It’s smack on 4:44.
“Yea. Yeah! Yea!” “Good jaa-ob!” “Hasta la mañana, baby! Woo-hoo!”
The voices just keep on rising to a roar. The setting sun flares on the horizon, then glows angrily like a stubbed cigarette. Then gray clouds swallow it whole.
The crowd’s leaning over the railing of the Lahaina Beach House deck. “Don’t forget to come back!” yells someone. Then when it’s gone, a strange silence. I guess everyone’s taking a glug of cerveza to toast that li’l ball that keeps us all alive.
Me, I’m sitting on this Pacific Beach seawall still feeling a little thin after last week’s celebrations. My biggest problem is this fat, steaming burger of mine is gonna get cool before I can really chomp into it. And a gang of gulls stands waiting for me to look away, just once, so they can fly in and grab one of the fries.
Because this burger was a total surprise. I was heading along Mission Boulevard to Grand Avenue to catch the #30 back downtown, had a few minutes spare, decided to see if I could catch some actual green flashes, good sign for the New Year and all, seeing the ocean was only a block away and it was such a brilliantly nice end of day. Maybe catch the #8 back through Mission Beach instead.
Man! Everyone and their dog was out on the boardwalk. From smiling saunterers to hardbodies with stern faces. Plus every kind of wheel. Like silent dodge ’ems. Only noise came from the beachfront booze barns, with football jocks hooting when someone took that pigskin a few more yards forward.
But then I come on this cluster of 1940s-looking kiosks. Their ancient salt-air-blasted timbers look like they have been recently painted over for the umpteenth time, each one in a different color: green, aqua, white, cream, blue.
It’s that blue one that really draws me in. “Mission Burger,” it reads. It’s a one-room kitchen with a sliding window. Customer named Hillary’s picking up a grilled-cheese sandwich. “My first,” she says. Mm. I see it’s got bacon in there, too. Costs $8.99, and that includes fries and a drink. Hillary and her guy wander off to munch on the beach.
“When do you close?” I ask the gal doing the cooking.
“Sunset,” she says.
Like, momentarily? Dang. Not sure I want a burger, but on the other hand, the choice is Tacos El Gordo, in the yellow kiosk opposite, or go find some meat-market buzzy bar on the strip.
And here, the more you look, the more the time-warp charm. Like, Surf Shack Massage is selling aerial yoga. Next to it, “Fire-Roasted Corn,” and “Ways of the Hoop. Basic Hoola [sic] Hooping. Advance tricks. Hoola hoop $25, classes $30.”
Man, this compound is special. It’s its own little, slightly hippy, world. Slickness is elsewhere; hipness is here.
So — New Year’s res: Be more spontaneous — I turn back to the window. The server, Ann, doesn’t seem too surprised. If her face says anything, it’s “Sir, the bird of time is on the wing.”
So I quickly check the menu on the blue wooden fence. Cheeseburger, fries, and drink is $9.99. Oh, and they have a gyro, fries, and drink for the same price. Chicken sandwich, same sides, $9.99; chicken strips, sides, $9.99; fish and chips (and drink), $9.99; two corn dogs, $8.99; chicken nuggets, $7.99; grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, $8.99. That’s it.
“What’s the most popular burger?” I ask Ann.
She doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, our Western Burger.”
Western Burger? Not on the menu, but I guess all the locals know about it. She says it costs $11.99. So, a couple of bucks more, but I go for it. She thrusts a pretty hefty patty on the hot plate and lickety-split comes up with this mountain loaded with bacon, cheese, pickles, large crackling onion rings, and great wedges of tomato. Not mean on the mayo, either. And the drink is a large container of the lemonade I chose. Part of the deal. The 12 bucks are starting to look, well, reasonable for Beach Central.
Ann says she’s been here four years. Had been in physio-therapy. Dealing with people’s pain, emotion, recovery anxiety. But she got out with enough money to buy this business. What she likes: way less stress, and her dad, Gus, owns Tacos El Gordo in the yellow kiosk opposite. “He’s had that for 16 years,” she says, “so the compound’s a little bit family.”
She says these kiosks are at least 30 years old. I’m betting they’re twice that. I have to ask about why she included the gyro. “My father and I were born in Greece,” she says. “And not just gyros, but the burgers they serve there are very good. So we put some Greek-style spices onto our meat here.”
She needs to clean up. I need to see green flashes. She says she has seen them a few times, especially on clear evenings like this one.
So I take the rest of my burger out to the sea wall and chomp in. I can’t nail the flavors Ann has put in, but flavor it has, big time. Before I know it, I’ve gotten all through this lush, messy, super-tasty sandwich, down to the last fry. Okay, tossed a few to the gulls to see them catch ’em in flight. But basically, now it’s me and a bunch of other people sitting like hypnotized zombies, hoping to catch those green flashes, like a good sign for the year to come. Dark starts crossing the ocean. Planes taking off from Lindbergh now look like shining jewels. A single-engine Cessna cruises by at low altitude, just puttering up the beach. From Lahaina Beach House, the Eagles’ “Hotel California” wafts out. “You can check out any time you like, but, you can never leave.”
Night like this, who’d want to? Happy New Years!
The Place: Mission Burger, 711 Oliver Avenue, off Ocean Front Walk, Mission Beach, 619-446-7743
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–sunset, daily
Prices: Fries and drink included with all items: cheeseburger, $9.99; gyro, $9.99; chicken sandwich, $9.99; chicken strips, $9.99; fish and chips, $9.99; two corn dogs, $8.99; chicken nuggets, $7.99; grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, $8.99; western burger (with bacon, onion rings, cheese), $11.99
Buses: 8, 30
Nearest Bus Stops: Mission Boulevard and Thomas Avenue (8); Grand Avenue and Bayard (30)