He thought they were joking. Even when they had him standing on a horse-drawn dray with a rope around his neck. All he’d done was go for a joyride in a rowboat. He called it borrowing. They called it stealing. They needed to make an example of him. Someone whipped the horse’s haunches. It jerked out onto San Diego Avenue. It pulled the dray with it. It left Yankee Jim’s 6´3˝ body twitching in the San Diego sunshine.
Why am I thinking of Yankee Jim now? Well, it may have been 150 years ago, but it happened only 200 yards away.
720 Calhoun Street, Old Town
Other reason? I’m eating the Yankee Jim sausage on a stick. I’m outside Rust General Store, a place he might have known well. Because it was standing here already. Might have been a French bakery (yes, they had one even in the mid-1800s), and it was right here.
I’ve wandered into Old Town Plaza around sunset. Stopped at this little wooden house with a plank veranda and four or five slat tables in its dirt forecourt. Inside, red-stained wood shelves line the walls. Countless glass cookie jars sit stuffed with licorice, chocolate balls. Civil War–era “dessicated” (dried) mixes of “pocket soups” sit near 1850s-style pouches of chocolate for drinking. Iron triangle “Come and Get It!” chuck-wagon chow bells hang for sale. Hand-forged in Old Town. Kerosene lanterns (real!) go for about $21. It all feels like a set for a period drama.
Guy behind the counter looks part of the display. He’s dressed in no-collar shirt and cotton pants held up by big-button suspenders.
“How can I help?” he says.
“You do food?”
“Certainly. Our bistro is on that side. Here’s the menu.”
This is Mr. Abraham. Formal title from formal times, natch. He shows me the pages, stiff behind framed glass. And, turns out, everything you eat here is named after someone or something that’s part of Old Town’s history.
Call it learning by eating.
Breakfast — and Mr. Abraham says you can have it all day — includes dishes like the “Thomas Whaley,” which is rolled oats with peanut butter, dried cranberries, cocoa nibs, and a dollop of yogurt, for $5.50. (Whaley owned today’s ghostliest house in Old Town.) Or the Joseph Manasse, egg and cheddar cheese on bread, $5. (Manasse was an early German immigrant, store owner, rancher.) Or the William Smythe, egg whites with pesto and reggiano cheese, on bread ($5). Smythe? Journalist. Formed San Diego’s first commune, in San Ysidro.
Every sandwich tells a story. The $8 prosciutto-and-provolone Juan Bandini sandwich with apple on an herbed baguette honors the gent who built Casa de Bandini, which is now the plaza’s Cosmopolitan Hotel, three doors away. The “Agoston Haraszthy” is spicy chicken-and-pepper sausage in a pretzel bun with caramelized onion and herbed sour cream ($9). Haraszthy? Said to be the first Hungarian to settle in the U.S., ’Diego’s first town marshal, visionary who introduced 300 varieties of grapes to California.
’Course, a man could drown in history and starve at the same time. So, hey, some decisions, please?
I see they have really reasonable choices. Hot-pressed mini-sandwiches like the “Benjamin Hayes” (Hayes: ’Diego’s first district court judge). You get salami and cheese on a french roll for $2.75. Same price for the Thomas Wrightington. It’s a black-olive tapenade and cheese on a french roll. Thomas deserted from a whaling ship, reputedly the second American ever to settle in San Diego.
But I end up jumping on one of the few dishes without a historical name attached. The wild-boar chili with beans. Mr. Abraham and Miss Johnson, gal in an 1860s hoop dress who’s looking after the bistro side of the shop, both mention that the chili meat is made from real wild boar hunted in Redding, California.
And, man, what a choice. It costs $6, plus an extra buck for some herbed toast. But the taste is rich, filling, surprising. You’ve got the slightly hot chili, the strong meat, the black beans, a splot of sour cream, and a brilliant extra: little crackly cocoa nibs scattered across the top. They’re like pork crackling, only sweeter. Combo with the sour cream’s hard to beat. Good dunking with the herby toasted baguette slices, too.
I’ve ordered a coffee ($2, $1 refills) and that Yankee Jim sausage as well ($7). You can choose any of the sausages. I choose a “Richard Rust smoked pork and beef sausage” ($9 with pretzel bun, sauerkraut). Richard Rust himself? First county clerk. Owned this house. But 30 years after the Alvarado family built it in 1830.
So, the Rust sausage is a good rote wurst (“red sausage”), and comes with plenty of mustard. And could be a total meal in itself. But, no, the real seducer is this wild-boar chili.
Nice touch at the end: they give you three little licorice candies to freshen up your mouth.
Basically, the food seems to reflect the German immigrants who came over in the day.
But the other thing I love here is sitting outside, looking across the plaza, imagining everything that’s gone before. Bullfights, revolutions, fiestas. And realizing the people on this menu were probably here. Half the fun will be eating all the rest.
I call Carla, tell her about Yankee Jim. Her family’s been around since then.
“Yankee Jim? Bedford, guess who was foreman of the jury that hung him?”
“My great-great-great-grandfather. Family never talked about that too much.”
I raise a silent coffee toast to Yankee Jim.
720 Calhoun Street, Old Town
The Place: Rust General Store & Bistro, 2720 Calhoun Street (in Old Town Plaza), Old Town, 619-295-RUST (7878)
Hours: 9 a.m.–8 p.m. daily (till 9 p.m., Friday, Saturday)
Prices: Breakfast: rolled oats with peanut butter, dried cranberries, cocoa nibs, yogurt, $5.50; egg and cheddar cheese sandwich, $5; egg whites, pesto, reggiano cheese, $5; hot-pressed salami and cheese mini-sandwich, $2.75; black-olive tapenade and cheese on french roll, $2.75; prosciutto and provolone sandwich, $8; spicy chicken and pepper sausage, pretzel bun, onion, sour cream, $9; wild-boar chili with beans, $6, $7 with herb bread
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street, Old Town
Trolley: Green Line (also Coaster, Amtrak)
Nearest Trolley Stop: Old Town, 4005 Taylor Street, Old Town