Little things mean a lot: the first little thing that makes me like this place is the, well, amuse-bouche. Wedges of crisp flatbread stacked vertically like surfboards. They have sesame and other seeds baked on them, making them scrumptious as a snack all by themselves. But you also get a bowl of hummus. All free.
1549 El Prado, Balboa Park
And did I mention we’re sitting in a Spanish-style patio where tropical vegetation reaches for you over the wall like carnivorous triffid plants? Just beyond is a pretty fine sculpture of a woman pouring actual water out of an olla. So lots of gurgle gurgle gurgle. My friend Mary and I are sitting at a table with our elbows on the black iron balustrade. We sat down kinda wondering how we were going to afford this place. Because the actual food is pretty up there. Dishes like salmon or paella can be in the $30 range.
Lucky for us, The Prado receptionista told us yes, they do have a happy hour. “But you’ll have to sit in the patio behind, not the big sunny one out front with the view,” she says.
Seemed like a bummer till we actually came back to the arched gallery, filled with tables and chairs. Nice wicker chairs. And there’s a quietness about this quadrangle. Only real sound is the chuckle of that olla water. A man and a woman are sitting on the fountain rim, kissing passionately.
“Woman of Tehuantepec!” says Mary.
“Not her. The fountain. It’s called Woman of ‘Tehuan-Tepec’ — ‘Jaguar Hill,’ in the Nahuatl language.”
“That sculpture! By Donal Hord. He made it for the California Exposition, back in 1935. Look at it! It’s still beautiful. This guy was San Diego’s greatest sculptor, yet people like you don’t even know him.”
Mary’s a teacher. She knows this stuff. She knows how to make a guy feel bad.
“Capital of the Zapotec Empire. Oaxaca.”
Huh. Seems Hord was interested in the people who had been colonized, not their conquistadors, and this was back in the 1930s when that wasn’t cool.
Betsy comes up with menus. She hands us this tall card with Happy Hour offerings.
“Have we decided?” she says, two minutes later.
“Uh, yes,” I say. Haven’t even looked, except Happy Hour’s moving along, and anyway I see there are only six items in the HH food list. Chopped salad, which sounds disgustingly healthy, with napa cabbage, chicken, ooh... mango, snow peas, radicchio (which is chicory, bitter, should go great with the sweetness of the mango), and a sesame-mustard vinaigrette. Costs $6. Crispy shoestring potatoes, $4. And then, Korean beef skewers, with kimchi slaw and cashew curry sauce. That sounds like a really interesting take on beef, and only five buckeroos.
There’s crispy green beans, with “Point Reyes blue cheese dipping sauce,” $5, then, hey, spicy popcorn shrimp with Korean chili sauce and napa cabbage slaw, plus green onions. Also $5.
I can’t help mumbling to Mary, “a lot of napa cabbage, kimchi, Korean stuff going on here.”
“Kimchi’s incredibly good for you,” she says. “It’s one of the world’s healthiest foods. Healthy bacteria, like with yogurt. Fermented cabbage, my friend. Fountain of youth!”
Wow. Starting to wonder if she’s in the pay of the Kimchi Council. Or maybe the Sauerkraut Secretariat. (Sauerkraut and kimchi are sisters under the skin).
So first, chela, cheve. Cerveza, right? They only have one on HH, Mission Blonde Ale. Sounds good enough. Six bucks. We each get one. Then we hit the happy hour for all it’s worth. Mary insists on the chopped salad. I will not leave without Korean beef skewers, and because it’s only $5, that sexy-sounding spicy popcorn shrimp, too. Then Mary whacks me with a final HH item I hadn’t even noticed, the Three Cheese Flatbread with “tomato confit, basil.” Eight bucks.
She’s from Chicago. A pizza gal at heart. What can I say? I do a quick toting up of how much we’re out already. Lessee, beers $12, salad $6, beef skewers $5, popcorn shrimp $5, flatbread $8. Oh man! Thirty-six cucumbers? Plus tax and tip. Over the top, again! But, oh yeah. We’re splitting the bill tonight. Whew. A Jackson each.
And actually these HH prices are really pretty danged good. ’Course, we’ve got to see what we get for all that lettuce.
I needn’t have worried on that score. Even the chopped salad, which I kinda sneered at, turns out to be big and crunchy and flavorful. Specially the sesame-mustard vinaigrette, the bitter radicchio vs. the sweet bursts of mango slices. And plenty of chicken. And a pile of crunchy baked tortilla strips on top. But — drum roll please — those five-buck Korean beef skewers! The champs! Two big chunks. Marinated. And it’s the cashew curry sauce that makes it utterly, nutterly interesting. Plus the kimchi slaw sends twangs through your mouth.
Spicy shrimp? We’re going Korean again. The Korean chili sauce has to be the famous Gochujang, sweet, spicy, also savory. The shrimp are delicious, almost like hot candy.
And three-cheese flatbread? Well, it’s a lot, I’ll say that for it. Nothing outstanding about the taste, honestly, beyond the cheesy thing. But Mary makes a danged good attempt at the flatbread. She likes it. Pizza’s in her DNA.
Whatever, by the time the strings of lights flick on, we are both totally stuffed. I don’t wanna leave. Call me a schminka, but I like being immersed in this whole historical thing.
But it’ll be the high art of Korean BBQ that brings me back, next happy hour.
- The Place: The Prado at Balboa Park, 1549 El Prado, Suite 12, 619-557-9441
- Hours: 11:30am-9pm, Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30am-9:30pm, Friday; 11am-9:30pm, Saturday; 11am-9pm, Sunday; 11:30am-5:30pm, Monday
- Happy Hour Prices: Chopped salad, with chicken, mango, $6; crispy shoestring potatoes, $4; Korean beef skewers, $5; crispy green beans, blue cheese dipping sauce, $5; spicy popcorn shrimp, Korean chili sauce, slaw, $5; three-cheese flatbread, $8
- Bus: 7
- Nearest Bus Stop: Park Boulevard and Village Place