At McDini’s you eat history, one corned beef sandwich at a time
Oh Lord. It stands in front of me, sparkling, sending dewdrops down its side.
“Come on, come on,” it says. “Just one sip.”
It’s a stein of beer, 32 ounces, the kind you’d see in Oktoberfests. Bud inside. Costs $7. Now Rosie comes by with two more in her mitts. “I think we’re the only place in town with these 32-ounce mugs,” she says. “But don’t hold me to it."
For sure I haven’t seen them elsewhere.
Now she heads for a table of guys who started work early, finished early. Probably at NASSCO or at BAE. These two steins have dark beer in them. “Newcastle Brown,” she says, “$10 each.”
Normally I wouldn’t be even looking at a brewski this time of day (about two on this roasting afternoon).
Just had an ice cream (see Niederfrank’s blog), but two minutes being beat on by the sun, and I find myself wandering in to the shade of this nameless place, just to get into shelter.
Fact is I remember this place, and I remember that they have this corned beef thing going. McDini’s has been serving corned beef and cabbage since, if you can believe, 1890. Back then they were located downtown at Fourth and Market. It was the three Italian Dini brothers who started it up as the Goodwill Café. Then Mike Dini Sr. and his two brothers decided to add a “Mc” to the place’s name and turn it into an Irish eatery specializing in corned beef and cabbage. Mike Sr. became known as the “Italian Leprechaun.”
So yeah, I’m walking into the holy grail of San Diego eateries. The oldest restaurant continuously operating in San Diego, 123 years. They should have a plaque or something.
Okay, it does look a little down at heel. Pretty dark paint around the stage where they have bands come play on the weekends, and a kind of well-worn feel. Papery material covers the walls. Looks like that’s preparation for a make-over.
I set up at the bar, near this guy Mike (“People know me as Wolverine,” he says). He’s the guy with the stein of Bud.
Oh man, I could do with that. But I’ve got hours of work got to stay awake for. So instead, when Rosie comes up, I ask for a coffee. She says she’ll make a new one, and leaves the big, well-thumbed plastic menu with me.
And the first thing you notice is the announcement on Page Three:
“‘A Meal In A Sandwich’ Winner of the 1939 Best New Food Item at the San Francisco World’s Fair!”
Then it tells you about the winner, its “world famous corned beef sandwich meal. Thick roasted corned beef slices piled up high on grilled rye bread with tangy mild horseradish. Served with a choice of side & dill pickle.”
“I’ll take it,” I say, and choose dirty fries as the side, and not too long after, Rosie brings the big long plate with the sandwich aboard.
And yeah, they have piled the corned beef mightily, along with red onion slices and the pickle and a pot of horseradish. Love horseradish.
But maybe the stars of the plate are the dirty fries, meaning wide-cut fries with their skins on. Not sure if they cooked them with, like, paprika, but they taste tangy and squishy and delicious.
So how do they fill this cavernous space?
“We have hip-hop and islander music live on Fridays and Saturdays,” says Rosie. “This place gets packed.”
It may have been going 123 years, but they’ve got new owners in the last year.
That may explain why the McDini’s sign has been blacked out outside.
I know this place had a near-death experience 5-6 years back when Mick Dini sold the place to the gent who owned the furniture store across the street. He was going to turn McDini’s into more furniture store, till his son persuaded dad to give McDini’s a lick of paint and put it back in business. For one thing St Paddy’s Day wouldn’t be St. Paddy’s Day in National City without McDini’s big celebration.
Mike and I kinda chat our way through half an hour. He’s a pipe-fitter with BAE, the outfit that repairs ships next to NASSCO. He grew up right here in National City. “My dad left the service and bought a house here in 1954,” he says. “House cost $10,000. My dad paid $200 down. Under the GI Bill, he could have secured it with a $10 down-payment. Different times.”
So I have to ask what they’d take from the menu here if they got shipwrecked on a desert island with one item of food from the menu to eat for the rest of their lives.
“The steak,” they say together, and laugh. Rosie says their top sirloin steak goes for $13.95, including potato side plus veggies and roll.
I like the place. Rough? Yeah, a little. You’re not going to bring your La Jolla girlfriend here. But like they say, heart of gold.
Me, I think it might be this corned beef sandwich that I’d take to that island. Heck, I’m full and I haven’t even started the second half.
’Course if I’da had that stein to wash it down, it might have been a different story.