A char-cheese burger with grilled onions and cheddar, $12.50 including fries
Whether for work, fun, or plain hunger, I reckon I’ve tried a good six or seven hundred San Diego restaurants over the years. But at remarkably few can I claim to know the whole menu.
3448 30th Street, San Diego
The one menu I know by heart is Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria. Back in 2007, before I was writing about San Diego restaurants, the original North Park location (3448 30th Street) probably fed me more than I fed myself. It was a short five-block walk to affordable lunch or dinner — a slice of pizza or two, a sandwich, a Chicago hot dog and fries — and I took that walk often.
When I claim to know every menu item, it’s more that I’ve tried every ingredient in one form or another. Lefty’s offers thirty different toppings on three different styles of Chicago pizza (thin crust, deep dish, and indulgent stuffed pies). Counting every permutation would take more mathematical effort than I’m willing to exert while in isolation, but I can tell you with statistical certainty that most of the best combinations start with Italian beef and giardiniera peppers.
Take-out burger and beer craving satisfied by Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria in North Park
Yes, I’m talking about the same Italian beef Lefty’s puts on its beef dip sandwiches, but as a pizza topping. A-plus.
Open for 16 years now, Lefty’s remains family owned and operated, but it doesn’t feel like enough to call Lefty’s a family restaurant. It’s more like an extended family restaurant. Whether those working behind the counter have been related or longtime employees, there’s always been the same spark of friendliness. Not the nicey nicey, sun-baked friendliness common to So Cal, but the snappy, what-you-guys-want kind of banter practiced by Chicagoans.
Like, how most of the crew took to calling my old roommate, a fellow Chicago transplant, “DB” (not his initials). Partly because he always asked for modifications, mostly because he rooted for the Green Bay Packers, not the Bears (a Second City betrayal). My friend didn’t even try to shirk the nickname, by the way. To this day, he lets them know it’s for DB when he phones in a pizza order.
Sixteen years a family-run neighborhood food counter
Most of my visits, even in the years since I moved out of North Park, I’ve known the person behind the counter of Lefty’s by name: Dave, Shawn, Vita, Karen, Luke. And the same can be said about my latest visit, my first since the coronavirus appears to put every small business in town in jeopardy. Luke took my phone order — I recognized the mop of hair over his facemask when I picked it up.
I don’t think anybody recognized me behind mine. Dining with anonymity is a part of this Feast-writing job I’m good at. Even people I know don’t always recognize me. But there was the same jocular welcome, regardless. Lauren, one of the owners, offered to sanitize my credit card, as I paid. I slowed her down only to add a last minute slice of pizza to my order. Deep dish pepperoni. They keep the slices behind glass, right there at the counter. There’s really no way to avoid going home with one.
I try a lot of new restaurants, and have even managed to try a few new ones since all the dining rooms closed. But Lefty’s epitomizes the kind of place I want to support with my limited spending during this crisis. It’s fed me well at times I could barely afford it and dishes up some of my absolute favorite San Diego comfort food.
It’s way more than pizza. Sometimes it’s Italian beef. Sometimes it’s the spot-on turkey and avocado sub. Sometimes it’s the Al Capone pasta: linguini with bacon, basil, and artichoke in a tomato-cream sauce. This week, I found myself seriously craving a cheeseburger and French fries. So I went for one of the best in town. Lefty’s char-cheddar burger with grilled onions has never failed to fill the burger-shaped hole in my belly.
I took it home, poured myself a glass of local beer, and dug in. It felt great to channel a bit of that good feeling Lefty’s provides. This will be a fine weekend.