For as long as I can remember, it seems like City Heights has always been referred to as a “neighborhood on the rise.” But this remark is somewhat misleading, since it asserts that “The Heights” has something to rise above. With the exception of the farcical City Heights Retail Village, which includes a Panda Express, a cell phone store and all the other pertinences, it's one of the few neighborhoods that's remained virtually untouched by major chains. That is, there's not a Starbucks right across the street from a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
It's a city within a city, where the streets are always filled with people, and, unlike Downtown or La Jolla, every race and ostensibly every religion is clearly represented. It's a borough ignored by scenesters and losers equally, which is tragic because City Heights has a lot to offer.
In a recent Union-Tribune dining guide, there wasn't one restaurant in City Heights listed. La Jolla's listings were in the teens, and Hillcrest was overrepresented, but anything east of Interstate 15 was pretty much shafted. Not only are there great eats in City Heights, but a lot of the time you're getting a true cultural experience.
While a lot of the restaurants try to incorporate a more culture-friendly Chinese/Vietnamese menu mix, there are some great authentic Vietnamese places. Check out Pho Vân Vietnamese (4233 El Cajon Blvd.) for the best Saigon-style grub in town. If you're a bit more adventurous, tucked away in a strip mall is Cam Ky Barbeque (4141 University Ave.), where you can get something representing Ralphie's Christmas dinner in A Christmas Story. Can't wait til' Christmas? Just skip the tryptophan-induced drowsiness during Thanksgiving and pick up a roasted duck (head, beak and all) at Tom's BBQ (4414 University Ave.), where they're displayed hanging right in front of the window.
Not ready for all that yet? There are some cheap and greasy delights at Howard's Pizza and Subs (4202 University Ave.) that'll make you miss your brownstone in Brooklyn. And speaking of New York, anybody remember Babu's Dream Café from Seinfeld? You know, the place that offered a little bit of everything, from Italian to Chinese. Well, the dream's alive at George's Café (4010 43rd St.) where you can get a side order of 99-cent Lo Mein to complement your fried chicken.
One of the favorites is Red Sea (4717 University Ave.), an Ethiopian restaurant that's delicious and inexpensive, but also a great place to get your veg on with some spongy injera bread substituting for a fork. Need a delicious sandwich, seek out Nate's Deli (3120 Euclid Ave.) which happens to be surrounded by the City Farmer's Nursery.
Right before 54th and Euclid merge, virtually hidden, is the best of the best. Bonnie Jean's Soul Food & Gift Shop (1964 54th St.) is the real deal, Holyfield! In its ninth year, Bonnie Jean's is not only a great place to spot a Charger, but is also the best soul food joint this Southern boy has spotted since leaving five years ago. Get the fried chicken with some collard greens, yams and corn bread. Wash it down with some iced tea that's as sweet as the service. It beats anything served up at that overrated Pot Pie joint. Just don't go on Sunday. Seriously.
Bars in City Heights are avoided like a pompous boss. Universally excused as too rough-and-tumble for the average folk, there are some excellent watering holes where you might not necessarily find your favorite band playing, but rather drunkenly breaking up.
Right on the border of North Park you'll find the excellent Zombie Lounge (3519 El Cajon Blvd.)-a great place to piss away the time while watching horror movies on Sunday night, or slamming to old-school punk on Thursday. Right down the street is Chaser's (3615 El Cajon Blvd.). It's a bit more dive-ish, but it sports a wicked karaoke night where you can hear a grizzled old drunk belt out Whitney Houston's “The Greatest Love Of All.” Seriously, nothing beats a slurred “I believe that children are the future.”
If you feel like getting your ass whomped in pool, make an appointment with the sharks over at VU Café & Billiards (4686 University Ave.), where the beers are cold and the tables are hot (watch out for flying cue balls though-these guys are touchy).
The place that really deserves your business is The Tower (4757 University Ave.), a joint you've probably noticed a million times but never bothered to look into. With a unique junkyard-style interior look and a tower-of-Babel exterior, it's perfect for local pseudo-celebrity types to expose a really hip place while filming their underground music shows. Bonus: It sports a tattoo parlor on the top floor just in case said celebrities decide to finally get that butterfly tattoo on their ankle after a few too many Jagermeister and Red Bulls.
Whatever ails you, chances are you'll find the remedy somewhere in City Heights. For some really great herbal salves, ask the folks at Tiêm Thuôc Bac Viet-Huong Herbs (4103 El Cajon Blvd.). If the Healthy Back Store doesn't cut it, and you have some bucks, see Dr. Trung Quy Tran (4139 University Ave.) for some traditional acupuncture. If the needles (or the price) scare you, head up the block to Far East Spa (4223 University Ave.) for some hot rocks and deep-tissue. And if you're a jittery caffeine fiend, get your fix at Coffee's Of The World (4573 University Ave.), which, at first glance, looks like someone's house but instead is filled with anything Starbuck's offers and more. Plus you won't get that “I'm such a corporate whore” feeling after your purchase.
If you're the blingin' type, you'll find just the right ice at Eclipse Jewelry (4213 University Ave.). If you need your bling fixed or tricked, head north to Gold Fixers Jewelers (4109 El Cajon Blvd.). If you overcompensate with your car, just head down El Cajon between 37th and 42nd Street and take your pick. Sincerely, you could throw a dart out your window and probably hit a place with the spinning rims you so crave.
The place is filled with small bodegas, but there are a few that deserve special props. El Especial Produce (4301 University Ave.) may look suspect, but it has an extensive selection of delicious fruits and veggies. If you're cooking up some Eastern cuisine, you can get the bona fides at Hoa Hing Market (4143 University Ave.). You might want to ask for help, though, because not a lot of the labels are readable. Next door is some great fresh fish, and while the selection at Trang's Seafood Market (4143 University Ave.) is a bit limited, the fact that you can literally pick the fish you want out of the tank kind of makes up for it.
Throwing a party? There's no 'hood more festive. If you need a piñata for the birthday, look no further than Casa De La Piñata (4204 University Ave.). As if the name wasn't a dead giveaway, you can find or customize just about any piñata you want here. For the rest, including costumes, head down to Mini Bazar Yamima (3725 University Ave.). And if you need party favors of another kind, well, there's always Exotic Video & Gifts (3711 El Cajon Blvd.).
You might want to head back to North Park if you want Thrift Store mecca, but City Heights does sport one of the best in Children's Hospital Thrift Store (4341 El Cajon Blvd.). The place is huge and it's impossible to leave without something that'll clutter your house even more. If your interest in the sport is fleeting, steer clear of Soccer Solutions (4241 El Cajon Blvd.). If not, well, then it's a swell place to find that obscure video of your favorite player's best goals. Also, check out Folklor Mexicano (3883 Euclid Ave.) to scope some great Mexican art and wears that are very affordable.
But the two best places to buy in City Heights are what you might call polar opposites. O'Connor's Church Goods (3720 El Cajon Blvd.) has been around since 1936 and is still one of the coolest shops no matter what deity you bow to. It's like the Home Depot of Christian idolatry, with everything from life-size statues of the man, to about every style of rosary you can imagine. After your baptism, head to Synthetic Trips (4727 University Ave.), which isn't as old as O'Conner's (it's been around since 1967), but offers things that might, at least, help you think you are seeing God. What separates this store from the rest, though, is the classic vintage '70s posters on the wall. Like Jesus said, man, “All you need is love.”
Walking around, you can get the feeling that City Heights may well be the last great unconquerable place. It's that neighborhood that every major city has. Unpretentious, yet unfrequented, underdeveloped yet underrated. It's what Stevie Wonder was singing about in “Living for the City.” It's glorious if you let it be. You might not want to live there, but once you do, you'll never leave.