When Steve and I first decided to take on this project, our conversation went something like this:
Steve: Are we going to go to EVERY single place on the 101?
Me: Yep, every single one
Steve: What about the bad ones?
Me: Even those
Steve: But not Cap’n Keno’s. We can’t really go there.
Me: Well slap my ass and call me Judy! We’re going to Cap’t Keno’s!
Cap’n Keno’s. If you live in the area, you’ve passed it a million times. You can barely read the chipped and pealing sign out front. It’s a dark, closed-in place. You’re not even really sure it’s ever open. You certainly have never been there nor do you know anyone else who’s ever been there. But my God it’s been there a long time, just look at the place!
Cap’n Keno’s originally opened its doors as The Shamrock in 1929, changing it’s name later to El Rancho. In 1970 new owners changed it to it’s current name of Cap’n Keno’s. This is an old school, ranch-style, roadside eatery. This place is the real deal, no joke.
I’m pretty sure the real beauty of Cap’n Keno’s starts when the cocktail lounge opens, as the sign says, at 6:00 am. When we arrived at 6:00 pm, people were staggering out. In fact, one of these people was a white haired, unshaven, drunk, leather-faced man with an old style pipe barely hanging from his lip. “Captain Keno…” I whispered in awe under my breath. I know it was him.
When you walk in, you order at the counter. Unless you want a special…then you go sit down and wait for someone to take your order. So, if you want the special but your hubby wants a sandwich, then you have to order and pay separately. Cash only. Seriously, I’m not making this up.
The menu is on the wall. The Saturday night specials are a prime rib dinner for $12 or crab legs for $22. I wanted the crab which meant I had to find a table and wait for someone to take my order which took a really, really long time. Everyone else in my group ordered right away at the counter. (Why couldn’t we just order the specials at the counter like everything else? Weird!)
The first challenge was to find a table big enough for our group because this place was filled with Cap’n Keno’s regulars. These are old, weathered folk who have been ridden hard and put away wet. Man I felt…young! We walked into the adjacent area which I will call The Red Room. Red vinyl booths, red walls and red lighting. Lotta red but no empty tables.
Continuing on further, we came to the bar which was long and well used. The folks in those stools were very comfortable and were not leaving for a loooong time.
Instead, we sat on the other side of the restaurant which had more of a diner feel. By the time someone finally came to take our order of the specials, the rest of our group got their food. My son ordered a Keno burger and fries. He gave it a B. After two bites he turned it into a B-. Debbie was less generous with the rating of her burger.
Steve ordered a carved turkey sandwich that came with all-you-can-eat soup. We reluctantly tried the clam chowder first. It was a thick, clam paste, that probably came directly from a can. It was served with marbled raisin bread that was not baked this month.
We tried the vegetable soup next which had an unpleasant, vinegary taste. All-you-can-eat in this case was one bite of each soup. That was all-we-could-eat. Sadly, his turkey sandwich was all dark meat which is not what he likes. Isn’t dark meat supposed to be moister than white meat? Hmmm. It came with a huge mound of mashed potatoes that tasted just fine. It was a very beige plate of food, in all ways.
Tracy ordered 21 shrimp in a basket for $4.99. The shrimp had a very thick breading on them. Really, there could have been anything shrimp-shaped inside that breading. Maybe not even seafood. The possibilities are endless. But if you like things fried and crunchy, this is a heck of a deal!
By this time, I was getting really hungry with no sign of crab. They did bring me a green salad they served from a bucket. Tracy’s salad had some brown edges. Debbie never got her salad. Even after she asked about it. Twice.
After everyone had finished eating, my crab was served. It came with a claw cracker, but no small crab fork. Everyone else’s dinner was very cheap but I don’t think $22 for this was such a deal at all. The claws were very hard to crack. Maybe “crack” isn’t the right word because they really bent more than cracked. They were terribly over boiled. But I waited a really long time for these legs, and damn it, I was going to eat them! After a bunch of futile attempts to extract anything more that crumbs (that’s right, the crab was a bit crumbly), I asked the waiter to please bring me a crab fork. The waiter brought another fork exactly the same size as the dinner fork. Who serves crab without small a crab fork?! Cap’n Keno’s!
At one point I was holding a leg with both feet, pulling with both hands, and gnawing through the shell with my molars like some crazed animal trying to win the crab meat battle. Shell was flying everywhere. I was crying in frustration while my group, completely done with their own dinners, watched and laughed hysterically at their ninja-crab-crazed friend. This wasn’t a meal, this was a workout! I was sweating profusely while scrounging for tidbits of success. I think my next Crossfit workout should be something like this:
20 kettlebell swings
1 Cap’n Keno’s crab leg
5 rounds for time- GO!
Bottom Line: The patrons of Cap’n Keno’s are the same since they opened in 1929. The menu hasn’t changed since 1929. They haven’t vacuumed their carpets since 1929. Sure Cap’n Keno’s is a crusty old dump. But somewhere between the $2.99 spaghetti dinner and the $4.45 chicken fried steak, you will find the quaint charm of this place. Listen closely and you will hear whispers of ghosts past spilling their secrets from the stinky Cap’n Keno’s bar.
Cap’n Keno’s, Encinitas wouldn’t be the same without you. Don’t repaint your sign. Don’t change a thing!
*** I want to give HUGE props to Cap’n Keno’s for donating free meals to those in need at Christmas time. They are a true pillar to the community!