By Dr. Ink
What do you get when drinks are sold inexpensively yards away from a table of complimentary chicken burritos and cheese enchiladas?
Answer: A rousing happy hour at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town and odd human behavior.
A purchase of one drink inside the restaurant’s festive cantina gives you unlimited access to the free chow, which features on any given weekday two different hot items such as chimichangas, nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas and the like.
The mini spread also makes room for a giant bowl of tortillas chips parked under heat lamps and a big dish of red salsa, which is spiced safely enough for tourists from central Idaho dropping in to imbibe on the fruity margaritas.
Flavored or standard margaritas are $5 each during happy hour, and they’re served in impressive 17.2-ounce glasses. Well drinks are the same price while Mexican and local draft beers are $1 off their already low costs, selling regularly for $6.95 or less.
The cantina filled up within five minutes after happy hour began on this particular Monday. Some stampeded straight to the small table of free food before grabbing a seat, which I guess should be expected in a town where most bars don’t understand the value of even giving customers peanuts or pretzels while they drink. Invariably, salty snacks equal bigger booze sales.
I sat at the bar, ordered an ice-cold Pacifico draft beer garnished with lime, and moseyed to the mini buffet.
A portly man two people ahead of me held up the line by incessantly shaking the tongs he had used to snag a cheese enchilada out of the chafing dish. A tiny piece of the enchilada was stuck to the side of the utensil, and he wouldn’t surrender it. A few minutes later, the morsel finally detached, landing precariously on the rim of his Styrofoam plate.
The pan of chicken burritos was depleted, so I came away with chips, salsa and an enchilada — a tepid thing filled with shredded, un-melted cheese. I barely finished it before returning to the table to snag a chicken burrito from a freshly delivered batch.
In that line two slightly buzzed men stood behind me. One of them kept blowing into a toy-like harmonica two inches from my neck. A souvenir from San Diego Avenue perhaps? Then just before I stepped away with my food, a woman rushed the table to take a photo of the chip bowl and ended up dropping her cell phone into it. Not so Instagram-worthy, I thought.
The vibe overall was festive. Both the cantina and restaurant are filled with classic Mexican décor, from paper flowers and sombreros to sun emblems hanging all over the adobe-style walls. But the best part is that it you can loosen up over a couple of drinks while feeding your gut with Ameri-Mex grub for half the money you’d shell out at other happy hours.
Flavored margaritas are big business here. They’re made with various fruit juices and come in large chalice glasses. Well drinks are also discounted during happy hour, along with draft beer, which is limited to five choices: Pacifico, XX Amber, Red Trolley, Modelo Especial and Stone IPA.
A complimentary happy hour buffet includes tortilla chips, mild red salsa and two chafing dishes of hot food that rotate throughout the week. On this visit, the cheese enchiladas were barely warm and the chicken burritos were soggy and flavorless.
You can wash down cads of free food with a discounted draft beer, well drink or tall margarita and end up paying $5.50 or less.
The cantina was staffed with at least three bartenders, all of them fast and efficient, but too busy to personably interact with customers.
Happy hour is confined to the cantina, where classic Spanish architecture and Mexican décor confirms you’re squarely in Old Town.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.