[Editor's Note: We all know local music and dive bars go hand-in-hand. So in the interest of merging the two together on Heard Mentality, we bring you our newest nightlife column Dive, Dive, My Darling. Read this week as our Mexican-in-chief, Gustavo Arellano stumbles into the dive bar scene to find crazy stories, meet random weirdos and guzzle good booze.]
“That's going to be us in a couple of years,” I told Julio as we waited in the parking lot just outside Goody's Tavern in San Clemente's downtown Triangle. We were looking at a group of middle-aged men chugging some beers next to the Dumpsters.
“Nah,” Julio cracked. “We're going to be drinking from bottles!”
I had promised my crew–Julio the Labor Man, Ben the Teacher, Danny Godinez from the amazing Anepalco's Cafe in Orange, and his fellow guerrerense Fernando–an early evening of mayhem in the Spanish Village By the Sea. I promised jarheads, maybe a broken pool cue over someone's back, definitely a parade of drunk blondes in flip-flops and tight T-shirts. It was Fourth of July weekend, after all. But what awaited us in San Clemente wasn't the fine bromance that is Knuckleheads or the march of the Marines through Ole's Tavern, but a quiet evening at one of the longest-standing bars in Orange County. Disappointing? Not at all.
Before hitting the Red Fox Lounge, we grubbed on the amazing food at the Surfin' Chicken, where owner José “El Cuatro” Martinez has been serving me since I was a kindergartner. There, we were embarrassed to discover that Ben (a lifelong santanero) had never visited–not just the Surfin' Chicken, but San Clemente, period. “I take him to Anaheim,” Julio cracked, “and he starts to freak out.”
So I gave Ben a historical-revisionist take of the town–bashed red-baiting Ole Hanson; explained the racial dynamics of the city; didn't mention the sad saga of Steve Woods, the San Clemente High student whose death by impalement with a paint roller after a fight at Calafia Beach in 1993 served as a spark for the nasty politics of Proposition 187. A group of young Marines in their khaki best entered the restaurant (hey, fellas, whatever happened to the days when leathernecks got the Marines seal as tattoos instead of weak-ass tribal scribbles?) and gave us dirty looks; out of respect to El Cuatro, we let them slide.
After polishing off our plates, we drove through the Surf Ghetto, taking the time to explain Rainbow Sandals to Ben (yep, he didn't know it had a company store, either) before ending up at the Red Fox around 7:30 p.m. The scene was the usual–busy but not crowded with relaxed, middle-aged men and women, as well as a couple of young people thrown into the mix, liquoring up before hitting the next spot. Most of the action was on the patio, where people drank and smoked while NASCAR flashed on the flat-screen TVs; inside, people exchanged small talk as the digital jukebox blasted through the KLSX-FM 95.5 soundtrack–I lost track of how many Doors songs were played in an hour after “Light My Fire.” There is nothing craft in this brass-and-mahogany haven besides the island tables made of brick and the red Christmas lights strung from the low ceiling. Instead, what you get are the beautiful basics: White Russians, Jack and Cokes, and Bloody Marys in fat tumblers, all filled to the brim, all of them as strong as the sea breeze, and all of them getting us Mexis yapping.
We could've walked out and gone to Goody's for our fightin' fix–but by that point, we fell into the Red Fox's slow groove. The most scandalous thing that happened was the gabacho who left our table once we got too loud–but that was more our fault, not his. And there was no service to speak of–you need to order your drinks from the bar and take them to wherever you're seated–but that wasn't racism; that's what happens when only one gal mans the place.
“See, Ben?” I told him once we left. “San Clemente is chill.” He agreed. And everything at the Red Fox was much calmer than the mayhem that awaited us in SanTana . . . but that's another column.
BEST NEWS OF THE EVENING: Anepalco's is getting a bar built at its Ayres Hotel location. Mezcal for everyone!
STRANGEST MEMENTO: A tattered, autographed mugshot of Drew Brees in his San Diego Chargers uniform. He hasn't played for the Bolts since 2005.
Red Fox Lounge, 220 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 492-3403.