Rockin' Baja, Toscana, and the perfect afternoon

Ed hits a wine bar and then a lobster restaurant

Irena the hostess says sit where you like during Toscana’s happy hour.
  • Irena the hostess says sit where you like during Toscana’s happy hour.

Toscana Café and Wine Bar

238 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Bai tío? It’s a Thai phrase. Sounds like bye tee-oh. Been picking up a few of these from Thai friends.

To bai tío means to go out and have fun, screw around, don’t do anything, like, responsible. Love it.

And, this could be one of those days! Finished a job this morning, did some chores, and now it’s past 4:30 p.m. That’s it. Taking the rest of the day off. Got exactly $30 lining my pocket. Carla’s working, can’t be interrupted. So, what the heck: Bai tío!

Only rule? The bai tío rule: got to spend every penny.

I get off the bus at 12th and Imperial. Whip into the A-Mart, grab a $1.25 coffee, a country-fried-chicken cheeseburger (like a burger, only with a chicken patty, not beef) for $5, add a fruit salad for $3.99, and head over to a narrow counter that looks out over the trolley tracks. This counter is where the trolley drivers and security guards hang out, write their reports, eat lunch

Ten minutes’ walking time later, here I am up at Fifth and K. Figured I might stop off somewhere for happy hour. I mean, it’s five o’clock somewhere? Hey, it’s five o’clock here: Transit Center’s clock tower is donging right now.

I take a quick survey of happy-hour possibles. Look in at Lou and Mickey’s, the Chicago seafood-and-steak house. But you have to sit in the out-of-the-sun narrow sidewalk seats if you want the happy-hour specials, not their beautiful big flowery patio facing the convention center. Next door, in the Hilton Gaslamp? Nada. Rockin’ Baja Lobster, at Fifth and K? Good happy hour, but they separate the happy-hour customers here, too. You have to sit inside at the bar. Second-class citizens? Nuh-uh. I wanna be where the action is.

Last place I try is Toscana Café and Wine Bar, across from Rockin’ Baja. Irena, the Russian girl at the welcome podium, says to sit where you like, happy hour’s on (it’s daily, 3:00–6:00 p.m.). and they have Stone Arrogant Bastard draft for four bucks.

I sit down at one of the red-brown marble-topped tables in the patio. Chairs are woven black metal with orange cushions. Scarlet geraniums burst out of boxes on the windowsill. Classy.

For happy hour, you get a choice of some of the dinner appetizers at half-price. Bruschetta’s normally $9.95, so that’d be $5. A white-bean Mediterranean dip with veggies and grilled garlic crostini is also $5. Prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella’s normal price is $15.95. So, figure $8.

But the one I go for is the sausage plate. “Slices of grilled Italian sausage and chicken-applewood sausage served on a bed of baby arugula tossed with olive oil and lemon.” Costs $6 during happy hour. Tim the waiter comes by and I order it up, plus the A. Bastard, natch.

The sausages looked like skinned cats’ tails but were delicious.

The sausages looked like skinned cats’ tails but were delicious.

The sausages when they come look like skinned cats’ tails, long, thin sausages sliced lengthwise. But they’re herby, light, totally delicious. The salad’s got some sweet vinegar in it, which gives a nice boost to the sausage flavors. Arrogant Bastard goes great, too, with its hoppiness against the slightly sweet package of the herby sausages and sweet-sauced arugula.

Bonus: Tim brings me three toasted crostini with dark, sweet balsamic vinegar squirted over them to round out the salad-sausage combination. No charge.

I sit, chomp, slurp, listen to the sound system playing “The Lady Is a Tramp.”

But the greatest pleasure comes when the setting sun suddenly angles up K Street from the bay and floods the whole patio in golden light. The red geraniums are electric. And it only hits our patio. Folks on the street notice it and come in to be part of it.

Nine bucks plus tax I’ve spent here. Add in the $11 from A-Mart. Twenty down, ten to go.

I cross K. Crowd at Rockin’ Baja Lobster seems to be having fun…even at the bar where the happy-hour customers are corralled. Oh well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I head in.

Place is covered in Baja murals, Baja memorabilia, lotsa signs: “If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance”; “Same Day Service”; “Drink till he’s Cute.”

I get a Bud Light ($4)…big taste comedown from the Arrogant Bastard. Then I find out I could’ve had Dos Equis Amber or Tecate for the same price. Dang.

Travis, guy on the next stool, is working on a plate of Gnarly Nachos ($7); he’s added chicken for an extra two bucks. Plus, he’s got some “Sweet and Spicy” calamari ($7). In a, like, soup plate with a handle.

“Try the calamari,” Travis offers. “It’s really good.”

Rockin' Baja Lobster — Gaslamp

310 Fifth Street, Downtown San Diego

I lift one from his plate. It’s great, sweet, a little hot. But seven bucks…I go for one of the $3 “outrageous” tacos instead. And, hey, it’s Taco Tuesday, so $2.

The tacos do have outrageous names, like “Taco Chingones” (don’t even ask). But I’d rather have Surf-and-Turf. It seems like only a second before the chef’s putting it down in front of me, steaming hot.

It’s a rich little number. Carne asada chunks, two big juicy shrimp, plus avocado, cheese, red onion, cilantro, tomato, and a stripe of mayo-ish sauce, all crowded aboard two corn tortillas that look as if they’ve been grilled. Oozy-delicious.

Oh, man. Now I’m truly feeling belly-stretched. But still got a couple of bucks left.

I head back out onto Fifth.

That’s when Carlos Cerecero comes by with his guitar. He’s dressed like a gypsy troubadour, a red bandanna tied around his brow. He’s doing the café rounds.

“I’ve been singing on this street since 1953, when I was ten,” he says. “It used to have 300 nightclubs in the Stingaree. Now it’s…changed.”

I haul out my last two Washingtons.

“Do you know ‘Malagueña Salerosa’?”

“‘La Malagueña’? Of course.”

He belts out a beautiful version of the story of the salty lady from Malaga. It’s always the first one I ask for when I go to Tijuana, a Mexican song about this poor guy trying to seduce a fine Spanish lady. The song’s not just saucy, but haunting, plus the guitar work’s pretty darned difficult. When it’s done well, that’s a good day.

This is a good day.

Perfect, actually. The whole afternoon.

Makes me remember another phrase my Thai buddies taught me: sanuk di.

“That was fun!”

  • Trolley: Green Line
  • Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp
  • Buses: 3, 11
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Fifth Avenue at Market Street (three blocks north)

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