Old Town Mexican Café
2489 San Diego Ave. (Old Town)
Happy Hour: 3 to 7 p.m., and 10 p.m. to close, Monday through Friday
Come on Get Happy! | Dr. Ink
In terms of longevity and national popularity, the Old Town Mexican Café has its neighbors beat along this teeming, little stretch of San Diego Avenue. Since opening in 1979, the multi-storefront operation has become ground zero for front-window tortilla making and mob scenes occurring outside the entrance. But if you’re willing to perch at one of the café’s large bars or a nearby high top at the start of weekday happy hour, the wait time for throwing down drinks and heavy nibbles is minimal.
A friend and I arrived at 3 p.m., when the discounts on margaritas, well drinks, Coors Light and appetizers go into effect. As a trio of dour-faced staff at the front desk managed a buildup of customers seeking tables in the dining room, one of them half-pointed to the main bar when we mentioned happy hour. Several stools were available, and a second bar behind the liquor wall was pretty much empty.
The bartender compensated for our lackluster greeting. In a flash, he replaced the dinner menus we were originally handed up front with happy hour menus while enthusiastically providing the specs on his margaritas.
There are two to choose from. The house version ($4) is made with Azul Tequila, “the rack stuff,” as he termed it, whereby the traditional margarita ($5) uses Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila. Both are shaken with commercial sweet-and-sour mix. They’re a buck extra respectively if you order them outside of happy hour.
Well drinks and Coors Light drafts are also reduced by $1, each selling for $3 during this time. We weren’t thrilled that only the cheapest beer in the lineup is reduced in price while taps for Shock Top, Victoria and Stone IPA winked down at our basic-tasting house margaritas.
Nearly two dozen different appetizers are half-price during happy hour, which netted us a hefty order of nachos with guacamole and sour cream for about $3.85 and a cast-iron skillet of queso with chips and fresh tortillas for just over $4. The latter required mental limbering from our margaritas to maneuver. Creamy queso this wasn’t, but rather chunks of white cheese half melted into sautéed onions, peppers and chorizo. With each scoop of a tortilla chip came many unruly strings and droppings.
The salsa we were initially given was bland, prompting my companion to shout, “New York City!” Our bartender then pulled out the good stuff from a plastic pitcher that appeared out of nowhere. With the taste of garlic and cilantro now coating our tongues, tequila running through our veins and bigger lines forming outside, we were clearly back in Old Town.
The “house” and “traditional” margaritas receive decent pours of Azul or Jose Cuervo tequilas that are well disguised by tart sweet-and-sour mix. Coors Light on draft is the only beer discounted during happy hour.
Most of the appetizers are either deep-fried or laden with cheese with the exception of ceviche, which we didn’t try.
You save $1 on drinks, but appetizers are discounted at 50 percent, resulting in substantial dishes that end up costing $5 or less.
The bartender was charming and customer-service oriented. Conversely, the front-desk and wait staff appeared rushed.
Despite no happy hour on the weekends, the deals on weekdays run from 3 p.m. to early evening, and then resume at 10 p.m. for those seeking a nightcap.