Trek Extra

Indigo Café

1435 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

“I starred in Star Trek. You don’t recognize me?” Bill looks at our blank faces. We don’t recognize him.

“Okay, so not exactly a starring role. I’m the guy in the gray jumpsuit with a hard hat. Kirk rides a bike past me. Two full seconds on-screen!”

So he was once an extra. But what’s true for sure is that he’s a star here at this half-underground place called Indigo — pretty much everybody seems to have come tonight because Bill the bartender is fun company.

Which is good, because it’s Saturday, the loneliest night of the week, as the song says, in this little Cortez Hill place with a few tables outside, a crowd of blue booths inside, and a full-drinks bar by the entry door. That’s where a clump of us sit like Lost survivors, huddling from the emptiness outside.

The walls are blue, with a low white acoustic tile ceiling and pictures of jazz greats, from W.C. Handy to Satchmo. Jazz plays on the sound system.

“Something to drink?” Bill asks.

He has on offer a bunch of beers from New Orleans, like Dixie Jazz Amber Light. Except that one’s $4.50, while Miller High Life is $2.75. No contest.

So, I slurp my Miller and lean over the menu. We’re looking at around ten bucks a plate, unless you go for New Orleans specialties like “shrimp-stuffed double-cut grilled pork chop with étouffée sauce and macaroni and cheese.” Man. Heart attack on a plate. That’s $18.99. At the other end of the price scale, breakfast starts at $2.79 for two eggs and cheese on an English muffin, or $4.99 for scrambled eggs, two bacon, toast, and hash browns. Man, wish it was morning.

“Hey, here comes Robert,” says Bill. “He’s with the symphony orchestra. We get half the symphony here when they’re rehearsing.”

Two gents come and settle into a booth. Bill already knows Robert’s cocktail.

“Hey, here’s the Seacrests,” says Bill now, looking out the window.

This couple, Joshua and Julia, come in with Joshua’s Navy buddy Stewie. They live farther up Cortez Hill. “We come here two, three times a week,” says Joshua. “It’s Bill. He makes it like our family living room.”

“And hey, here’s Jack,” says Bill.

Jack comes in and sits down next to me. He’s a big, solid guy, just retired from the Marines after 25 years. He’s here for a New York steak and a Vesper. (The cocktail James Bond named after the female agent he met in Casino Royale. It’s three parts gin, one part vodka, and a half of Kina Lillet — the French wine-and-quinine aperitif. Around six bucks, Jack says.) I see his steak comes topped with Gorgonzola butter and veggies and “garlic and goat cheese mashed potatoes.” Costs $16.99. “Probably pay 30, 40 bucks for this down in the Gaslamp,” says Jack.

So far, I’ve got to salads and soups. Hmm... Tiffany’s Salad sounds possible: grilled chicken on a bed of mixed greens, plus cranberries, golden raisins, feta, and sesame dressing…a good deal at $8.99 (it’s $6.99 without the meat, $10.99 with shrimp). And in the wraps section, everybody says the roasted vegetable with herbed goat cheese, spinach, and ranch in a wheat tortilla ($7.99) is great. But I’m thinking gumbo, or jambalaya, since this is supposed to be N’awlins cooking here. Bubba Blues Jambalaya has andouille sausage, chicken, and onions with a tomato base over rice for $9.99. Then they have Creole gumbo. With chicken it’s $10.99; with rock shrimp, $11.99.

“So, uh, what’s the difference between jambalaya and gumbo?” I ask Bill.

“Gumbo has okra,” he says. Of course. Now I remember our neighbor Linda-the-chef telling me, “Okra’s an African plant. Ethiopian slaves brought it to America. It’s also very gummy in texture. Makes gumbo thicker and adds a kind of eggplant, asparagus flavor.”

Hey, gummy — gumbo? Coincidence?

Joshua’s talking about ordering red beans and rice with grilled chicken ($9.99), and Stewie’s going for a Cajun cheeseburger (with pepper-jack cheese and chili aioli, $8.99). Julia orders a California Cobb salad (with grilled chicken, bacon, egg, avocado, diced tomatoes, Gorgonzola, and blue-cheese dressing, $8.99). Fact is, I’ve been hankering to try that Dixie Jazz Amber Light, and I’m betting it’d go with something light like a salad with chicken.

“Try Tiffany’s Salad,” says Bill. “Tiffany’s one of the owners.”

Why not? I order that. And the Dixie Jazz Amber Light.

The combo turns out great, even though I’m surrounded by New Yawk steaks to the right and luscious-looking Cajun burgers to the left. My Tiffany comes on a chic square white ceramic plate, a jungle of greens with golden grilled sliced chicken across the top. And sweet, almost oriental tastes, with the cranberries, raisins, feta, sesame.

A raggedy blues song starts playing. Stewie looks up from his burger. “That’s my hometown boy,” he says. “Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was from Wichita Falls. Like me.”

We listen and chew, we few, we lucky, this little warm blob of humanity of Cortez Hill on a Saturday night.

I ask Bill, “This what the Star Trek set felt like?”

The Place: Indigo Café, 1435 Sixth Avenue (near Ash), 619-702-6478
Type of Food: American, Cajun
Prices: Two breakfast eggs, cheese on English muffin, $2.79; scrambled eggs, two bacon, toast, hash browns, $4.99; roasted vegetable wrap with herbed goat cheese, spinach, ranch, wheat tortilla, $7.99; Bubba Blues Jambalaya, $9.99; Creole gumbo, $10.99; Tiffany’s Salad, cranberries, golden raisins, feta cheese, $6.99; with grilled chicken, $8.99; with shrimp, $10.99; red beans, rice with chicken, $9.99; Cajun half-pound cheeseburger (with pepper-jack cheese, chili aioli), $8.99; oyster or shrimp po’ boy sandwich, $9.99
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Monday–Friday; 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Saturdays; 8:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. Sundays
Buses: 3, 120
Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and Ash (3, 120 northbound); Fourth and Ash (3, southbound); Fourth and Date (120, southbound)
Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Fifth Avenue, at Fifth and C (three blocks away)

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Hey, Bill, you shoulda left this for me so I could taste all that Nawlins stuff. Anyway, Linda is wrong about what part of Africa okra and slaves came from: Not Ethiopia (in the northeast, the Horn of Africa) but from West Africa. ("The Middle Passage" was the route straight across the Atlantic from West Africa to the Americas.) A slave ship starting at the East African coast would have to sail all the away around the Cape of Good Hope before reaching the Atlantic. By that time, most of the "cargo" would be dead, given the conditions on those boats (with a huge mortality rate even on the shorter, direct route). So this is why American "soul food" includes okra gumbo but not doro wat, cornmeal grits (foo-foo) but not injera.

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