South Park—or Golden Hill, depending on whom you ask—is the quaintly hip neighborhood nestled southeast of Balboa Park, as well as below North Park and the lesser-known, rectangular Burlingame neighborhood.
South Park versus Golden Hill? The naming debate originated in the ’80s, when some residents recognized the real estate’s financial potential. “The reason it became South Park is there were people in this neighborhood who were more interested in property value,” says Judy Forman (Judy the Beauty on Duty) from the Big Kitchen. “South Park is a division of Golden Hill.”
The city seems to be in agreement. “As noted in the city’s historic context statement for Greater Golden Hill, the community plan area is composed of two distinct communities, Golden Hill and South Park,” according to historic preservation consulting firm Historic Resources Group.
In a way, there’s no right or wrong moniker, and nobody seems to care too much—though long-time locals insist on reaffirming the region’s roots every so often.
Whatever you call it, the neighborhood doesn’t have cars backed up at every traffic light, because there aren’t any. Tourists aren’t floating in and out of hotels because those don’t exist here, either. Rather, single-family residences, independently owned knick-knack shops and food stops fill its radius. (Note the Target Express looking wildly misplaced on Grape Street.)
On Mondays, expect “We’re Closed” signs hanging in the windows. But don’t mistake South Park for a sleepy site. Any night of the week, locals convene at restaurant-turned-bar hangouts, usually with dogs in tow.
The intersection of Juniper, 30th and Fern Streets is the main stage in South Park. Street-goers fit the bill of evolved beatniks, or Lululemon-wearing moms chauffeuring equally trendy mini-mes in strollers. And if they’re walking, they’re probably walking a four-legged friend, too. But if that’s not the case they’re biking, zooming every which way through the streets in an earnest/hip attempt to be environmentally friendly.
The Freedom Mural that covers Albert Einstein Academy Charter Elementary School's (3035 Ash St.) eastern wall is one of South Park's longest residing pieces of street art. Originally designed by Japanese artist Rocco, it was painted in the summer of 1990 by Mario Torero and some students, including Neko Burke. Now an established graffiti artist, Burke looks back on the enduring project with nostalgia and pride. He says Golden Hill and South Park have gone through the gentrification process and that, "the families that were originally there—low-income and working class—are no longer there, but there's still a presence of the past, of what it was, with these murals standing."
South Park has quietly become a chicken wing destination and the saucy meat sticks at places like The South Park Abbey (1946 Fern St.) and Hamilton's Tavern (1521 30th St.) live up to the heated hype. At the Abbey, the wings are big, tender and meaty, and the "Dirty" (a mix of pre-made buffalo and ranch sauces) and the "Honey Habanero" (self-explanatory) are must-try flavors. The Abbey also has an extra-hot "Tough Guy" sauce that requires patrons to sign a waiver before consuming. Equally foreboding are Hamilton's "Deer Hunter" wings, a serving of five extra hot wings (made from habanero and thai chiles, as well as the Bhut Joloka pepper) and one mystery wing (with a special-order sauce called Mad Dog 357 that has reaper, scorpion and ghost peppers). The mystery wing is so hot it registers on the Scoville heat scale at six million units (just above pepper spray). It's the culinary equivalent of a game of Russian Roulette. When we visited recently, the guy behind the counter gave us a "heh-heh, have fun" after placing our order. After three wings, arts editor Seth Combs had the misfortune of biting into the extra spicy wing. Red-faced and sweating like a Southern Baptist preacher, he managed to eat most of the wing. He also emptied two glasses of water and repeatedly yelled things like "It feels like I have Chlamydia in my mouth." After 15 minutes of tears and repeated expletives, he seemed OK enough to give us this assessment: "At first it seems sweet, but once the heat hits your lips and spreads, you're done. I won't do that again."
"If I have somewhere to be, I don't even drive through South Park anymore. I drive around it if I can," says Rodney Hubbard, a longtime South Parker who can be spotted at the Whistle Stop at least three times a week. It sounds drastic, but Hubbard is just being pragmatic. We'd be hard pressed to think of anyone in South Park who doesn't know him. More often than not, he's parked on a stool out on the Whistle's back patio, sipping on a whiskey and serenading folks with his angelic falsetto. He's been the frontman for many local R&B and soul bands, including Pan Am and The Bankhead Press, and says he keeps coming back to South Park and The Whistle Stop because he can always find like-minded musicians. "It's not like Cheers or nothin'," says the former Marine originally from Glen Burnie, Maryland. "There's just nowhere else to find the musicians I need. Everyone I've ever played with, I've met here." Hubbard says he's considered moving away to places like Rio de Janeiro many times but sticks around San Diego and South Park because of the small-town-within-a-city vibe. "I've had some of the best times in my life here," he says. "This is the best part of San Diego, right here."
Judy The Beauty on Duty at The Big Kitchen (3003 Grape St.) is the self-appointed mayor of South Park. In 1979, she packed up her activist ways and moved from Detroit to San Diego. After three months as a volunteer dishwasher, seeing the community's need for positive extracurricular outlets, she bought The Big Kitchen and hired 15 local gang members. With extensive involvement in social and civil justice, there aren't many issues she hasn't acted upon. "You have no right to complain about something unless you are activated to do something about it," she says. Her restaurant transforms into a multi-use space where the Greater Golden Hill Community Development Corporation was created, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held and theater is practiced. Comedian Whoopi Goldberg used to work here. Although Forman's energetic eyes radiate with pride, she also thanks her customers for bringing various civil inequalities to her attention. Now 70, she doesn't plan to slow down. "I sort of figured I'm going to ride my surfboard to the beach, which means I don't ever see myself as retiring, but I do delegate more and more, and it's not my business, it's my life. It's my baby, and it's a wonderful, wonderful creation." A sense of family is ingrained at Big Kitchen. As diners part ways, she calls after them, grinning and saying, "You'll be back. It's a rule."
Peter the Serbian—serviceman
He's lived in South Park for 10 years, or maybe it's 13. He definitely has two sons, one aged 26 and the other 28, and he likes playing tennis. Possibly. That's how difficult it is to cut through his Serbian accent. Most information related to his background is hazy gossip lost in translation, but his helpfulness and convenience aren't up for debate by local shopkeepers. Every day, Peter walks up Fern Street, making pit stops at his stomping grounds—Junc.Life, Make Good, Bad Madge and Rebecca's Coffee—helping with small tasks like emptying the outside trashcans since the city no longer does it. "He'll just stop and help with whatever," says Jeffrey Parish, owner of Junc.Life. "I've seen him help people across the street who are juggling kids, and I've seen him grab stuff, and they're startled, but then he just walks with them so that they understand." He helps out to earn a couple bucks and a few cups of coffee but also for a sense of belonging. The baristas at Rebecca's say if he runs to get more ice on a day when the line is out the door, it saves them. "It's like these are his stores," says Make Good owner Sophia Hall. "He cares about them. I think he kind of likes having us here so I think he kind of goes out of his way."
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
(1503 30th St.)
Defying all preconceived notions of hippy vegan eateries, this twisted take on a Prohibition-style establishment is outfitted in paneled ceilings and pink patterned wallpaper, juxtaposed by a menacing sculpture of a shiny, black, four-eyed beast hanging on the back wall. The bathrooms lend themselves to heavy metal music and cat photography. The craft cocktails and vegetable-based dishes are as equally intriguing as the walls surrounding them.
(2225 30th St.)
On Feb. 2, this home décor hub replaced Progress in the historic Burlingame Garage building, which was constructed as an auto body shop in 1911. The husband-and-wife ownership markets a warmer wave of modern design in the form of bath products, candles, ceramics, a local furniture brand and more. A children's monthly story time is in the works.
(2310 30th St)
Under the creative watch of Lauren Passaro, owner of both Kensington Café and The Haven Pizzeria, margaritas and Mexican food are moving in. Salud! Executive chef Sergio Garcia will bring a dose of Chicano soul food to traditional tastes in this sit-down space that just opened Feb. 29. Whereas the previous inhabitant, Brabant Bar, was color coated in cream and burgundy, Provecho's walls will wear a vibrant chevron pattern.
Old House Fair
Taste of South Park
South Park Walkabout
March 19, July 9, October 8, December 3
For years, South Parkers have puzzled over the nearly non-existent Rigel Meat Co. (2145 Fern St.), a self-proclaimed wholesale meat shop. With blinds shut tight and hardly an entry in sight, some aren't quite sure whether it's even open, yielding meager foot traffic even though it sits on prime real estate. Yelp reviewers are curious. "Classic mystery shop. It's got to be a front for something, but I can't imagine what," wrote one reviewer back in 2007. Another opined, "While it seems like a home base for aliens it's actually a good meat wholesaler," adding that the employees' phone skills were subpar. When CityBeat called, nobody was home... until just before deadline. Rigel Meat Co. manager Mark Sawaya called back to let us know the store is strictly wholesale and has been since 2007. It's been there for 40 years. They own the building, rent space to Eclipse Chocolate and sell to San Diego Chicken Pie Shop (2633 El Cajon Blvd.). Mystery solved.