3014 Columbine Street, City Heights
The kid stands mesmerized. He watches as Louie picks up his piece of pizza, starts picking off the colorful bits like tomato and cilantro, then crunches at the edges of the crust.
Louie’s an Eclectus parrot from Australia. The kid stares at Louie’s brilliant green and blue feathers and red beak.
“What does Louie think of my pizza?” says Jimmy, the guy in the pork pie hat.
“So far so good,” says Brittany, Louie’s owner.
You can see this is the neighborhood’s go-to place, maybe because it’s so out of the way, lost among the canyons of City Heights. I was kind of lost myself when I jumped off the cute City Heights Circulator mini bus (965), at the corner of Columbine and Poplar, and fell fell straight into this garden nursery-looking cafe. For one thing, they are growing their own coffee trees here. Seriously! Actually growing coffee to roast and drink themselves. Yes, it’s experimental, but the trees, out in the garden section of the property, somehow add excitement to the whole idea.
Then again, so does Louie, his feathers shining in the sun. He sits on Brittany’s shoulder now, close to her face. Man, the whole place has atmosphere. Dappled sunlight filters through wooden trellises, with courtyards under canvas umbrellas and roll-out awnings. Wrought iron furniture mixes with old movie theater seating; bookshelves bulge with books you can borrow. Scattered shark jaws, puffer fish, a Rocky Mountain Goat head, ancient license plates, a sign made up of carved wooden letters that spell out “COFFEE,” and an old wooden airplane propeller fight for space.
“People just give us stuff,” says the burly bearded guy, Justin. “We started out with nothing. I couldn’t afford to buy even a modest coffee cart. Second-hand ones were going for $20,000. Get outta here!”
So Justin went to work in construction. “That’s where a workmate of mine said he had a buddy who wanted to sell his coffee cart equipment. ‘How much?’ I asked. ‘$1600,’ he said. I bought it that day! This is it. I mean, running this place is harder than construction, but so much more satisfying.”
So now they do “occasional” food. Every day, they have different breads you can eat with your coffee for $4.75. Banana, mango, pineapple. Gal down the road bakes them. They also do bagels for $4, and a ham and cheese croissant for $5.
It turns out Jimmy comes only on Fridays. My good luck. This Friday he has an everything breakfast “bagel” with cream cheese, fresh chives, and, for $3 more, some scrambled eggs thrown in. Or for $6 more, salmon. Which means $13 or $16. More or less applies to Jimmy’s other pizzas, the margherita (“fresh basil, sauce, cheese,” $10), the breakfast pizza (“tender belly bacon, scrambled eggs, cheese,” $15), or the zucca pizza (“local honeynut squash purée, salami, cheese,” $15). That’s today. “Next week, I’m thinking of picking up persimmons at the Thursday night North Park Farmers’ Market.”
Huh. Spontaneous pizzas! I decide to have the Everything Breakfast Bagel, just because I can’t imagine how Jimmy’s gonna make a, uh, bagel on the spot before my very eyes.
Turns out it’s a pizza using bagel dough. “I make bagel dough, organic, just letting my natural yeast strain have at it,” Jimmy says. “It’s organic flour from Petaluma, naturally leavened. I feed the yeast flour and water, throw away maybe 70 percent, and let the yeast keep munching, growing. It’s a living thing. It continues rising overnight. I never refrigerate it. Read The Pizza Bible: rule one is never put cold dough in a hot oven. I work at Buona Forchetta, and I have done fine dining pizza at Catania in La Jolla. It’s all in the dough. Bagel dough can be way richer than bread. Mine is 70 percent water, just 40 grams of flour. You’re not going to get fat on that.”
My bagel crust is burned nicely, garlicky, and topped with cream cheese and eggs. Jimmy says he only deals in organic. And nice to know the eggs’ moms live a happy free range life at De-La Ranch up in Lake Elsinore. Most of the twang seems to come from the “Everything But The Bagel” seasoning from Trader Joe’s that Jimmy says he always shakes on.
Justin talks like he has found a life that is full of meaning. “I love it. We only came here 6 years ago. With nothing. Now we’re like the pulse of the neighborhood. It’s beautiful. Like, we just had an evening to raise money for a boy who had been attacked by dogs. Everybody was here. We raised $1200. We felt good.”
He has a group of sisters come in each morning. “They talk up a storm and argue and laugh. I think we give them a place where they can let go. People also like to watch the little beans on the coffee trees grow.”
It seems Justin is part of a movement to grow coffee right here in San Diego. “Around 35 farms are growing it,” he says, “They mix them with avocado trees. They’re compatible. We just need to wait a few years.”
But why the name “Burly and the Bean?”
“Well, I’m a fairly burly feller from Washington state. I grew up around logging towns. Vanessa, my wife, is just a little thing.”
Justin says he also leads canyon hikes. “That’s the amazing thing about San Diego: Nature comes right to you in the city.”
Where does he get all his energy? Maybe from Daniel Boone. “Boone is my last name. We’ve done the DNA thing. Turns out we are related. Remember? He opened up the West. Call this my Cumberland Gap.”
- The Place: Burly and the Bean Coffee Cabin, 3014 Columbine Street at Poplar Street, Azalea Gardens, City Heights, 619-548-5889
- Hours: 6:00am - 3:00pm, Tuesday-Friday; 7am - 2pm, Saturday, Sunday; closed Mondays
- Prices: Breads you can eat with your coffee, including banana, mango, pineapple flavors, $4.75; bagels, $4; ham and cheese croissant, $5; pizzas (Fridays only) include Everything breakfast “bagel” pizza, with cream cheese, chives, $10; with eggs, $13; with salmon, $16; Margherita pizza (basil, sauce, cheese), $10; breakfast pizza (bacon, scrambled eggs, cheese), $15; zucca pizza (honeynut squash purée, salami, cheese), $15
- Buses: 13, 965
- Nearest Bus Stops: Fairmount Avenue and Redwood Street (13); Columbine Street and Poplar Street (965)