The Deal Hunters : From San Ysidro to Lake Elsinore to Cabazon in the Desert, These Shoppers Trekked the Discount Outlet Malls . . . and Came Back Fulfilled

TIMES STAFF WRITER: Barron is a copy editor for The Times National desk.

Armed with hair-trigger credit cards, we set out at daybreak.

In two days, my shopping buddy Denise and I hit three outlet malls. We started at the San Diego Factory Outlet Center, which is really in San Ysidro, swung back to the Lake Elsinore Outlet Center, which is really in Lake Elsinore, and cut through vast stretches of nothing to the Desert Hills Factory Stores, which is really in the desert.

Now, 414 miles, 143 stores and four melted credit cards later, we've amassed piles of DEALS. It would have killed lesser men. Actually, it would have killed any man I know. But Denise and I are made of sterner stuff. We stalked the wild discount, battled bogus sales and came back with our trophies crammed in the trunk.

In San Ysidro, after a 2 1/2-hour drive from Santa Monica, we needed nourishment. But the only thing to eat at this huge shopping center is vending machine candy or pushcart hot dogs. Their one restaurant closed a couple months ago, making room for yet another store. We couldn't argue with that. We got back in our car and drove to a Denny's. You've gotta keep up your strength.

Back at the outlet center parking lot, we discussed strategy. We would hit systematically, starting at the north end of the somewhat down-at-the-heels shopping strip. First stop was the Book Warehouse. It was tricky terrain. The deals were there; we got nine books, but you had to aim carefully between the stacks of drivel.

We returned to the car and stuck our purchases in the trunk. Shopper tip: Park in the middle of the complex and unload often. Travel light and travel fast, I say. Next was the Dockers store. Bought a polo shirt for my boyfriend. Mercy kill.

At some stores, the selection fell at the extreme ends of the size spectrum. Roseanne Arnold or Twiggy could rake it in, especially at the L'eggs/Hanes/Bali outlet. Nike had some great shoes for Sasquatch. And we saw a lot of the same stuff over and over again.

By the time we hit the Marika outlet at the Mexico end of the San Ysidro center, we had notched five bags apiece. We had spent $385.61, combined, and saved about $320 off the retail prices, judging from the discounts noted on the tags. We headed north on Interstate 15 to Lake Elsinore, winding through the Santa Ana Mountains in that hush of satisfaction one feels after a day fulfilling a primal need, and fulfilling it well.

Since we had shopped well past moonrise in San Ysidro, we headed straight to dinner at Guadalajara restaurant in historic downtown Lake Elsinore, a three-block stream of brick sidewalks, cozy benches and Tivoli lights flowing past quaint storefronts. Actually, it was "G----lajara," according to the cursive neon sign. I had the "El Charro" and Denise had enchiladas verdes . We both had a congratulatory margarita. The food was terrific. And yet another deal. The El Charro, with steak, enchilada, chile relleno, beans, rice, guacamole and tortillas, was less than $10. The margaritas were only $3.25 apiece, and they were muy grande . Just the way we like 'em.

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The Lakeview Inn was just one exit south on I-15, off Railroad Canyon Road. A bargain-hunter's oasis if there ever was one. A double "spa" room for less than $50, with our AAA discount. The "spa" part is a whirlpool tub in the bathroom. That tub was a necessity after pounding the pavement all day. And despite our skepticism, there really was a lake and a view. Very pretty sunrise. We saw it in the rearview mirror as we set out for the next hunting ground.

One caveat about the Lakeview, though. The "continental breakfast" is a box of doughnuts and a pitcher of orange juice in the office. So we went back to historic downtown Lake Elsinore and found Granny's Kitchen.

Granny's Kitchen is just around the corner from G----lajara. Corned beef hash, two poached eggs, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, for $3.95. Denise had blueberry pancakes, which she doused with more blueberries, then drowned in boysenberry syrup. And the coffee kept coming. We were outta there for less than $15, and we were torqued for speed.

The Lake Elsinore Outlet Center, a long rectangle of cream stucco and terra-cotta tile on the northern side of town, is 59 stores and growing. And it contains Mecca: the Liz Claiborne mega-factory store. It's huge. It's stocked. And it's trouble with a capital T. This is where Denise got off her best shots: a dress, skirt, shirt and turtleneck. I would have bought this cute miniskirt, if I hadn't felt like a popped roll of refrigerator biscuits after that breakfast. You always remember the ones that got away.

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But it was also hot with a capital H, and this is shopping alfresco. Even going early, we were suffering. And we knew the desert awaited, so we limited our time to only four hours there. It's heartbreaking to leave an outlet center after having gotten inside only half the stores. We spent two hours solid at Liz's, though. We made quick hits at Van Heusen, Leslie Fay, Marika, Nike and Jones New York.

At 2 p.m., we headed back south on 15, exited on the 74, drove northeast past a pile of rocks painted like animals and fruit, got lost in Perris, hit a closed exit ramp, finally came out on the 215, headed north to the 60, east to the 10, to Cabazon. The desert was fruitful.

The highlights here were the WestPoint Pepperell mega-store and the new Harry and David.

WP has sheets, towels, tablecloths, bathmats . . . you know the score. If you can't find a toothbrush cup to suit you here, you're too picky. There were bargain bins, too, with deals like Elvis Presley potholders for a buck-fifty. Denise nearly swooned. They also have a "Recovery Room," a quiet living room-type area with a TV for those who lack the "fire in the belly" for a shelf-by-shelf crawl through this 26,000-square-foot wilderness.

Harry and David are the catalogue cheese-basket folks. We spied the cases of cheesecakes and truffles in the back and were dumbstruck. And free samples. What an idea.

If you can't fight off hunger with the Harry and David samples, there's a small food court at this shopping center. But as the moon rose on a second shopping day, and store clerks begged us to leave, we headed out for a little dinner before the long ride back to L.A. A few exits down the 10 is a town called Beaumont. We stopped at a steakhouse there called the Rusty Lantern. It's one of those family-type places with lots of red leather and blue hair.

The waitress called us "hon" and brought us more food every 15 minutes. Their dinners come in five courses, from shrimp cocktail to cheesecake. It was like being at your aunt's house and eating three meals in one sitting because you're supposed to be polite and can't tell her to STOP IT.

But we saw it as our reward for a successful hunt. We ate happily, and constantly, for an hour and a half. We reminisced about the best deals, the first buys, the near-misses. There are some moments between two women that transcend words. Times that are silently understood as right and whole. Things you just can't explain to a man. Denise said it's like deer hunting, but nobody gets killed.

Our best deals? A $28 shirt for $7.99 at Dockers in San Ysidro, and $30 bike shorts for $9 at Nike in Lake Elsinore.

So, maybe if you figure we spent about $100 apiece to save about $250 apiece, it doesn't seem like that great a deal. But the trip was a time to talk about work, family, politics, the judicial system, and which one of us is a fall and which one a summer. And we never would have had another reason to drive down California 74, and see the rocks painted like broken apples and green frogs. And there's nothing to compare to that feeling of satisfaction, driving home with your trunk full of plastic bags, giggling stupidly like you got away with something.

Budget for Two

Gas to San Ysidro, Lake

Elsinore, Cabazon and back

to Santa Monica: $18.15

One night at Lakeview Inn: 46.75

Lunch, Denny's, San Ysidro: 21.55

Dinner, Guadalajara, Lake Elsinore: 27.06

Breakfast, Granny's Kitchen: 14.07

Dinner, Rusty Lantern, Beaumont: 39.53

Snack breaks: 11.39

FINAL TAB: $178.50

San Diego Factory Outlet Center, 4498 Camino de la Plaza, San Ysidro 92173; tel. (619) 690-2999. Lake Elsinore Outlet Center, 17600 Collier Ave., Lake Elsinore 92530; tel. (800) 969-3767. Desert Hills Factory Stores, 48650 Seminole Road, Cabazon 92230; tel. (909) 849-6641. Lakeview Inn, 31808 Casino Drive, Lake Elsinore 92330; tel. (909) 674-9694.

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