As the giant holes on every other block attest, East Village is changing. But spend a day walking its sidewalks past an odd amalgam of wig shops, thrift stores, restaurant supply outlets and homeless encampments and it's hard not to get the impression that you've strayed outside the Green Zone.
Still, East Villagers know that in their neighborhood looks aren't everything, and they have a keen appreciation of the fact that they are living amidst downtown's last frontier.
According to the sign outside Gen Lai Sen (1065 12th Ave.), this sketchy-looking restaurant has "the best Chinese food in town." You'll get no arguments here. With monstrous bowls of noodles, excellent seafood dishes and creations that the chefs at those steam table joints have never dreamed of-all at low, low prices-there's ample reason this place fills up with Chinese diners.
Sushi Deli 1 (828 Broadway) is another simple-looking venue that draws a crowd. Serving cheap, fresh sushi and outstanding drink specials-a 22-ounce Sapporo and an 8-ounce hot sake for just $4.99!-lines form outside for just about every meal. It's thanks to Sushi Deli's large portions and reasonable prices that average San Diegans, and poor alternative-newsweekly writers, have been able to parlay rare sushi binges into a weekly, sometimes biweekly, event.
The results are as equally spectacular when Mexican food meets tofu at Pokez (947 E St.), a favorite for hungry hipsters and their pale vegan girlfriends. The food is cheap and they serve breakfast all day. What more do you want?
Despite its misleading name, Café Moto (1205 J St.) isn't a café. Instead it's a coffee importer and roaster that supplies local restaurants and coffee shops with coffee and tea. But savvy caffeine fiends still pop in to get their fix, buying freshly roasted beans by the pound and cutting out the middleman. But Café Noir (447 Ninth Ave.), buried in Petco Park's shadow, is definitely still worth discovering or rediscovering. Not only does Noir capture the warm and cozy atmosphere that so many other cafés fail miserably to obtain, but patrons here actually converse. Can you imagine? Two strangers engaged in pleasant repartee-that could lead to something.
Landlord Jim's (1546 Broadway), The Honey Bee Hive (1409 C St.) and The Jewel Box (805 16th St.) comprise East Village's dive-bar triad, and visiting all three on a Saturday night typically results in spending most of Sunday wishing you hadn't. Still, there's something about these dark dens of depravity that, despite the pounding headache, keep loyal patrons coming back. If you're looking for entertainment, the Roseary Room (947 E St.) and Ventana (338 Seventh Ave.) both offer an eclectic variety of live music and special events. At Dizzy's (344 Seventh Ave.) the focus is solely on the music-no food or alcohol-but that's good enough for the all-ages crowds of jazz and blues fans who flock there. Finally, Voz Alta (1544 Broadway), is a tiny arts venue with big aspirations and is well on its way to becoming East Village's cultural center.
If you prefer to shop like you're panning for gold, Tasha's Music City (1018 Ninth Ave.) and Wahrenbrock's Books (726 Broadway) give patient audio- and bibliophiles the opportunity to sift through dusty tombs in hopes of hitting pay dirt. Less work is required at Siesta Records (909 E St.), which has settled into its new digs, along with an entire block of interesting independent shops that collectively showcase East Village's potential.
Lest we forget the neighborhood's 800-pound gorilla, Petco Park's Park at the Park has standing-room-only seats for just $5, making a day at the park for those who arrive early one of the best deals at any major sporting event in America.
There's a little bit (read: hardly anything) of everything in Cortez Hill that's worth checking out if you happen to find yourself in this part of town with some time to kill.
Serving inexpensive Persian lunches and dinners Darband Fifth Avenue Grill (1556 Fifth Ave.) is the culinary jewel of Cortez Hill. Plates here overflow with colorful grilled vegetables, fragrant basmati rice, hearty stews and kabobs of filet mignon, chicken, koobideh and lamb. Twigg's Coffeehouse (702 Ash St.) at the base of the El Cortez building is a very chill cafe and a nice place to sit with a book and enjoy the afternoon sun. It's also a great place for lunch, serving grilled panini sandwiches and salads, but breakfast is the main event, with homemade baked goods and the standard cast of caffeinated characters They also have a bar for early starters. And no matter what you call them-subs, hoagies, torpedoes or foot-longs-EZ-J's Sandwiches (1350 Sixth Ave.) makes some mean ones.
Finally, you never know what the award-winning mad scientists at The Sledgehammer Theatre at Saint Cecilia's Playhouse (1620 Sixth Ave.) are going to come up with. The Sledgehammer crew is always testing itself with cutting-edge material, lesser-known works and Spartan takes on traditional drama as it seeks to develop new voices.