store leans hard on the meaning of the word general. Every time I thought I grasped the store’s purpose, something new would capture my attention. On the one hand, we see bulk candy, ice cream, and fresh baked cookies. Over here we have preserves, hot sauces, and cocktail shrubs. And behind the food counter, the pickles and pretzels are complemented by a sandwich menu that features standard deli cuts plus veal and pork bratwurst, and all-beef Hebrew National hot dogs.
Chili dogs definitely don’t adhere to any sense of San Diego’s mission, frontier, or Californio history, but the made in-house chili does feature wild boar, so there’s at least something in there that harkens to earlier American centuries. It’s a decent chili, loaded with a mix of black and pinto beans and not all that spicy, as though constructed with the intent of topping a hot dog.
Odds are low that I’ve ever pivoted from eating a chili dog with a side of old fashioned ginger beer, to drinking pu-erh tea. But on this day, that’s exactly what happened, and it happened in Old Town.