Barkeep Kimberly makes sure we appreciate the ham-burger.
4646 Convoy Street, San Diego
This restaurant-rich patch around Convoy and Balboa is one of my favorite areas in our fair city. So I’m glad to see business up here still looks just fine. Now, at 5 pm on March 10, the place is as busy as ever. I walk in to 4646 Convoy, the strip mall. Rakiraki, the ramen place, already has people clustered outside, waiting for tables. I’m thinking Korean. Except, from just beyond, I’m hearing guffaws of pub-type laughter and the smell of cigarette smoke. A few steps further, and here’s a patio-full of Falstaffian characters, sitting, quaffing, laughing, eating, and arguing about pronunciations.
“Plinny!” says this guy with big ruddy cheeks.
Charred chipotle and spicy avocado sauces sex up two of the tacos.
“Plyny!” says his drinking buddy. “Go ask Kimbo. Ask for a ‘Plinny the Elder,’ see what happens. She’ll probably give you a Bud.”
That’s it. I’m staying. I mosey in through the patio to the green-walled room. Not that you see much of the walls. Even on a Tuesday the place is crowded.
I sit at the bar’s last free stool. Now I’ve gotta know about this guy Pliny. I do a quick online check on Pliny the Elder. Man. The guy was awesome. Roman scholar, naval commander. He died trying to save a friend and his family in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii. He also talked up hops for beer.
So Kim the barkeep comes up. “I’ll have that,” I say.
“What?” she says.
“The Pliny,” I say.
“We don’t have ‘Plinny.’ Only ‘Plyny.’ That’s how the Russian River Brewery people say it, and it’s their beer. So what’s it to be?”
Sigh. Plyny it is. Specially as this is one of the few pubs I know with Pliny the Elder on tap.
O’Brien’s Beer Cheeseburger.
The owner, Tom Nickel, is a World Beer Cup Champion brewer himself, and he has nurtured just about the whole San Diego brewing scene from its get-go. The pub has been running since 1994.
But now I’m head-down in the menu. Big one too. And I notice the prices. They are so reasonable. Small soups, like the albondigas (meatball), go for $6 (large is $9). Small Caesar salad’s $5, $8 with chicken. Full-on Harvest Salad, with turkey, apples, and cranberries, plus gorgonzola cheese to put the bite in, is $12.
Turkey and Brie Melt on grilled sourdough’s $8. And hey, for pre-St. Paddy’s Day treat, why not corned beef and Swiss on rye for $7?
And now I’m spotting the little blackboard near the kitchen. Under a sign that says this is an “Official Chapter Bar of the American Outlaws” (Oh yeah. Soccer), a hand-written board says “Taco Tuesday,” and lists three tacos.
“Did you spot the Specials board outside?” says Kim. “Check that before you decide.”
Old friends gather
And out there I spot something so obvious, you never think about it: An actual ham-burger. A burger topped with ham.
“Burger patty topped with ham, bacon, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, $10,” it says.
I’ve never thought of that before, the question as to why it’s called ham burger if the meat’s straight beef?
Bit flush at the moment, so what the heck, spend $10 more, get one of each taco, and the ham-burger too.
And the tacos, they’re interesting. The first is confit duck ($4.50). Uh, “confit?”
“It means the duck’s cooked in its own fat,” says Kim.
It comes with salsa verde, and, unlike most of the duck I have ever had, is really tasty, savory, and not tough. Maybe because it’s cooked low and slow. The best thing is the spicy avocado sauce with cilantro, Serrano pepper, and sour cream. It makes that usually dull duck meat sizzle with flavor.
Middle taco is the shrimp ($3). Beer battered. With chipotle sauce. And the thing about this is there is a ton of shrimp, and they’re zingers. Some pepper in there knows how to hurt. Good though, and ain’t this what beer’s for?
The tofu Veggie Taco ($4) is nice and nutty, and so right for the flavor of the oversized corn tortilla. Maybe more rabbity than beefy, but that’s okay. It’s a Beyond Burger patty, salsa fresca, avo, and cabbage. And did I say tender?
“Oh God!” Kim is shouting. “A Raiders’ mug! I don’t touch Raiders’ mugs!” She’s reaching for one of the regular customers’ hanging glass mugs. It has a Raiders’ badge on its base. “I don’t touch Chargers mugs either. Specially not since Rivers left.”
My burger comes just as I’m starting to lean back and feel perfectly full. Dammit. I’ve got to get a handle on my gluttonous impulses.
Actually, it’s tasty, in a modest way. There’s the meat patty, slices of ham, slices of bacon, and grilled onions to wet it down and flavor it up. While I’m noshing, I check the history of the mystery: why’s a hamburger called a hamburger? For starters, “ham” didn’t start off meaning salted pork. It meant “back of the knee,” like the hamstrings of pigs’ legs. So forget “ham.” Name’s about where it came from, not what it is. It started in the 1800s as “Hamburg-style beef,” which was chopped meat eaten raw. Same with wieners: they came from Vienna (“Wien”), and frankfurters (from, uh, Frankfurt).
The thing about this place is it’s a real pub. Real atmosphere. Real passionate interest in beers. They rotate new beers in all the time, Kim says.
And, well, bottom line is, it’s kind of genial. You leave feeling better, and not just because of Pliny the Elder.
- The Place: O’Brien’s Pub, 4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa, 858-715-1745
- Hours: Monday, 10:30am-11pm; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 10:30am-12am; Friday, 10:30am-1am; Saturday, 11am-1am; Sunday, 11am-6pm
- Prices: Albondigas meatball soup, $6 (large, $9); small Caesar salad, $5, $8 with chicken; Harvest Salad (turkey, apples, cranberries, gorgonzola), $12; Turkey and Brie Melt, $8; corned beef, Swiss on rye, $7; the Big Nickel (2/3lb burger, cheddar), $13; Ham-Burger (meat patty topped with ham, bacon, grilled onions), $10; confit duck taco, $4.50; veggie taco, charred chipotle sauce, $4; shrimp taco, $3; harvest salad, $12
- Buses: 27, 44, 60
- Nearest Bus Stop: Convoy Street and Engineer Road