When the College Area comes up in any conversation, you'll undoubtedly always get snide remarks about it being "infested by students" or "seedy" or "all strip malls." While taco shops and liquor stores may outnumber people three to one, the personality of the area is burrowed deep inside the cafés and bars where the kids still go to hang out even after they're all grow'd up. The neighborhood-one of San Diego's older communities and least chic, especially along its El Cajon thoroughfare-is still changing and evolving. Recent efforts by a neighborhood council brought street light flags noting the attractive aspects of the area. The best things to hunt down here, though, are probably never going to be depicted anywhere on a street flag.
The Hot Monkey Love Café (5960 El Cajon Blvd.) is only two years old, but it's already the most promising newcomer on the boulevard. The joint is named after a band (they played with Jewel in Alaska once!), but the quirky atmosphere moves past kitsch and into munchy heaven with an array of tasty treats. Hot Monkey hosts live music every night of the week, and it's usually not half bad, so whether you're a college kid who is supposed to be studying, or you've come to study the college kids, this place is a good bet.
Last year, Joe Flammini took what used to be Kelly's Pub and transformed the hangout into a music aficionado's paradise. A new stage was put in, beer pours out of the tap and a host of local artists parades through Java Joe's Pub (6344 El Cajon Blvd.) at all hours of the night. The new Joe's holds a whopping 143 people-up from the tiny early-'90s Poway location and Ocean Beach digs and down from the 150-capacity Bacon Street venue that Flammini sold in 2002. Most old-time Joe's fans are put off by the new stage that practically sits in the doorway, tiki bar overhang and the beer that took the place of timid coffees and teas, but Flammini is slowly reshaping the pub to feel like the Java Joe's of yore-where Jewel, Jason Mraz and Tristan Prettyman made their names.
Stacks Vinyl (6902 Federal Ave.) opened up a little more than a year ago. Staff at the hip-hop and dance-focused outlet are absolutely head-over-heels to find you anything you need, whether it's in stock or not. Their welcoming nature is rare in genre-specific music stores-and in music stores in general-so it feels comfortable thumbing through records while The Beat Junkies jams over the speakers.
Just west of 70th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, El Asadero is actually an authentic Mexican butcher shop, but the accompanying grill serves just about the best taquitos de asado o pollo you can find north (or possibly even south) of the border. The kiddies like to line up in front late at night, but the authenticity of the cooking is well worth any wait or inconvenience involved in getting to those damn tacos. Tile tables outside provide a nice, sunny lunching area. The shop borders an Auto Mart and La Petite-Rouge Motel (Christmas lights all year round, baby!), but once you get past that, you'll find a carniceria with more personality than all the strip-mall fast-food joints on El Cajon Boulevard combined (and there are hundreds of them).
Check out the coffee house stare-down between Starbucks and The Daily Grind on 67th and El Cajon. The Daily Grind sits kitty-corner on the west side, and while lines tend to indicate that Starbucks has cornered the yuppie office-man market, Grind wins with amazing mushroom omelets and Good Ol' Betty servers that hearken back to your hazy childhood. Or was that just from the movies?
Because we all can't stand receiving fruitcake for the holidays, check out Blue Dolphin Studios (6350 El Cajon Blvd.). While it does seem that only a dippy hippie would give any type of colored glass as a gift, the pieces of stained glass available here will remind you more of Hamptons submarine-window chic than flower-power meek. Gramma would love it.
The Living Room (59th and El Cajon) is an essential hot spot to read, eat and quietly check out the girls who think pajama pants and fuzzy bunny slippers are essential outfits to wear out on weeknights. Don't count on picking up anything more than a coffee buzz-this crowd is buried in their books.
The graffiti covering the east side of Nova Skate Shop (6168 El Cajon Blvd.) is more an indication of thriving artisans than stubborn outlaws. The cartoon-shadowed emphasis of the characters that stand higher than 10 feet shows that a little sense of humor is blossoming in the skater crowd after the late-'90s crackdown on skateboarding on public property, parking structures, sidewalks, stairways and, well, pretty much everywhere. The San Diego State kids love to meet-and-greet at all hours of the night for impromptu skate sessions through the school's structures and neighborhood's obstacles.