All photos by Torrey Bailey unless otherwise noted
Fifteen miles inland, El Cajon isn’t one of those up-and-coming hotspots that remains undiscovered. Its appeal lies in its gritty suburbia feel that relies more on hole-in-the-wall restaurants and corporate chains, with a little in between. Its nicknames, “The Big Box Valley” and “The Corners,” refer to the city’s early development as a modern, commercial region. Despite San Diego County’s proximity to the Mexican border and El Cajon’s Spanish name, Arabic is prevalent in the city. The region’s Chaldean population has opened up numerous markets where you can get Middle Eastern delicacies to go while also grabbing a new cell phone case or porcelain plates. There’s also an overflow of sit-down restaurants with menus that make East Main Street the Convoy of Mediterranean food. In the past, El Cajon has also succumbed to less flattering designations. From the ‘80s into the ‘90s, it was a self-proclaimed meth capitol of the world, a title that several cities have surprisingly tried to grab. However, downtown El Cajon is a charming contrast to the city’s shady past. String lights zig-zag between historic, one-story buildings and large retail storefronts offering everything from formal wear to health care. Within the city’s 14 square miles, you can find almost anything, even a rockabilly-themed hair salon.
Magnolia Avenue and Main Street collide at the start of El Cajon’s downtown district, which is flagged by the towering landmark sign. This intersection saw the city’s first stoplight in 1960 and is now a major crossroads for traffic, leading into a cluster of hair salons, restaurants, parks and the East County Performing Arts Center.
Ryan Bradford: mall aficionado
“Come on. This is the dirt mall. Cops don’t come here.”
Who knew that when Kevin Smith made Mallrats (his only good movie, in my opinion), he would be creating a time capsule of nostalgia for kids who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s? Sure, malls are still alive and kicking, but for the most part, they’re fancified with upscale stores and gourmet eateries.
That’s not the case at El Cajon’s Parkway Plaza, a bleak-albeit-potent reminder of the repulsive magic that malls once possessed. First off, it’s completely housed indoors—none of that open-air shit found at Fashion Valley or Mission Valley malls. I mean, c’mon: I’m going to the mall to buy a Misfits t-shirt at Hot Topic that will complement my deathly pallor, not get a tan. It’s also not a true experience into consumer purgatory unless you’re breathing the germs of the millions of dirtbag teenagers who came before you.
Wal-Mart, Hot Dog on a Stick and Spencer’s Gifts are also at Parkway Plaza. Or as I like to call it, the Holy Trinity of Bad Taste.
In an era where Millennials are increasingly exposed to craft and hoity-toity culture, it’s nice to know there’s still a place for the degenerates.
LIKE A ROLLING STONE
There’s a scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in which dejected protagonist William Miller calls up legendary music writer Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. By the end of the pep talk, Miller says, “I’m glad you were home.” To which Bangs, almost proudly, declares, “I’m always home—I’m uncool!” His revered writing in Creem, Rolling Stone and other publications, in addition to decades of imitators, might have proven that supposed absence of cool demonstrably false. As for where Bangs called home, that was El Cajon. Originally from Escondido, Bangs lived in El Cajon as a child up until he was 23 years old and relocated to Detroit and eventually New York. However, El Cajon is where he began his writing career and penned notoriously negative MC5 and Black Sabbath reviews for Rolling Stone while living there. As a result, he’s become one of the most famous exports from the city, even inspiring the documentary film A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs in 2013. Though his legacy was cut short when he died in 1982, his impact remains. “When you come from El Cajon you don’t have many role models,” says the film’s director Raul Sandelin in a 2013 San Diego Troubadour article. “Lester Bangs, for my generation, was sort of that older idol we wanted to be.”
“El Chal-jon,” as I call it, has San Diego’s best Middle Eastern cuisine options. You can dine for days on Main Street, a veritable Baghdad Boulevard. First timers should feast at Ali Baba (421 E. Main St.), a local favorite, but here are some options for the more adventurous palate.
Nahrain Fish and Chicken Grill (1183 E. Main St.) is popular with seafood lovers—especially the whole pompano or sea bass served on a bed of rice or burghul. Try the masgouf, which is grilled fish served with tomatoes, onions and tanoor bread.
For breakfast, head to Sagmani’s (478 W. Douglas Ave.) for makhlama, a dish of ground beef, onions, diced tomatoes and onions served with soft-boiled eggs. It’s $8 including veggies and pita and a great start to the day—especially with complimentary chai tea.
Harvest International Market (733 E. Main St.) is a grocery store with a kitchen, but it’s a great place to get picnic goodies. A laham bajine with egg (basically a Syrian pizza) is only $1.99, and the potato chop, basically ground beef wrapped in deep-fried potato flour, is wonderful and only $5.99 for six. I like to stock up at the olive bar or get lots of flavor-coated pistachios at the bulk bins.
Candy Schoen & Brook Seebold - Owners of Rock a Betties Beauty Salon
Candy Schoen and Brooke Seebold are family, although their relationship is unconventional: Schoen was married to Seebold’s father years ago, and though the marriage didn’t last, her relationship with Seebold did. The two decided to open Rock a Betties (158 E West Main St.), a retro beauty salon where the walls are lined with unique vintage items, many of them gifts from clients. “We’re a little eclectic,” Seebold said. “We wanted a place that was a little more relaxed than your normal salon.” A huge part of the aesthetic is based around Seebold and Schoen’s respective passions for music and cars. A piano soundboard and vintage car door are two of their favorite decorations. Clients who stop by on a Friday might be lucky enough to catch one of the salon’s signature “Gangsta Rap Fridays.” And while you’re enjoying the likes of N.W.A. and Tupac, you can also sip a beer and browse locally-made jewelry, art and accessories. The whimsical vibe of the salon seems to suit the clients, many of whom opt to transform their hair with fiery reds, vivid blues and every color of the rainbow in between. “Funky colors are really going mainstream,” Seebold said. “It used to be only punk kids or rockabilly kids,” Schoen added. “Now, it’s everyone. Moms have purple hair. I dig it.”
Sheri Newquist - Owner of The Yogurt Mill
“We kind of do business like we’re back in the ‘80s,” said Sheri Newquist, referring to her cash-only, coupon-collecting, old-school style shop The Yogurt Mill (935 Broadway). “I always joke that we’re held together by scotch tape and construction paper.” This July, Newquist will celebrate The Yogurt Mill’s 40th anniversary. Its Leaning Tower of Pisa-like structure has become a city icon, along with the desserts served inside. In the summer, the line extends out the door and into the next parking lot. While it’s not a family-owned business (Newquist is one of three owners), it might as well be. “My four children worked here. My grandchildren have worked here. I think all my kids’ friends worked here through high school and college, and I have a lot of families where I’ve had all the kids. In fact, I have some kids now whose parents I had over 30 years ago.” Some of her employees first set their eye on the job during the school tours Newquist often hosts, where she takes the kids into the freezer and teaches them about what qualities employers seek. Newquist doesn’t get behind the counter much anymore, but she’s still there seven days a week. Some customers ask if she ever goes home. “I tell them that I turn into a pumpkin at five o’clock and go home, but I’m a just phone call away.”
Christopher Van Stelle - Executive Director of Air Group One and Coordinator of AirShow
In Hangar 13 at Gillespie Field, Christopher Van Stelle’s passion transcends the limits of El Cajon. The licensed pilot and executive officer of Air Group One (1915 North Marshall Ave.), a nonprofit organization that commemorates veterans through the maintenance and operation of antique aircraft, explains that aviation is something he simply grew up with since his father, too, was a pilot. “My father, on a Sunday morning, would wake up, and he’d pull out a chart of Southern California and say, ‘Where do you want to go? Where have we not been? Let’s go there,’” Van Stelle says. After growing up and learning under the wings of his father, Van Stelle developed a strong liking for aerobatics and, later, antique aircrafts. Now, the management of Air Group One keeps him busy, particularly the planning that goes into the annual AirShow San Diego, whose cancellation this year came as a disappointment to Van Stelle who had been coordinating the show in past years. After living in El Cajon for so long, he admits that a lot has changed, but the relationships he’s developed with community since childhood endures. “I fly a lot out of other places, but this is just a whole different field and yes, time marches on and things will change, but there’s something special here.”