4229 Front Street, Hillcrest
"See the field?” says this guy waiting for the Number 3 bus. “Your place is just past it. Looks like the Little House on the Prairie.”
A field? In Hillcrest?
Carla and I have been up here visiting a friend at UCSD Medical Center, and now we’re looking for a place — any place — to eat. It’s been hours of waiting, and now it’s around 4:00 in the afternoon. Actually, the bus is here. Just no driver in it. He’s on a break — this is the end of his route. We have half an hour till he takes off again.
So, uh, field? Guess our friend means this grassy vacant lot across Front Street. Oh, yes. I see it: a li’l old clapboard house, sun-bleached blue. Looks like it’s been here since cows ruled this plateau. I can just read the sign. Letty’s Bean Shack.
“Guess it’s that or the hospital cafeteria,” I say.
“Start walkin’, boots,” says Carla.
The closer we get, the more inviting it looks. We climb up the little boardwalk and steps (they also have a ramp for wheelchairs, this being hospital-land), past the brown wooden decks surrounding the house, with tables, green umbrellas and a blue canopy, and white lattice fencing topped by varnished timber rails and lots of flowerpots. Cool. Very cool. Actually, very warm.
“Oh, look,” says Carla. “Bougainvillea and daisies and geraniums and…”
“And food. Smell that? Philly cheesesteak, I swear.”
There’s a big whiteboard right outside the door. It’s loaded with menu items — or are they specials? One’s a Hawaiian salad with mangos and pecans and blue cheese ($5.99), another is a BBQ pork sandwich with potato salad ($6.25). All sounds über-reasonable. We clump into this little parlor with one, two…five sunny tables, some looking out over the field, plus a counter and an open kitchen.
Carla grabs a window seat. “You choose,” she says. I pick up a menu. “Oh, wow,” I murmur, “they have breakfast.” Then I see that breakfast stops at 11:00. “We can do it,” says the waitress. Man, such good deals. Oatmeal and brown sugar is $1.84. A stack of pancakes or french toast with butter and syrup is only $2.99. A breakfast wrap with eggs, mushrooms, onions, rice, cheese, and hot sauce is $3.99. Add bacon, sausage, or ham for a dollar more.
“The most popular breakfast item is the bacon breakfast burrito,” says this guy Reggie. He’s one of the owners. The burrito stuffs bacon, eggs, potatoes, bell peppers, onions, and cheese inside for $4.60. But, heck, omelets are a deal, too. The Denver (ham, pepper, onions, cheese) with potatoes runs $4.75.
“No,” Carla says. “We’ll never catch up with our day, mindset-wise. Let’s do lunch.”
Okay, so lunch. Kung pao chicken wrap’s $5.50, a house pasta salad’s $3.50 or $5.50, gyros run $6.25 (with fries, pasta salad, or green salad). Ah, and there’s that Philly. For $6.75, they promise rib-eye steak, sautéed onions, and melted provolone on a roll imported from Philadelphia’s Amoroso bakery.
“But what about the stuff we saw on the board?” says Carla. “Like, what was the last one? Teriyaki mushroom burger? I could go for that.”
I get up, go back outside. Oh, yes. Interesting stuff. Chicken parmesan with spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread ($6.25), three beef tacos with lettuce and cheese ($5), that Hawaiian salad and the BBQ pork sandwich — couple of others, too... eight choices, altogether. The teriyaki mushroom burger with fries runs $5.98.
“They’re our daily specials,” says Reggie. “Ninety-five percent of our customers are regulars from UCSD across the road. We make a special effort to have lots of different specials every day.”
“I’ll take the teriyaki mushroom burger,” says Carla.
I catch the eye of Marcela, the cook. She’s working hard, sautéeing onions and other items on the griddle. “Good choice?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “But the BBQ pork sandwich is good, too.”
So I go for that. “Wow,” says Carla, five minutes later. “This is the first Hawaiian-style burger I’ve had that I’ve liked. The pineapple feels marinated together with the rest of it. Not just a bunch of flavors fighting in there.”
My BBQ pork sandwich is fine, and plenty of it, on a round bun with coleslaw and potato salad. Yes, they come in polystyrene boxes, and with the space this small table has, we have to choose between ripping off our lids or sitting at separate tables. We rip.
Reggie says this house goes back to the 1940s. And coffee’s probably been served here since thereabouts. And the whole garden-deck-flowers thing? “That’s Letty, my wife,” Reggie says. “She’s in charge of aesthetics.”
Phew. We sit back, fatter, wiser, whacked. “That deck’d be decadent for breakfast,” Carla says, looking out. “The morning sun, looking out over that field... Hey, ‘Letty’s Bean Shack…’ Remember the movie, The Milagro Beanfield War? Rubén Blades, Sonia Braga?”
“Oh, yeah. This could be the bean field…and it’s gonna be eaten up by developers, for sure. Just like in the movie — uh-oh!”
Across the field, I see the driver returning to his bus.
“Okay, Sonia,” I say. “We’ve got 30 seconds to get back to civilization, or we’re in the bean field for the night.”
I just make it to the bus. Carla comes puffing up behind me. “That was a dashing figure you cut, Blades,” she pants. “And I thought you only waddled.”
“Ooh. Ouch. You’re really Rubén it in,” I say.■
The Place: Letty’s Bean Shack, 4229 Front Street (at West Arbor Drive), 619-295-9900
Type of Food: American
Prices: Oatmeal, $1.84; stack of pancakes or french toast, $2.99; breakfast wrap (eggs, mushrooms, onions, rice, cheese), $3.99; bacon breakfast burrito (bacon, eggs, potatoes, bell peppers, onions, cheese), $4.60; Denver omelet (ham, pepper, onions, cheese) with potatoes, $4.75; Hawaiian salad (mangos, pecans, blue cheese), $5.99; BBQ pork sandwich (special) with potato salad, $6.44; Philly cheese steak sandwich (rib-eye steak, sautéed onions, melted provolone), $6.75; teriyaki mushroom burger, fries, $5.98; chicken parmesan (with spaghetti, salad, garlic bread), $6.25; three beef tacos with lettuce and cheese ($5)
Hours: 6:30 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday
Nearest Bus Stop: Front at West Arbor Drive