Statue of Liberty welcomes customers
I can’t believe it. But here’s the sign: “Hancock Street Cafe. Grand Reopening! Under New Management.”
3354 Hancock Street, San Diego
I swear. People are opening up all over (see last week’s column) in these worst of times. We’ve got to support these folks. They’ve been there for us in the good times in America’s Pickiest City. Meaning, we’ve been able to pick our snacking whims from the farthest reaches of Earth. Just saying: let’s keep snacking. One takeout at a time!
Erick, nephew of Mario, the original owner
This is partly why I’ve asked my buddy Erik to swing off Rosecrans and up Hancock Street into this serious industrial zone. At Sherman Street, we get out of Erik’s pickup and find ourselves among places such as San Diego Westy (“Specializing in repair and restoration of Vanagon and Westphalia campers”) and Sharpeye Surfboards.
But then I see what I came for: the Statue of Liberty holding her torch high, and holding her famous tablet (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free...”), and looking green and magnificent, despite layers of white pigeon poop on her shoulders.
She’s in the patio of a place I love, the Hancock Street Cafe.
“Whew. Still here!” I say to Erik. Because I first found this place about 15 years ago. That’s when I met Mario, the Polish immigrant owner who had become famous when he walked across America as a tribute to his wife Joanna after she died of cervical cancer. Then Mario had become even more famous as the wild and crazy guy who turned this unlikely coffee joint in an industrial backwater into a music mavericks’ haven. Many of the jazz-blues greats would turn up here after their gig at, say, the nearby San Diego Sports Arena. Mario had a piano always tuned and ready to go, plus a full band set-up as often as not, and also sold drinks and pizzas and classy hot dogs at musician-affordable prices. His walls were — and here they are still — plastered with dollar bills from fans who wanted to leave their mark here. The walls also are plastered with kitchen specials.
Even in these hard times, new energy in the Hancock St Cafe
“Hot toasted cheese melt w/side of marinara, $9.99.”
“Tuna sandwich, $4.99.”
“Special mimosa, $4.”
“Chardonnay, 2 for $6, all day long!”
“Chicken teriyaki pizza melt, $9.99.”
But that sign outside worries me.
“Under new management.”
“What does that mean?” I ask the guy who comes out from the kitchen.
“It means Mario passed away, two years ago,” he says, “and his daughter, Alexandra, has taken over. I am his nephew.”
Wow. Mario, gone. I start to ask him all about it when he says, “Look, I don’t want to be rude, but can you just decide what you want and then wait outside?”
His name is Erick. With a “ck.” I mean, he’s right: I completely forgot about all the rules. Social Distancing, whatever.
Oh. And this happens just at the moment I spot a row of bottles of exotic and ancient beer. Zywiec (since 1856), Warka (since, wow, 1478), and Tatra.
“Polish,” says Erick.
Dang. Have to try them. Except where, if not here?
So my buddy Erik (no “c”) and I look at our choices off of a small menu framed and tacked to the wall.
My kielbasa dog: big beautiful mess
Seven sandwiches and six pizzas.
“It’s reduced choice, because of the virus,” Erick says, “take-out only.”
Naturally, in the sandwich section, they have Polish Kielbasa, with sauerkraut, grilled onion, and mustard on an Italian roll. Costs $9.99. Or a bratwurst, same price.
I’m tempted by the chicken parmesan sandwich, or the meatball (also $9.99).
The 12-inch, thin-crust pizzas are all $16.99 (except for the $13.99 cheese pizza). The bratwurst, meatball, and Polish kielbasa sound okay, but the most crunchy-interesting are the veggie (with bell peppers, olives, marinara), or the breakfast pizza, which comes with 2 eggs, cheese, hash browns, plus “a topping of your choice.”
But, sorry pizzas, ’tis a bratwurst chili dog that captures my heart. It’s a huge bratwurst under chili with beans, topped with shredded cheese on a toasted Italian roll, all tied up in strings of sautéed onion and that melted shredded cheese.
Buddy Erik orders two slices of pepperoni pizza.
“Sorry to hear about Mario,” I say to Erick. “Do you guys still have music happening here? Is the studio still there behind the curtain? Concerts out back?”
I’m thinking of how the Beat Farmers came here, and how a member of T-Rex gave an impromptu performance at an after-concert get together. All of that gave this a magic atmosphere for the rest of us.
“No more,” says Erick. “That was Mario’s thing.”
Then he goes out back to make and bake.
We end up eating lunch in Erik’s silver pick-up, like police detectives, watching all the activity at the Westy VW Vanagon place across the road. “Nice flaky dough,” Erik says as he tears at his pizza slice.
“How was yours?”
I lick my lips. Taste of herby sausage, the onions, the melted shredded cheese, the lightly peppery chili. Finger-licking good, if we could lick fingers any more.
“Messy,” I say. “Not dry. Nice chili mess. Yours?”
“Good, but mainly because of this flakey pizza dough. OK. Let’s go check out those Vanagon, Westphalia, whatever. I’ve always wanted one of those pop tops. I’m starting to get the fever.”
“The fever?” Lord, can you pick it up that quick?
“Vanagon fever, buddy. Highly infectious. You haven’t got sixty Gs you can front me, by any chance?”
- The Place: Hancock Street Cafe, 3354 Hancock Street, Midway-Sports Arena area, 619-408-2101
- Hours (take-out only): 10am-9pm, daily (closed Sunday)
- Prices: Hot toasted cheese melt w/side of marinara, $9.99; spaghetti, $6; tuna sandwich, $4.99; chicken teriyaki pizza melt, $9.99; Polish kielbasa on toasted Italian roll, with sauerkraut, grilled onion, $9.99; bratwurst sandwich, with sauerkraut, $9.99; chicken parmesan sandwich, $9.99; meatball sandwich, $9.99; 12-inch cheese pizza, $13.99; bratwurst pizza, $16.99; veggie pizza (with bell peppers, olives, marinara), $16.99; breakfast pizza (with 2 eggs, cheese, hash browns, plus one topping), $16.99; bratwurst on toasted Italian roll with chili, beans, cheese
- Buses: 8, 9, 28, 35
- Nearest Bus Stops: Rosecrans at Moore