Crew jinks: Shayna (in blue), Leslie (behind), Cody
‘When God’s not in heaven, He’s in Jamul,” says Dr. Don. “I know it. I feel it.”
12891 Campo Road, Jamul, CA
This is my 84-year-old bar neighbor, out here on the Campo Road. Just met him. I’ve happened in on a kind of celebration, because Valentin’s Bar & Grill is just now re-opening, post-lockdown.
So yes, we’re out in the country here. Looking to hear the evening yips of coyotes in the hills. Got off the 894 country bus where Campo Road meets Steele Canyon Road. Found myself looking at a nicely weathered chocolate-colored wooden place.
Yes, it’s fish, and chips, but scrumptious, and only ten bucks
I headed along the veranda. Tables and chairs outside, but through the open windows I saw people, at high tables and along a bar, going at it like a class reunion.
Then facing the Campo Road, a hand-sprayed sign. “Now open daily, 11am-10pm.”
“They only re-opened four days ago,” says Dr. Don.
“And we’re not Valentin’s any more,” says this gal Leslie. “Now we’re ‘Steele 94,’ because we’re at the junction of Steele Canyon Road and Campo Road, the 94.”
Turns out Leslie used to be a barkeep here. Now she is one of the new owners. “Before Valentin, this place was famous as the ‘Greek Sombrero,’ for maybe 30 years. And we decided to hold a vote among Jamul people for a new name, and this is the one they chose. What can I get you?”
Dr. Don Sauter
The menu features starters, salads, and “main events.” On the other side, it has “Seafood Saturday,” “Sides,” and “Daily Specials.”
I go straight to today’s special, “Fish Fry-Day: $10 basket of fish and chips, craft draft beers, $5 each pint.” Huh. Fish and chips sounds a good idea, specially in this cooler weather.
Leslie comes up. “Dr. Don, when are you coming back to eat? Did you say 6:30?”
“Yes, and I want to make sure I pick up the tab,” says Dr. Don, “because they give me all of their mash.”
“Mash?” I ask.
“I have six acres, just around the corner. When I had more animals, I picked up lots of mash — tailings from the brewing process — because that is great feed. The brewery needed someone to come pick it up for them. I have had emus, two pot-belly pigs, six Nubian goats, one pygmy goat, and seventeen cats. It’s great for them.”
Dr. Don’s 100-year-old mom Clara
Dr. Don is a retired psychologist, the founder of a church out here, plus a fount of stories. But Leslie is champing at the bit for an order. So I ask for a Jamul Brewery beer like the one Dr. Don’s drinking. Jamul Brewery set up in the back yard right next to him. They name their beers after local landmarks. Like Peg Leg Mine Amber Lager. I get Lyons Peak American Pale while I do a quick perusal of the menu. Daagh! Fourteen chicken wings for $14, with carrots and celery. Three sliders for $13. Ooh: Elote bites — battered corn bites with chipotle cream — for $10, taco salad with beans and carne asada for $14. Then in the “Main Events,” bacon-wrapped dawgs, $12, El Patron burger with 1/3lb beef patty, bacon, fixings, for $15; or, maybe the most interesting,The Cowboy burger, with smoked tri-tip, onion ring, jack cheese and BBQ sauce , $14.
“You should make a reservation for tomorrow,” says Dr. Don. “We have Lobster Night, Fridays and Saturdays.”
“Well, it was my idea. I said to the previous owner, Valentin. ‘It’s a shame you don’t do lobsters.’”
“And Valentin said, ‘I can do lobsters.’ And I said, ‘I’ll bring in 15 people next week if you’ll do lobster.’”
Now it’s a regular specialty. The lobster dish costs $40 for 8 ounces of Baja lobster with veggies and rice. You have to make a reservation.
The other splurge item is the Baja Trio, which is carne asada, grilled chicken, and shrimp, with grilled veggies, cheese, rice, beans, and tortillas, $28 for one person, $35 for two.
Me, I can’t resist that $10 Friday fish and chip deal, and so glad I didn’t. With the sunset and the cool weather settling in, the hot, oh-so crunchy battered fish — tilapia, someone says — has none of that “fishy” smell. The French fries are nicely crisp, and the tartar sauce, and a squeeze of lemon tang it up and mix well with the Lyons Peak lager.
“My family has good genes,” Dr Don is saying. “My mom had her first motorcycle ride at age 99. She just died at 103. My grandad died at 104. He was born in Kentucky in 1868. He knew people who knew Abraham Lincoln. He died in 1972. In his first 25 years, they still didn’t have cranes, airplanes, automobiles, television, radio, telephones... and when I bought an airplane business in Orange County, he said ‘I want you to fly me back to Missouri,’ I said, ‘Grandad, it would be cheaper for me to put you on a commercial airplane. First of all, you’ve got to go to the bathroom, and I only own a little plane. It doesn’t have a bathroom.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can always land in somebody’s pasture.’ That was the world he knew.”
- The Place: Steele 94 (ex-Valentin’s Bar & Grill), 12891 Campo Road, Jamul/Spring Valley, 619-518-3805
- Hours: 11am-10pm daily
- Prices: Sampler (hot wings, flautas, elote bites), $24; crispy beef taco, two for $12; 14 chicken wings, $14; three sliders, $13; elote bites (battered corn bites chipotle cream, $10; taco salad, carne asada, $14; bacon-wrapped dawg, $12; El Patron burger, bacon, jalapeños, $15; The Cowboy (smoked tri-tip, onion ring, jack cheese, BBQ sauce), $14; chorizo burger, grilled onion, cheese, $14; Baja Trio (carne asada, grilled chicken, shrimp), $28 one person, $35 for two; lobster (8oz, veggies, rice), Friday and Saturday only, $40; Specials every day, e.g. Fry-day fish and chips, $10; Burger & Beer Mondays, ($10. Includes All American burger, domestic draft beer or house wine)
- Bus: 894
- Nearest Bus Stops: Campo Road at Steele Canyon Road