Horse comes into a bar.
“Why the long face?” asks the barman.
Uh, okay. Old joke. It’s just that it comes to my mind as I look around this new place down by the trolley tracks. Striders. Took me a while to link the name up with what’s going on in here. ’Cause what’s going on is horse racing, all over the world. We’re talking a gambling joint like Caliente in TJ. Here, it’s eat, drink, wager. Has to be new for downtown.
“What can I get for you?”
This is Richie, the barkeep, to a new guy turning up at the bar.
Uh, first, can you switch one of those screens to the Oregon game? That’s really what I need to see.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure.”
And Richie starts playing with a kind of iPad remote at one of the screens. One of the gazillion screens.
“I mean, how many screens do you have in here?” I ask.
“Oh, 170,” he says. “We get live sports from all over.”
I guess. Like, everywhere you look, sports TV plasters the walls. The modern art of our time.
Me, I stepped off the trolley at convention center, and thar she blew, giant letters: “Now Open. Striders. Casual Dining Clublounge.”
It’s a restaurant space at the base of those two chocolate glass towers on Harbor Drive. Near the Martin Luther King “broken shackle” memorial. This tower shoots up into the sky, between two tall palm trees. Makes them look like dwarf palms.
But this restaurant looks way too sleek to be in my range. Except now — hey-hey! — they have another banner out.
“Happy Hour, 3–6 p.m. daily.”
So I step in to this odd-angled space with striped wooden floors, a sort of horseshoe bar, and sloping windows that look like the forward lounge of the starship Enterprise.
I slip into one of the tall orange seats at the bar.
Richie lays down a menu. “Beers are all $5, except Coors Light and Bud Light. They’re $4.”
Well, not bad, seeing they have a long list, all draft, including Hess beers like Solis Occasus, and Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Stout, and Port Mongo double IPA, all normally around $7–$8. Good selection. But Mongo, that cloudy orange hoppy-but-sweet drink out of San Marcos, I remember that. I order it for starters.
“Everything in the first section is $6,” he says.
I see “Smalls and Shares.” Normal prices range from $9 to $15. They have wings (usually $12), ahi stack with wonton chips ($14), two seared ahi or angus beef sliders ($15), and Margherita or prosciutto flatbreads ($13). Oh, and shrimp cocktail ($15) and calamari ($12).
So, six bucks for any of these sounds like a deal. I go for 12 bucks’ worth: the angus sliders and the prosciutto flatbread.
This is when I notice a steady stream of mostly dogged-looking people coming in and heading upstairs.
“That’s where you play the horses,” says Richie.
Huh. Have to go look while I’m waiting. Up the stairs it’s, like, the spaceship lounge, and a different feeling. Serious. It’s just as wallpapered with TV screens, but the people — men, mostly — are all listening to a race commentary and laying squares of paper out on tables, like they’re trying to work out a formula. One or two are glancing up at “simulcast guide” screens. “The Racetrack at Mardi Gras Casino, 4:30 p.m.” One says. “Flamboro Downs (Ontario, Canada), 5 p.m.” “Pompano Park Fla., 7 p.m.” “Australian racing, 7 p.m.”
Looks like greyhound racing, harness racing, or the nags. First thought: The Sting. Robert Redford. Remember the con with “live broadcasting”? No con here, but same feel.
“Uh, just wondering,” says Richie when I get back down. “Instead of the two mini angus burgers for $6, we have a special today, and it’s like a full burger sandwich of shredded pork with fries for $5. Interested?”
Turns out they’ve just cut the item from their menu. Have to get rid of it. Hmm. I was looking forward to the sliders, ’cause they promised Muenster cheese and bacon aioli, along with pickled red onion. But sounds like a lot of pork, and a buck less, so, well, okay.
And when it comes, along with the pizza, I’ve got myself a meal. The pork’s super tender, even if it doesn’t have that much flavor in the middle section. But around the edges, where I think they might have some balsamic reduction, it is super savory-sweet and addictive. And it’s mixed in with some of that finely shredded pickled red onion, which gives it tang and crunch.
But actually, the prosciutto flatbread’s the bomb. The roasted mushrooms are super-squelchy, the prosciutto is tender, gently flavored flakes, and plenty of them, and the brie is gooey slabs that perk everything up. Oh, and definitely balsamic reduction here, the sweet thang that takes this — pizza! And I don’t even like pizza — up into the realm of the celestials. The crust has enough crust, but it ain’t doughy, and it doesn’t overwhelm your mouthful.
Whatever, especially with the pork sandwich, I am filled to the gunwales.
Richie says it’s quiet tonight, upstairs. “Usually, you’ll hear the roar down here, guys yelling when a race is entering the last stretch.”
As I leave, I keep hoping to hear a roar from upstairs. But there’s only the whine of the race commentator — is that an Aussie accent? — then, silence. Guess this wasn’t anybody’s lucky night.
Except for me. I’ve still got half this pork sammie.
100 J Street, Downtown San Diego
Hours: 11 a.m.–10 p.m. (From 3 p.m., Monday, Tuesday; till 11 p.m., Saturday, Sunday); happy hour (daily), 3–6 p.m.
Happy hour prices: Striders wings (buffalo, spicy buffalo, or BBQ), $6; ahi stack with cucumber, avocado, wasabi aioli, wonton chips, $6; seared-ahi sliders, with onion slaw, avocado, $6; angus beef sliders, muenster cheese, pickled red onion, bacon aioli, $6; calamari, sweet chili sauce, $6; Margherita flatbread (mozzarella, tomatoes), $6; prosciutto flatbread with mushrooms, brie, arugula, $6; spinach artichoke dip, $6
Regular menu items: Blue Print burger with blue cheese, bacon, crispy onions, $15; chicken club sandwich, $12; mac & cheese, $10; yellowtail fish tacos, $12; strawberry salad, $10; tomato basil bisque, $6
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Convention Center
Buses: 3, 11
Nearest bus stops: #11, Market at Third; #3, Fourth and G (southbound); Fifth and G (northbound)