By Dr. Ink
Just as the hostess asked whether we’d come for dinner or happy hour, a thunderous roar started shaking the foyer while an entrance curtain blew outward from a powerful change in air pressure. Our response fell on deaf ears until the gleaming jumbo jet overhead practically grazed the building’s clock tower and landed several blocks away.
Welcome to El Camino, an exquisitely funky restaurant and bar that affords patio dwellers spitting-distance belly views of aircrafts making their final approaches into Lindbergh Field.
Located at the north lip of Little Italy, it used to be the retro-designed Airport Lounge. Now, from front to back, visitors are enveloped in riotous colors and Mexican-style ornamentation that vacillate artfully between eccentric and urbane. Pinewood wall slats flow profusely, leading to a convivial outdoor patio replete with wooden high-tops, ashtrays everywhere and a covered bar that was playing vintage Cheech and Chong on flat screens when we arrived. Bronze relief plaques of Jesus and Mary denote the restrooms. And those frequent quavers that strike your glass and gut are, perversely, part of the draw.
The happy-hour bargains are kept simple: $3 for Coronas, margaritas and punchy house-made sangria featuring veritable fruit salads floating within each glass. Nachos and quesadillas in various preparations are half priced, hailing from a loudly printed menu of Mexican fare revealing semi-healthy twists.
For a San Diego hipster joint with heavy alternative vibes, service is impeccable. Complimentary chips are delivered immediately, along with three types of salsa, flash-fried Serrano peppers and bowls of chili-dusted jicama wedges that match to Corona like cookies and milk. The personable tattooed wait staff keeps the free victuals promptly replenished without becoming dazed over increased customer (and air) traffic.
Summer’s latent beginning had our trio planted firmly on the patio, too sun-starved to sit inside El Camino’s darker, museum-like confines. Beer and sangria rendered us tolerant of the airplane noise and quelled the fear that these descending mechanical monsters can potentially end our drinking days with the slightest pilot error.
Nachos for $4 became the other comforting vice. We opted for meatless, priced normally at $8. They’re served generously in a deep bowl with tasty black beans, cilantro cream, chunky guacamole and Jack and Swiss cheeses—a sustaining steal even when divided between three mouths. For a few bucks extra, you can pile on carne asada, chicken or shrimp. The quesadillas offer the same options, which during happy hour range from $3.50 to $5.50 apiece.
With a come-as-you-are welcome mat leading into decent measures of hospitality, chances are high that you’ll linger beyond the 7 p.m. cutoff. And Tuesdays are the day to do it because of an abbreviated happy hour that extends until closing, with half-off tacos and continued $3 Coronas.
El Camino offers a second location on Juniper Street in South Park, not aligned quite so perfectly to San Diego’s busy flight path. The happy hour and food are the same, except that only beer and wine is served.
2400 India St.
Happy Hour: 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday (extended until closing on Tuesdays)
Drink options are quintessential San Diego, with Corona being the singular beer choice in addition to standard margaritas and fruit-loaded house-made Sangria hiding a commendable alcohol kick.
Nachos rank above-average, thanks to the novel additions of Swiss cheese and cilantro cream. Generous scoops of thick guacamole and flavorful black beans add plenty of sustenance. Quesadillas enjoy similar embellishments and appear sizable.
A continuous supply of free chips and assorted salsas (one of them cream-based) helps offset the urge for going hog wild on half-priced nachos and quesadillas. Coronas, margaritas and Sangria are $3 apiece, allowing moderates to get their swerve on for under 10 bucks.
You can potentially find worse service in fine-dining establishments. Here, the waiters attend quickly to your table without dropping too long out of sight. Water glasses are replenished regularly, drinks and food arrive in a timely manner and checks are presented in cute nylon bags filled with miniature pieces of Mexican chewing gum.
The two-hour time slot passes swiftly when you’re counting airplanes swooshing overhead and ignoring your drink intake. In addition, happy hour doesn’t extend through weekends.