They’re still out there. Places that fill your belly without emptying your wallet. I know, because I’m in one now.
301 Montgomery Street, Chula Vista
Once again, all hail to Hank for the find. This is his territory, south Chula Vista, down in the Otay River Valley, where Main meets 3rd, a little old red and white stucco place with a sign that says “South Cali Steak Burger Bar.”
“I know, name’s quite a mouthful,” says Hank. “But trust me, so’s the food. This is where you come when you’re broke but hungry for red meat. Now how about this, huh?”
He’s pointing up at two outside signs above the barred window. They have been so sun-blasted, all the color has faded to white. But you can still see, “Breakfast Special. Bacon or sausage, $3.99.” And I’m just making out a couple of eggs, a couple of pancakes, and a sausage patty. Right next to it, the other sign has a lunch special. Big fat cheeseburger, fries, salad, for $4.99.
So we head in, to this spartan but okay room with dark carpet squares, dark-varnished skirting boards, and the rest painted white. It’s late lunch time. Scattering of moms with kids, an older couple, and three students, I’m betting, from their get-up and talk.
We sit at a table. Jessica comes up with menus. But Hank already knows what he’s having. He’s been here before. “I’ll take the quarter chicken and kabob combo,” he says. Oh yes. I see it in the “Combinations” section. Costs $10.99. Most of the combos are $10.99. Like, BBQ ribs and kabob. The gyro plate’s $9.99. They all come with Greek salad plus choice of rice, French fries, or pita bread.
Me, I need more time. Big menu. And, turns out, lots of bargains hidden in there. Of course, we’re too late for that breakfast deal (it stops at 11 am weekdays, noon weekends), and for any of a huge number of omelets and different egg dishes like Benedict (most in the $8-10 range, although lots of two-egg dishes at around $4.50). But the great deals pop up on the main menu, like the chicken fillet with cheese sandwich, $3.99. The grilled cheese sandwich, $2.99. Six chicken nuggets with fries, $3.99.
And when it comes to burgers, start with a “Big Dadd’z,” which gives you a one-pound patty plus fixings for $8.99. It’s beautifully downhill from there. The regular charbroiled burgers come with the 8-ounce patty at $4.99, the 6-ounce for $3.49, and the 4-ounce for $2.49. Same prices for 8-, 6-, and 4-ounce patty melts (with grilled onions, pickles, jack cheese on grilled rye bread). I mean, come on. These prices? Ridiculous.
“We know our customers sometimes don’t have a lot of money,” says Eladio. This is his place. He and his son, Eladio Jr., do the cooking. “People need to eat. Sometimes they don’t have a lot of extra after paying the rent.”
He opened this place, which is surrounded by mobile home parks, eight years ago. “But that was after 40 years as a cook in other people’s restaurants,” he says.
Natch, I have to order the $2.49, just to see if I’m gonna need a microscope. Then I kinda panic and order the full-on Bacon Avocado Cheeseburger as well, 8-ounce, $6.49. I add onion rings ($3). And with the substantial bacon and fresh avo, it is sooo umami.
But here’s the thing. First I attack the $2.49, and with lettuce, tomato, whatever, this is a substantial patty. It takes quite a bit of eating. Specially seeing I added fries for a couple of bucks. Don’t know what else I can fit.
Then Hank hands over his rice and a couple of chunks from his BBQ-delish kabob. It’s beef with teriyaki-flavored gloop all over it. The Greek salad’s tzatziki sauce and the pita work finest with it. I can feel a siesta coming on already.
Also, I would have gotten a beer for the two of us ($3 a domestic can), except they’re out.
Across the way, the students are getting their order. Alejandro gets my avo-bacon burger. He’s studying art history at UC Davis. Aranza (she’s studying global disease biology, also at UC Davis) has the guacamole burger, and Emilio (political science at UCLA) has the one I almost went for, the Pineapple Twist, which looks yellow and black with its Swiss cheese, pineapple, and teriyaki.
Next day, I decide I have to head back, just to try out the $3.99 breakfast. All the folk from the mobile home parks, I’m guessing, have come round for cawfee, the breakfast special, and talk of the day’s news.
My scrambled eggs (two) are perfect, I get the sausage patty instead of bacon, and the two pancakes are nice and thick and fluffy. Plenty of butter. And syrup. And yes, I pay the huge fee of $4.31 for breakfast, tax, and endless refill coffee.
Aaron, elderly gent at the next table, says he used to buy, develop, and then sell Mexican restaurants in LA. Retired now. Thinks this one is pretty good. Eating the ham and cheese omelet ($7.69). “I have it every time.”
He’s not the only one. “You should see us at 8 o’clock in the morning when we open,” says Jessica the waitress. “They’re all waiting for their coffee and breakfast. It’s like their club.”
I think of Hank, yesterday. “Just one thing,” he said as we left. “We don’t tell no-one about this place, right? We don’t want it to change. We keep it to ourselves.”
- The Place: South Cali Steak Burger Bar, 301 Montgomery Street (at 3rd Ave.), Chula Vista, 619-409-7099
- Hours: 8am-5pm, daily (till 4pm, Saturday, Sunday)
- Prices: Breakfast Special (2 eggs, 2 pancakes, bacon or sausage), $3.99; lunch special (cheeseburger, fries, salad), $4.99; quarter chicken and kabob combo, $10.99; BBQ ribs and kabob, $10.99; gyro plate, $9.99; eggs Benedict, $10.89; chicken fillet with cheese sandwich, $3.99; grilled cheese sandwich, $2.99; “Big Dadd’z, 1lb-patty burger, $8.99; 8-ounce patty, $4.99;, 6-ounce patty, $3.49; 4-ounce patty, $2.49; 8, 6, 4-ounce patty melts, same prices
- Bus: 929
- Nearest Bus Stop: outside, on 3rd at Montgomery (southbound); 3rd and Main (northbound)