518 E. Main Street, El Cajon
Peanut butter on a burger?
I had to come to El Cajon to find it. But here it is, staring up at me, the black-grilled burger slab, glistening slats of bacon, a lava ooze of melted cheese, the lettuce, the tomato, the two big buns, and slathered on one of them, this way-thick wad of peanut butter.
I squish them together, do my boa-constrictor jaw-open trick, and chomp. The burnt tang of the meat, the salty chew of the bacon, the herby ooze of the cheddar, and then comes the crunch through the lettuce to…sweetness.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been introduced to handling sweet and savory together in all those Filipino meals down in National City, but this goes straight to the pleasure centers of my brain. It’s, like, why didn’t I have this idea and become a millionaire from it already?
Of course, this is all an accident. Being on Main Street El Cajon these days, first thing you think of is Chaldean food. I was heading in to the Chaldean-run Big Bear Produce store, where you can get take-out anything Middle Eastern, from kebabs to bulk hummus.
But right before Big Bear, I pass this new-looking frontage with a curved rock wall, varnished wood-framed windows, and a warm light coming out from inside.
So I’m thinking, maybe bar food? I decide to do a quick rekky.
“The End is Beer,” reads a little sign.
“Uh, you do food?” I ask the gal at the bar.
Guy to the left laughs. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Ask about their fish tacos.”
“It’s Tiana’s Taco Tuesday,” says the bartender, Dria — it’s short for Alexandria — as she hands me a well-thumbed plastic-covered menu. “Tiana’s our chef. Her fish tacos are $2.50 each. And they’re big.”
Then she’s gone, back with other patrons. Because, even though it is Tuesday, this place is rockin’. Not packed, but clumps of people surround the bar, more filling up the beer garden out back, and guys playing pool here in the main room.
You can see they’re serious about beer here, too. They have a big framed chart showing “The Very Many Varieties of Beer,” which looks like a family tree going back 50 generations.
And they have two dozen craft beers on tap. Not a Bud in sight.
Turns out that Steve, the guy on the next stool here at the bar, knows his beers as well. He’s a bartender at Twisted Manzanita Brewery just up the road in Santee. He says Manzanita has exploded in the past two years. Now they’re selling to Japan, South Korea, Australia, all over the world, including a bunch of our states. And they’re coming up on their fifth anniversary.
“D’uh...” I look to Steve.
“Well, Knee Deep Hoparillo is pretty good,” he says.
I notice the board has a lot of craft beers from outside the county, which is refreshing. Knee Deep Brewery’s from the Sacramento area. Great, except the Hoparillo is triple IPA and 11.2 percent alcohol. Not sure I can handle that on an empty stomach. I end up with a Lagunitas Cappucino Stout. Still strong at 9.2 percent, but delish in a coffee stout sorta way.
Natch, I start off with the “big” $2.50 fish taco. But it’s when I’m coasting through the burger section that I notice the last choice at the bottom of the burger page.
“Handmade 100 percent Angus beef patty, served with smoked bacon, grilled onion, cheddar cheese, and layered with Jiffy Peanut Butter. Lettuce and tomato on the side, $10.”
“It’d be a crime not to try,” I say. And when it comes, I realize: This is a new burger day! I could be witnessing the dawn of the Peanut Butter Burger Age.
Because it works. That sweet-savory thing sets the bells clanging in your mouth. The peanut butter is sticky, tasty, and just plain unexpected in a gritty, grilled burger. Plus, the grilled onions are a little sweet, too; the bacon is thick and crisp without being dry; the fries are hand-cut, and the bun is from Sadie Rose. That bakery’s buns have airy insides and crispy outsides. Love them.
And the conversation’s so danged interesting. Steve’s studying to be, like, a sommelier of beers. He knows his history. And then I do a web search. Turns out the adding of peanut butter to burgers may be new, but peanuts themselves are way old: they go back 7600 years, to places like Bolivia. Peanut butter was supposedly an Inca treat 3000 years ago.
But Steve wouldn’t go with this Elvis burger if he had to pick one item off the menu. “That’d be the Irish Reuben,” he says. “It goes with beer so well.”
But so does my peanut butter burger: The glooping effect of the sticky stuff practically forces you to take a slurp with every bite.
And the taco? Plenty of fish. Beer-battered, with chopped cabbage, tomato chunks, tartar sauce, and a kicky little hot sauce named after Tiana.
Foodwise, I’ve ordered too much. But it means I take half the burger home, and when Carla and I heat it in the oven and split the pickin’s, dang if it’s not even crispier and tastier the second time around.
I swear, if I knew anything about business, I’d be starting my own Peanut Butter Burger chain tomorrow.
Prices: Irish Reuben (corned beef on rye with sauerkraut, Swiss), $9; patty melt, $9.50; Tavern salad, with grilled chicken, $9.50; peanut butter burger, with smoked bacon, grilled onion, cheddar, PB, $10; chiulio cheeseburger, $9.75; daily lunch special (Monday to Friday), Tavern burger plus soda, $6; meatball sandwich (Saturday only), $5
Kitchen Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Monday–Thursday; till 12:00 a.m., Friday; 12:00 p.m.–12:00 a.m., Saturday; noon–10:00 p.m., Sunday
Happy Hour: 3:00–7:00 p.m., Monday–Friday (appetizers $4.50; select beers, $4.50)
Buses: 815, 816, 888, 894
Nearest bus stops: East Main Street at Ballantyne Street