Jealisa and coworker
‘Baaa!” bleats the li’l white goat.
“Humbug!” I say back to it.
He’s stuck in a little corral off Dehesa (“Pasture”) Road. I’m stuck way the heck out here south of Alpine with nothing to eat and no place to eat it at. Someone swore there’s a BBQ place out here, and open. Heck, I’ve starved all morning for this country treat, nice and safe away from COVID crowds. I’d looked it up online. “It’s Lit BBQ Place,” it was called. “Open 11:30 am-6 pm.”
“Not open,” says the guy who runs Ranch Market and Feed in the gravel patch next door. “They’ve been closed a while.”
Good fresh stalks and leaves and ranch make this indulgence pretty healthy.
But then he mentions one thing: “There’s a casino up the road that has eateries open 24-7.”
Ten minutes later, thar she blows, rising out of the countryside, this 12-story orange and cream and black hotel.
I’m relieved to see they have a non-smoking entrance, except the difference seems to kind of collapse once you’re in the belly of the beast. The guard takes my temperature. It’s okay. Now I pass lots of dark walls between the flashing gaming consoles. Huge screens show mostly old football games and women’s wrestling. It all has the atmosphere of something that never closes.
5469 Casino Way, El Cajon
“Rank & File,” says this big sign. “This is our main restaurant right now,” says Jealisa, the welcoming gal. “We have a lot of military and ex-military and families. So it’s to honor them.”
The main thing here is a big square bar. What you hardly notice are the transparent screens they’ve installed between each bar stool. Also, natch, a screen you can gamble on while you drink and eat.
Of course, I’m hunting down bargains, but starters start and end at $11, for garlic cheese fries, rolled tacos, chicken tenders, baskets of onion rings, skins, cheeseburger sliders, and pretzel bites. Only cracks in the united $11 front are wings ($13), and nachos ($13).
On the other hand, wings and nachos also have half orders, $9 for wings and $8 for nachos.
My half order of wings
And then I spot another crack under “soups and salads.” All salads range from $14 to $16. But soup of the day is $7 for the bowl, and hey, $4 for a cup. And the zinger is, you can have soup or chili. So, fellow gamblers, shall we start off with a cup of chili and crackers, and see how we make out after that? This could be the $4 lunch! Plus — hey, hey —10 percent savings as a newly-minted Member of the Sycuan Casino. We could be talking a $3.40 lunch. Sweet.
That’s the plan, but okay, my eyes are already roving the menu. See what else is out there. Like, the soup and half sandwich looks a reasonable deal at $12. A single burger’s $11. Double’s $14, and the triple stack, $17. But even that looks cheap against some entrées. Short ribs with veggies are $24. And if I had my druthers, I’d snap up the ribeye steak. One pound of meat topped with a blue cheese demi-glace, plus au gratin potatoes and glazed carrots. The damage is $26.
Ricky. He’s been here 20 years.
But there are relative bargains: Beef Stroganoff on noodles is $17, fish and chips are $16, and chicken mac’n cheese goes for $16.
In the end, I should’ve stuck to the $4 cup of chili. Because it turns out to be quite a bit, and — maybe because I am peckish — specially delicious. I ask the server, Ricky, who says he’s been working here 20 years, just what’s in the chili. “Basic black beans, chili beans, chili powder, onions and onion powder, and diced tomato,” he says. Then he utters a magic word. “Oh, and cumin.”
Aha! It’s cumin that adds the lemony, nutty, earthy flavor that I’ve been enjoying. I would come back for this chili alone.
Then I make a half order of wings with gochujang, the sweet Korean BBQ sauce (I could have had buffalo or garlic parmesan). I have to admit, these wings are so-oo sweetly seductive, so livened up by fresh lettuce and carrot sticks, that now I’m feeling I can handle a few more carbs. So I shoot for the potato skins ($11 for six). They’re filled with bacon bits, melted cheese and green onions. Simple? Let’s just say simply wicked, helped by Thousand Island.
Not that anybody seems to notice. As I eat, most people around here are sitting at the bar, shielded by their screens on either side. Food’s going into their mouths, but their eyes are only on the spinning slots in front.
Skins: what $11 buys.
The new hotel. They have been playing games of chance here since the early 1980s.
I pack half of this to take home. Seats are starting to fill up. Blackjack tables are happening. And now I notice they also have a Chinese restaurant open, the House of Fortune. Dang. But maybe the most interesting thing in this palace is a big fat book on display. It’s a lavish production that sells for $60. It reminds you that exactly where we are was a Kumeyaay neighborhood by the Sweetwater River for 10,000 years.
I’m thinking about that as I hike down past dehesas (pastures) towards the river. That’s when I hear this little bleating going on. I bleat back. We bleat to and fro. It gets more intense. Oh man. This cute li’l white goat wants me to let him out.
Or is it a she? Also gotta figure out how to get back to town. But having a full belly and a new friend makes it feel not such a problem after all.
- The Place: Rank & File, at Sycuan Casino, 5469 Casino Way, El Cajon, 619-445-6002
- Hours: 8am-midnight, daily (till 1am, Friday, Saturday)
- Prices: Garlic cheese fries, $11; rolled tacos, $11; chicken tenders, $11; onion rings, $11; potato skins, $11; cheeseburger sliders, $11; pretzel bites, $11; wings, $9, $13; nachos, $8, $13; Cobb salad, $16; soup of the day or chili, $4, $7; wings, $9, $13; soup and half sandwich, $12; single burger, $11; double, $14; triple stack, $17; short ribs, $24; beef stroganoff on noodles, $17; fish and chips, $16; chicken mac’n cheese, $16; 1lb ribeye steak, $26
- Buses: Sycuan, when running (Covid conditions apply. Call to check)
- Nearest Bus Stop: Sycuan Casino