That North Park feeling in National City.

My sizzling beef steak skillet
  • My sizzling beef steak skillet

Grill House at Big Ben

108 East 8th Street, National City

At night, that long walk up from the 8th Street trolley stop to National City Boulevard can get a little spooky. Especially when you’re walking the echoey stretch under the I-5.

But then you cross the northbound on-ramp and you get up to, like, civilization. The Clarion Hotel, others. Desolate, but clean.

Then another block or two, and you’re in National City’s Old Town. McDini’s, one of the oldest bars in ’Diego (since 1890). Niederfrank’s (1948), oldest ice cream shop in the county. Bunch of old Victorian houses and brick Philadelphia-style row houses that Santa Fe built for railroad executives back in 1887. That’s when the big transcontinental railroad was gonna end here, not L.A.

Table planks are survivors of the big fire

Table planks are survivors of the big fire

Problem, charmwise, has always been the area surrounding it. But things could be changing. Because right now I’m standing in full jaw-drop. Can’t believe it. What used to be a parking lot by a dreary veggie market has been, well, transmogrified.

A big terrazza juts out over that old lot. It’s airy, glowing with varnished tables and cushioned metal chairs. Canvas sign reads, “Happy Hour 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. 99 cent tacos daily.”

Permanent sign above it reads “Grill House at Big Ben.” Big Ben? Oh, yeah. I remember this place. Used to be a big stucco barn with signs. “Check Cashing.” “Groceries.” “Liquor.” “Meats.” “Produce.” “EBT Accepted Here.”

And, yes, they were known for their prices. Also their carnitas.

Then they had a fire. Middle of last year. Now, tonight, ka-bam! This totally new building: “Big Ben Specialty Market” and its awesome deck.

Of course, this is Monday night, eight, so not exactly buzzing. There’s a family filling two tables, and a counter. Except the counter says “Please order inside.”

So I hike back out onto the sidewalk and turn in to the store proper. Wow. Looks like Whole Foods. Produce, meats, wines, olive bar. And on the right, prepared foods and a kitchen. Chafing dishes. Rotisserie chicken, ribs, crumbed fish, stews. Meats, chickens, carnitas, chicken adobo. Oh, yeah, that figures. After all, we are on the brink of Little Manila here.

I see they promise meals made from scratch, using hormone-free meats, food free of preservatives, fresh catch from local fishermen, and local produce, all served out on what the menu says is “reclaimed wood tables salvaged from the fire that engulfed the 65-year-old structure” of the old Big Ben Market that stood here.

That famous carnitas, the pork, you can get in a taco (3 for $4.99, or 99 cents each during happy hour), in a burrito ($6.99), by the pound ($6.99), or as a half-pound plate including two sides for $7.95; or, for $11.99, a whole pound of meat plus two large sides, enough to feed up to four, the sign says, or two pounds and sides, enough for up to eight hungry eaters, for $16.99. Not bad. That’s just over two bucks each. And they toss in 12 hot tortillas and a 16-ounce salsa with that.

And that’s before we get to the main menu overhead.

Martin, the guy standing behind the counter, isn’t getting twitchy, even though it is that time of night when the crew is starting to stack chairs, take away chafing dishes.

Man. Menu starts with Chinese and Filipino standards like kung pao chicken or chicken adobo at $7.95 a plate, then plates of, like, BBQ ribs ($9.95 for half rack, $18.95 for full rack) or a rotisserie chicken plate ($5.95 for a quarter chicken, $6.95 for a half), $6.99 for a bacon burger, $7.95 for Big Ben Pulled Pork sandwich. Or Mediterranean salad for $5.95.

But what catches my eye is they have skillets. Looks like a whole lot of veggies under a slab of chicken ($7.95), beef ($8.95), or fish ($8.95).

Martin with my beef skillet

Martin with my beef skillet

“Can you still do one?” I ask Martin.

“Of course,” he says. “We’re open till nine.”

“Do they come sizzling?”

“Of course.”

So I ask for the beef one. Plus a soda ($1.79) from the fountain. But what impresses me in the preparation is that Martin actually goes to the butcher’s shop on the floor and gets the guy to cut a slab of New York steak. Then to the vegetable section for some fresh veggies, onions, red and green peppers, kale, and takes them back to chop them up and cook them for my skillet dinner.

I head out to the deck and one of those shiny-varnish reclaimed tables. Ten minutes later, out comes Martin with that sucker steaming and sizzling and practically crackling. A crisscross-carved steak sits on top of a mountain of quick-sautéed green and red veggies.

I could have had rice with it but forgot to ask.

Only problem is with the drink. I pressed the lemonade tab and out came water. Only realized later, when I started drinking. No biggie for $1.79. But here’s what says it all for me: Benny (no relation to Big Ben) goes straight to a cooler, hauls out a huge 23-ounce can of Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear Lemonade with ginseng and honey, and hands it to me.

No extra cost. Classy. And this meal? It is so-o fresh and flavorful. I add some soy, which makes it super-delish. I sit looking out at the street, at the Union Bank across A, and on west to the coast.

“How is it when the sun blasts in?” I ask Benny.

“Oh, no problem,” he says, and sticks his arm around the wall. Shades come down. He points up above the hanging heaters. The louvered ceiling opens and closes automatically. “Nick [Salem] the owner spent $4 million on this,” he says.

They almost have a wine-and-beer license. Then they’ll have a real terrazza. “You don’t know how proud this makes us in National City,” says a gal who’s passing. “Before, you had to go to North Park to feel like this.”

  • Prices: Chicken adobo, $7.95; kung pao chicken, $7.95; BBQ ribs, $9.95 half rack, $18.95 full rack; rotisserie chicken plate, $5.95 quarter chicken, $6.95 half chicken; bacon burger (with fries), $6.99; Big Ben Pulled Pork “burger” sandwich, $7.95; Mediterranean salad, $5.95; chicken skillet, $7.95; beef skillet, $8.95; fish skillet, $8.95); tacos, carnitas or chicken, $1.66 (happy hour, 99 cents)
  • Hours: 7:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. seven days
  • Buses: 929, 932, 955
  • Nearest bus stop: E. 8th Street at A

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