By Dr. Ink
At the urging of a few friends who swear by the happy hour at Fred’s Mexican Cafe in the heart of Old Town, curiosity finally got the best of me.
There I was, competing briefly for parking in a free lot several blocks away and then shuffling slowly down San Diego Avenue with the herds of tourists who are responsible for keeping every business alive along this kitschy, historic lane. Though normally not my scene, the neighborhood’s theme-park feel, and crowded sidewalks somehow always puts me in the mood to drink.
The high-fiesta atmosphere at Fred’s is quintessential Old Town. A riot of color permeates the place, which features an enormous outdoor patio, an indoor dining room, and a welcoming bar lounge perfect for socializing. Out front is an outdoor grill used for tortilla-making, which usually starts around 4 p.m. on most days.
The happy hour bargains are kept simple. All selected booze and food offerings are $5, and they’re clearly stated on the menu and website.
I was seated under an effective heater on the patio, and beneath colorful ceiling beams and Mexican paper banners. Within seconds, complimentary salsa and large tortilla chips fried to a bubbly crisp arrived. They disappeared down my gullet in no time. For the Doritos crowd visiting from places deprived of Mexican kitchens, these chips and salsa will excite the heck out of them.
After seeing “Mexican candy” shots slung in San Diego party bars for years, it wasn’t until this visit to Fred’s that it felt right to try one. Listed on the happy hour menu alongside other options such as tequila sunrise shots, Palomas and pints of Corona, the prospect of Watermelon Pucker mixed with ghost pepper-infused tequila fit the vibe.
In some establishments, the shot is called a “lollipop” or “paleta.” And in nearly all cases, the glass is rimmed with chili-lime salt — or in this case, salt and Tajin seasoning.
It was love at first sip. Not overly spicy, but the kind of potion that stings the back of your throat for a few seconds until the tangy, juicy watermelon schnapps comes to the rescue. Good for slugging or sipping, it takes effect rather quickly. And given its dazzling orange color, it’s aesthetically pleasing as well.
Nearly all six food items on the $5 menu are available only during happy hour. They include Mexican pizza, adobada sliders, a chimichanga, and what I thought was a very memorable chicken tinga tostada. The deeply spiced chicken (white and dark meat) was generously piled onto a crispy tortilla along with shredded cabbage, tender pinto beans, tomatoes, queso fresco and sour cream. Filling and flavorful, it offers lots of bang for the buck.
Fred’s often gets a bad rap by locals because it’s a magnet for tourists. But so what? From what I saw, it caters to them well, which means our experience won’t be anything less.