It’s Friday night. Left eating till the last moment. Tramping up Congress. Gonna head up toward San Diego Avenue, the glam street of Old Town. Most of everything here on Congress is closed down. Except for Rockin’ Baja, which occupies a hacienda from San Diego’s earliest days, and which I quite like hitting at Happy Hour.
But too late for that. I cross Twiggs, pass The Alamo Mexican Café (closed for the night), and up to where the late, lamented Christopher’s On Congress used to be. In that courtyard they had like medieval tents where you drank wine and smoked hookahs. Ooh. Sweet memories. That was such a good idea. The last place here went out of biz about 18 months ago.
But hark! Lights! A sandwich board! “Bistro. Craft Wine and Beer, 2539 Congress St.” I head up the steps, into the courtyard. Studio of Mr. Atapour, the Persian photographer gent I really liked, is still open for business. But nearer, to the left, I spot people through the windows, sitting up to a bar. And along with sipping vino and chatting with the host, they’re eating. The lights are golden, intimate, inviting.
2539 Congress Street, Suite A, Old Town
Hunger, curiosity and that glimpse of ruby red grog do it for me. So now I’m perched on a stool, facing Mine Host. Sid. Just the right kind of jolly mustachioed face for the role. “This is my wife Jessica,” he says, “and Nikky, my niece.” It’s like we’re long lost friends. “Nikky has a Masters in education counseling,” Sid’s saying, “but she helps out in the evenings.”
It’s a family affair. I like it already.
The couple next to me are munching at a “charcuterie board.” It’s loaded with a salami-type meats, prosciutto, a wedge of brie cheese, a hard cheese, and plenty of grapes, apple slices, strawberries, olives, nuts, dried cranberries, plus crackers and bread. I’m sure it’d fill you up, poco a poco, as you sipped and supped. Only thing: I see it costs $18. Sure it’s worth it, but I’m looking for something a little less, well, generous.
“We’ve just been open three weeks,” says Sid. “We’re still refining the menu.”
So, for starters, this being a wine bar, guess I’ll start with wine. Ooh. They have a Malbec. Always love that Argentinian specialty. Septima. Glass of it costs $8.50. So, while I sip this Malbec, I check the menu.
It’s a wine bar menu, meaning, pretty simple. The interesting part is they suggest wine to pair with each food item. Like, for the hummus platter with olives ($10), they recommend a cab sauv. With meatballs and pita ($4.50), it should be a carmenere (have to look that one up. Seems it’s a Bordeaux that Chilean growers have made their own). With the cheese boards ($9 or $12), “pair with pinot noir.”
The rest of the menu is basically flatbread pizza and salads. A pita pepperoni pizza (“pairs with cabernet sauvignon”) goes for a great price, $7.50. Same with pita taco pizza (ground meat, cheese, cilantro, lettuce), but only on taco Tuesday. Other pizzas, like the Margherita, cost $13.
Caesar salad’s $10. You can add chicken for $3. Most interesting looks to be the cran-apple salad (same price), which has spinach, apples, walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette.
But for starters, why not the meatballs? Only $4.50. And okay then, the pita pepperoni pizza, $7.50. Good deal!
So that’s what I get, and this being the intimate bar it is, we’re talking. “I was teaching computing,” says Sid. “Jessica was teaching nursing. We decided to change our lives and opened up a wine bar by the Sacramento River. We loved it. The only problem was, the kitchen had to be in the basement. That meant running the food up two flights of stairs.”
That got them fit, but exhausted. A year ago, they came down to El Cajon, so Sid could renovate his daughter and son-in-law’s home. And then, well, retire. Until a friend asked him to remodel this patio.
End result, Sid agreed to relaunch the wine bar. “We have a lot of people coming in who were upset when the previous place closed. So it’s been a nice welcome.”
Meanwhile, I’m munching on the meatballs, slurping Malbec, and tasting tranches of the pizza, which is nice and crispishly thin. I can see I’ve ordered too much. Pizza would’ve been plenty. As it is, I can see myself finishing the glass and buying another.
But I just about gag when Sid says he’s going to have a day when dogs can come and drink beer.
Uh, say what?
“We’ve started ‘Dog Sunday,’ where our El Cajon friends, Marley’s Pet Planet, bring bottles of beer for dogs. No kidding! Of course, no alcohol in it. Alcohol’s bad for dogs, but non-alcoholic beer, they love. This way you and your dog can enjoy a beer together.”
He’s talking about “Best Buds Brew.” They have like “Teddy’s Bacon Porter,” “Jack’s Honey Blonde,” “Marley’s Nutty Amber.”
But Sid says their main thing is: be local. “San Diego food sources, if we can, and San Diego beers.”
“And San Diego wines?” I ask. Because, hey, San Diego is where California wine was born, 1769, right? Yet bars and restaurants diss it, everywhere.
“I’m exploring,” he says.
I raise my Malbec. “One small step for sanity,” I say. I mean, when you think about it, how many tons of carbon has it taken to fly this red gargler up from Argentina?
“Happy explorations,” I say.
- The Place: Craft Wine and Beer, 2539 Congress Street, Suite A, Old Town, 619-647-9189
- Prices: Hummus platter, olives, $10; caprese (mozzarella, basil, tomatoes), $9; meatballs, pita, $4.50; cheese boards, $9 or $12; pita pepperoni pizza, $7.50; pita taco pizza (ground meat, cheese, cilantro, lettuce), $7.50 (on taco Tuesday only); Margherita pizza, $13; Caesar salad, $10, with chicken, $13; cran-apple salad, (spinach, apples, walnuts, blue cheese, cranberries), $10, $13 with chicken
- Hours: 12pm – 11pm daily (Monday closed) Happy Hour: 4-7pm, daily (Tuesday to Sunday)
- Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 83, 88, 105, 150
- Nearest bus stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4009 Taylor Street
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest trolley stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4009 Taylor Street