April 13 2011 10:23 AM

Here are the restaurants where community leaders gather to lead the community

Photo illustration by Adam Vieyra
“El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis loves to be called Mayor Meatball,” Republican politico Barry Jantz tells CityBeat as he explains “East County Albondigas,” the largest of San Diego County's three regular, Mexican-meatball-themed, political lunchtime soirées.

The story goes that, years ago, legendary political consultant Jack Orr would meet with four or five other operatives at an Oceanside restaurant that serves albondigas, or meatball soup. Today's National Albondigas Political Society (not really national) events are open to all political persuasions and often result in a “straw poll” on a hot current issue that appears on the blog SDRostra.com.

The moral of the story: Movers and shakers are also chewers and swallowers. Whatever the community, its leaders have to eat, and your best chance to get a word in might be when their mouths are full. Our people contacted their people and found out where the leaders in various communities take their power meals.

Meatball politicos: The East County edition of the National Albondigas Political Society happens at On the Border (103 Fletcher Pkwy.) usually on a Thursday or Friday, Jantz says. The central San Diego branch meets on the second Friday of the month at Café Coyote (2461 San Diego Ave., Old Town), and the North County group meets on the fourth Friday at Cocina Del Charro (1020 W. San Marcos Blvd., San Marcos).

African-American pastors and politicians: Wander into Annie Belle's Famous Wings & Greens (1746 Euclid Ave., Oak Park) any time after 10 a.m. and you'll find the joint chirping with talk of taxes, elections, Walmart proposals and all manner of politics. Some of those voices will belong to the local pastors who serve as shepherds to Southeast San Diego's African American community, but you're just as likely to run into San Diego City Council President Tony Young taking lunch with his constituents. You can find similar scenes at Barnes BBQ (7820 Broadway, Encanto) and Huffmans Barbecue & Catering (5039 Imperial Ave., Lincoln Park). If it's after lunch, you can sometimes catch that crowd playing chess at Starbucks (350 Euclid Ave., Chollas View). And then there's the Catfish Club. Forty years ago, the Rev. George Walker Smith created the luncheon as a venue for the community to interact with elected officials over a fry up. The club still meets at noon on the first and third Fridays of the month at the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park (2131 Pan America Plaza).

Somali elders: Of the Somali restaurants in San Diego, Safari Grill (4990 University Ave., City Heights) is one of the best to catch up on news in the Somali community. A block away from two mosques in a corner of City Heights with a large Somali population, this humble spot frequently plays host to community elders who sip black tea served with steamed milk and sugar. (Meanwhile, some of the younger crowd hits up Denny's over on University and Fairmount avenues.) In addition to the latest gossip, you'll find heaping helpings of some of the best goat meat and lamb in the city at Safari Grill—served with spiced basmati rice or spaghetti and always with a banana, in true Somali fashion. But make sure to arrive early because big crowds show up at lunchtime and after evening prayers.

Lawyers and judges: It used to be that The University Club (750 B St., Downtown) was an exclusive private club for starchy jacket-and-tie business types, but with its recent rebranding, it's now the hot place to be if you're a jeans-wearing young gun in a high-powered law firm. Meanwhile, if you roll into Dobson's (956 Broadway Circle, Downtown) at lunchtime or just after 5 p.m., you'll find yourself surrounded by a bevy of defense attorneys. Athens Market (109 W. F St., Downtown) and Grant Grill (326 Broadway, Downtown) are also popular with the brief-toting crowd, but we hear the wisest of them all, the judges, take their lunches at the Grand Central Café at the YMCA (500 W. Broadway, Downtown), where the food's cheap and fast and they make a great Cobb salad.

LGBT: Of course, the vertex of San Diego's powerful LGBT community is in Hillcrest. City Deli (535 University Ave.) has always been popular among the gay pols and activists, due to its central location and support for the community, but you can also spy the movers and shakers at Urban Mo's (308 University Ave.)—quite literally, since Mo's has a live webcam (urbanmos.com/web cam.php). But, after conducting an informal poll, San Diego Democratic Club spokesperson David Warmouth tells us that Brian's American Eatery (1451 Washington St.)—with its enormous portions and sides—is the lunch venue for gay leaders.

Chicano community: Only a few blocks from Chicano Park is Barrio Logan's Las Cuatro Milpas (1875 Logan Ave.), a cafeteria-style eatery with long tables where folks line up for the handmade tortillas, chorizo and tamales. It's the spot first on Victor Ochoa's list. The muralist and founding member of the Chicano Park Steering Committee laments the loss of Chuey's, the hangout that went from Quonset hut to 18,000-square-foot establishment before closing in 2008. Gone, too (well, moved, actually), is El Comal, which also used to be in Logan Heights before relocating to North Park (3846 Illinois St.). “It got expensive, but rocks,” he says. Other popular hangouts on Ochoa's list: El Carrito (2154 Logan Ave., Barrio Logan) and El Salvadoreno (2845 Imperial Ave., Grant Hill).

Asian community: The thing that makes both Emerald (3709 Convoy St., Suite 101, Kearny Mesa) and Jasmine (4609 Convoy St., Suite A, Kearny Mesa) popular dim-sum spots (spacious dining rooms conducive to rolling dim-sum carts between the tables), also makes them ideal for fundraisers and political events. Sure, there's a friendly rivalry between the two family-owned spots, but San Diego's growing Asian community is hoping to secure representation on the San Diego City Council through the addition of a ninth district, and the founders of both restaurants, Susan Lew (Emerald) and Allen Chan (Jasmine), are considered major figures in making that happen.

South Bay politics: We were sure that South Bay folks would point us to the region's most awesome Mexican restaurant. Nope. They like to roll old-school. Two spots that came up: Café La Maze (1441 Highland Ave., National City) and The Butcher Shop (aka Roberto DePhillippi's Steak House, 556 Broadway, Chula Vista). Both have the red-leather-booth, velvet-flocked-wallpaper thing going, as well as 40 years of history. And steak. Café La Maze, though, seems to be the spot. Head there for some lunchtime eavesdropping and you'll hear everything from “the latest buzz on redevelopment to what vendor has the best produce at the local farmers market,” says Rudy Lopez, staffer for San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez.


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