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Sand Castle Cafe: where the Sweetwater river actually looks sweet and clean and countrified

Booming business at the San Diego KOA Resort

The entrance to the Sand Castle Cafe.
The entrance to the Sand Castle Cafe.

The green islands break up the windblown sheets of water. It looks like an archipelago seen from a plane. But we’re only on a bridge, 15 feet above the Sweetwater River.

Place

San Diego Metro KOA

111 N 2nd Ave, Chula Vista

That’s just the start of the whole unreal thing here. You cross the Sweetwater like you cross the Rubicon. On the northern side, cityscape, on the southern side, dragons, lakes, trees, and hey hey: for the next ten minutes, anyway, food. Because this is a kind of fantasy land you stay at — in your tent, a cabin, or your RV. Games, pool, nature, the whole nine yards. It’s ten minutes to one. I pass the sign just across the bridge. “San Diego KOA Resort.” Turns out KOA stands for Kampgrounds Of America.

Gal at the office says I might still be in time. “The ‘Sand Castle.’ A couple of minutes along the road,” she says. I head right down. Only things I have to worry about are people in F-350s towing their massive caravans back out to The World, or yellow T-shirted staff bouncing along in yellow, leaf-loaded golf carts, or kids on bikes heading for the pool. It’s green, clean, and above all, quiet.

Jana

“If you’re quick,” says the woman behind the little window, Jana. I’m standing at one end of this collection of tree-lined tables and a driftwood palapa. I walk in under aqua, yellow, orange umbrellas. All I can hear are the shouts and laughter of kids in the pool on the other side of a big green hedge. Gotta check the menu quick. As usual, didn’t have time for breakfast, and it turns out brekky stops at 11 am. This being winter hours, we’re down to lunch, and just until one. Lessee. Oh, I should go with my first instincts here, because for $5, they have two battered and fried fish tacos. That would take care of business. But natch, wandering eye, and I’m seeing sandwiches from $12-$14; burgers, $13-$15; salads, $11-$14; fish and chips, $13; and oh, another deal: hot dog and French fries, $7.

“Our pulled pork sandwich is especially good,” says Jana. “We cook it and pull it ourselves.” Menu says “Pulled pork, Carolina BBQ sauce, topped with coleslaw and served with fries, $13.” I’m almost tempted by the bacon and blue cheese burger for $15, or the “grilled cheese [sandwich] for adults,” with bacon or ham, plus American and provolone, $12. But an awful lot of carbs there, plus Jana’s waiting, and I can see she’s trying not to yell “Make up your freakin’ mind! I’ve got dishes to wash, money to count!” Actually, what she says is, “Our pizzas are pretty popular. We get fresh pizza dough from a local pizzeria, we hand-stretch each pizza, we make our own pizza sauce.” Dang. Wish I loved pizzas better. They cost from $11 for a cheese 10-inch to $26 for their 16-inch signature “Boss Hog,” loaded with bacon, pulled pork, cilantro, Carolina bbq sauce, and onions.

Good honest salad. Main thing: it’s fresh.

Jana says she loves it here. “I was a cake decorator at Walmart. I love decorating, but Walmart...well it’s a long story. I came here six years ago and never looked back.” So I go for the pulled pawk, and add a garden salad (okay, it’s $10, but big) as a conscience aid, when suddenly I see they have local beers. Dang it. This will be the second week I’ve had beer for breakfast. Should have a frank talk with myself, but no time right now, heh heh. It’s just that all their beers are local, and one is made specially for them: the KOA Campfire Amber, by Bay Bridge Brewing, “Chula Vista’s first brewery.” Costs $9. It is a nice, nutty-sweet glug. Besides, it’s hard to get a sense of urgency here. Everything is so-o relaxed. Even the odd fly on the table just kinda saunters away when you whoosh him off. Healthy eating tomorrow!

Meanwhile, the thing about my pulled pork sando is they roast the pork overnight. “Then we then pull it the next day,” says Jana, “and then when someone orders the sandwich, we add the Carolina bbq sauce and reheat them together. So the sandwich has that Carolina vinegariness, but there’s also our home-made cole slaw dressing. It is very sweet, so they mix well together.” The salad is nice and fresh. It has bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and black olives today. And croutons.

KOA’s front door: beneath the concrete, a verdant world flows.

I’m wondering: will this place be dead, once fall sets in? “No way,” Jana says. “We’re sold out on the weekends pretty much until the first of the year. It’s our Fall Fest, every Saturday in October. Kids love it! Pumpkin carving, the whole nine yards. We’re packed.” Turns out they’re open year-round. “Business is very good. Even better since covid, actually. Because when there was nothing else you could do during lockdown, people would come here.”

She leaves me to chomp into my pulled pork sandwich and marinated fries and slaw. She’s right about those two sauces mixing. It’s luscious. I sip on my nutty Campfire Amber. Who knew this world-within-a-world was here, right where the Sweetwater river actually looks sweet and clean and countrified? Guess all I need now is a tent, and someone to share it with.

Actually, all I need right now is a 20-minute siesta. That Amber was great, but it makes sleep feel like the only option. Next time, I’m gonna come early and have that Big Hot Mess breakfast ($10), a scramble of eggs, potato, bell peppers, onions.

And definitely down it with a regular coffee.

  • The Place: Sand Castle Cafe, at SD KOA (Kampgrounds Of America), 111 N. 2nd Avenue, Chula Vista, 619 427-3601 ext. 1107
  • Hours: 8am-1pm Monday to Wednesday; till 7pm Fridays; till 5pm Saturdays; Sundays, breakfast only, 8-11am
  • Prices: Two fish tacos, $5; hot dog and French fries, $7; pulled pork sandwich with fries and cole slaw, $13; Boss Hog Port Side pizza, with bacon and pulled pork, 10-inch, $15, 16-inch, $26; western burger with onion rings, bbq sauce, bacon, fries, $15; fish and chips (3 pieces), $13; carne asada fries, $14; KOA BLT, $12; garden salad with crispy chicken, $14; grilled cheese for adults (sandwich with bacon or ham), $12
  • Bus: 961
  • Nearest bus stops: Sweetwater Road & North 2nd Street, or at 30th and L
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The entrance to the Sand Castle Cafe.
The entrance to the Sand Castle Cafe.

The green islands break up the windblown sheets of water. It looks like an archipelago seen from a plane. But we’re only on a bridge, 15 feet above the Sweetwater River.

Place

San Diego Metro KOA

111 N 2nd Ave, Chula Vista

That’s just the start of the whole unreal thing here. You cross the Sweetwater like you cross the Rubicon. On the northern side, cityscape, on the southern side, dragons, lakes, trees, and hey hey: for the next ten minutes, anyway, food. Because this is a kind of fantasy land you stay at — in your tent, a cabin, or your RV. Games, pool, nature, the whole nine yards. It’s ten minutes to one. I pass the sign just across the bridge. “San Diego KOA Resort.” Turns out KOA stands for Kampgrounds Of America.

Gal at the office says I might still be in time. “The ‘Sand Castle.’ A couple of minutes along the road,” she says. I head right down. Only things I have to worry about are people in F-350s towing their massive caravans back out to The World, or yellow T-shirted staff bouncing along in yellow, leaf-loaded golf carts, or kids on bikes heading for the pool. It’s green, clean, and above all, quiet.

Jana

“If you’re quick,” says the woman behind the little window, Jana. I’m standing at one end of this collection of tree-lined tables and a driftwood palapa. I walk in under aqua, yellow, orange umbrellas. All I can hear are the shouts and laughter of kids in the pool on the other side of a big green hedge. Gotta check the menu quick. As usual, didn’t have time for breakfast, and it turns out brekky stops at 11 am. This being winter hours, we’re down to lunch, and just until one. Lessee. Oh, I should go with my first instincts here, because for $5, they have two battered and fried fish tacos. That would take care of business. But natch, wandering eye, and I’m seeing sandwiches from $12-$14; burgers, $13-$15; salads, $11-$14; fish and chips, $13; and oh, another deal: hot dog and French fries, $7.

“Our pulled pork sandwich is especially good,” says Jana. “We cook it and pull it ourselves.” Menu says “Pulled pork, Carolina BBQ sauce, topped with coleslaw and served with fries, $13.” I’m almost tempted by the bacon and blue cheese burger for $15, or the “grilled cheese [sandwich] for adults,” with bacon or ham, plus American and provolone, $12. But an awful lot of carbs there, plus Jana’s waiting, and I can see she’s trying not to yell “Make up your freakin’ mind! I’ve got dishes to wash, money to count!” Actually, what she says is, “Our pizzas are pretty popular. We get fresh pizza dough from a local pizzeria, we hand-stretch each pizza, we make our own pizza sauce.” Dang. Wish I loved pizzas better. They cost from $11 for a cheese 10-inch to $26 for their 16-inch signature “Boss Hog,” loaded with bacon, pulled pork, cilantro, Carolina bbq sauce, and onions.

Good honest salad. Main thing: it’s fresh.

Jana says she loves it here. “I was a cake decorator at Walmart. I love decorating, but Walmart...well it’s a long story. I came here six years ago and never looked back.” So I go for the pulled pawk, and add a garden salad (okay, it’s $10, but big) as a conscience aid, when suddenly I see they have local beers. Dang it. This will be the second week I’ve had beer for breakfast. Should have a frank talk with myself, but no time right now, heh heh. It’s just that all their beers are local, and one is made specially for them: the KOA Campfire Amber, by Bay Bridge Brewing, “Chula Vista’s first brewery.” Costs $9. It is a nice, nutty-sweet glug. Besides, it’s hard to get a sense of urgency here. Everything is so-o relaxed. Even the odd fly on the table just kinda saunters away when you whoosh him off. Healthy eating tomorrow!

Meanwhile, the thing about my pulled pork sando is they roast the pork overnight. “Then we then pull it the next day,” says Jana, “and then when someone orders the sandwich, we add the Carolina bbq sauce and reheat them together. So the sandwich has that Carolina vinegariness, but there’s also our home-made cole slaw dressing. It is very sweet, so they mix well together.” The salad is nice and fresh. It has bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and black olives today. And croutons.

KOA’s front door: beneath the concrete, a verdant world flows.

I’m wondering: will this place be dead, once fall sets in? “No way,” Jana says. “We’re sold out on the weekends pretty much until the first of the year. It’s our Fall Fest, every Saturday in October. Kids love it! Pumpkin carving, the whole nine yards. We’re packed.” Turns out they’re open year-round. “Business is very good. Even better since covid, actually. Because when there was nothing else you could do during lockdown, people would come here.”

She leaves me to chomp into my pulled pork sandwich and marinated fries and slaw. She’s right about those two sauces mixing. It’s luscious. I sip on my nutty Campfire Amber. Who knew this world-within-a-world was here, right where the Sweetwater river actually looks sweet and clean and countrified? Guess all I need now is a tent, and someone to share it with.

Actually, all I need right now is a 20-minute siesta. That Amber was great, but it makes sleep feel like the only option. Next time, I’m gonna come early and have that Big Hot Mess breakfast ($10), a scramble of eggs, potato, bell peppers, onions.

And definitely down it with a regular coffee.

  • The Place: Sand Castle Cafe, at SD KOA (Kampgrounds Of America), 111 N. 2nd Avenue, Chula Vista, 619 427-3601 ext. 1107
  • Hours: 8am-1pm Monday to Wednesday; till 7pm Fridays; till 5pm Saturdays; Sundays, breakfast only, 8-11am
  • Prices: Two fish tacos, $5; hot dog and French fries, $7; pulled pork sandwich with fries and cole slaw, $13; Boss Hog Port Side pizza, with bacon and pulled pork, 10-inch, $15, 16-inch, $26; western burger with onion rings, bbq sauce, bacon, fries, $15; fish and chips (3 pieces), $13; carne asada fries, $14; KOA BLT, $12; garden salad with crispy chicken, $14; grilled cheese for adults (sandwich with bacon or ham), $12
  • Bus: 961
  • Nearest bus stops: Sweetwater Road & North 2nd Street, or at 30th and L
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