By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In an age when everyone is eating healthier, exercising more and drinking responsibly, or at least attempting to do those things, there’s a funky old joint in Grantville that defies the wellness movement. It’s a place where nobody judges your capacity to wash down a top sirloin steak with a few fireball cocktails and a cigarette.
Enter the Camel’s Breath Inn, an oasis-themed watering hole set within a generic shopping plaza fronted by the considerably more expensive, yet equally outdated Black Angus Steakhouse.
At more than 30 years old, the Camel bows to the days when bars served only domestic beers and common rack drinks, and when ground beef tacos actually existed outside of Taco Bell. All of those are still the norm here, although just recently Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA nudged its way onto the tap list.
“It’s selling well,” says longtime waitress-bartender Joelle, who makes gallon batches of zippy bloody mary mix in preparation for weekend breakfasts (9 a.m. – 1 p.m.), when a plate of steak, eggs and potatoes sells for as little as $9.99.
To call it brunch inside this workingman’s haunt with an odd cult following would be pretentious. Or to order a cocktail that even verges on frou-frou would be futile because the bar isn’t equipped with a blender. Conversely, you can expect a little mojo in your bloody mary, which is garnished with olives, pickles and green beans.
Just past the sizable smoking patio, which is occupied mostly by mature regulars during the day and slightly younger peeps at night, are two interior bars separated by a small kitchen run by Laura Lazano. She’s worked the grill and stovetop for 17 years after previously cooking for a sorority house at San Diego State University.
Despite her no-frills, inexpensive menu, she beer batters the onions rings to order, makes from scratch the Velveeta-Parmesan queso that comes with house-made chicken fingers and hand forms the burgers before slapping them onto the grill.
I’ve eaten here a few times, visiting originally for the steak breakfast. The chop of choice is usually grocery store-quality top sirloin, which I found juicy, flavorful and slightly chewy.
But if Lazano finds deals on rib eye, New York strip or other cuts, she grabs them. Last weekend, a porterhouse for $12.99 was available, which she described as “the size of my face.” Whatever steaks are in the offing, they come with two eggs and crispy, cubed potatoes, not to mention a side of classic rock streaming from the jukebox.
Other breakfast choices include chorizo and eggs, veggie omelets and corned beef hash straight from a can and crisped nicely on the grill — a shameful dish I confess to liking. There’s also a specials board at the bar, which can include anything Lazano chooses to pull out of her sleeve that day: ham steaks, chili, spaghetti, fish and chips, etc.
From the regular menu, the beer-battered onion rings are the bomb. Greasy for sure, but the batter is at the same time so light and delicate, it practically floats through your mouth. There’s an art to making these, and Lazano has it nailed.
A pair of ground beef tacos I ordered recently for lunch featured semi-crispy corn tortillas stuffed with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. The meat was crumbly and tender, but under-seasoned until I kicked it up with fresh salsa served alongside.
Burgers and sandwiches come in a few varieties, starting with sliders on Hawaiian buns called “hump burgers.” There are also half-pound beef burgers and third-pound turkey burgers in addition to Cajun chicken sandwiches. Beyond that, the pickings filter down to Caesar and taco salads, potato skins, chicken fingers and fries.
Whether you duck in for the food or to wet your whistle or to take in the live DJs on weekend nights, the Camel’s Breath presides as a quirky, unpretentious establishment that has withstood the test of time. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth a peek.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.