San Clemente is rockin' wid de spirit of Jamaica, mon, every Wednesday evening at China Beach Canteen.
This cozy beach city already is home to JA Grill--the preeminent Jamaican restaurant in this area. So the pounding reggae music played by local band 4:20 adds to what has to be considered an unlikely esprit de corps for this corner of South County.
China Beach Canteen was formerly the restaurant Lui's Chinese Cuisine, and it is still a Chinese restaurant most of the day, something alluded to by the uniquely Southland mix of beachy and Asian decor.
Yes, there are faded surfboards and plastic sharks lurking about these hand-painted, ocean-themed dining rooms, but don't overlook the giant, smiling statue of Buddha perched next to the cash register, or the traditional Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling throughout the restaurant.
Until 9 p.m., the kitchen serves such specialties as Peking duck, kung pao chicken and the usual suspects. But as the night wears on, this 7,000-square-foot space becomes a magnet for a late party crowd, casually dressed men and women who come to shoot pool, slurp slushy drinks at the bar or listen to live bands or disco music, depending on the evening.
Fridays, for instance, feature '70s disco and a band called Legion Retro. And most Saturdays, the rock band Sweet Polyester performs.
Wednesdays, however, the dance hall stage is set with the Jamaican flag and a psychedelic peace symbol that could have been lifted from a Haight-Ashbury storefront, circa 1967.
A strobe light flashes relentlessly in the background. The scent of incense wafts across the room.
The name 4:20 is taken from the hour that the band members originally got together to practice, but this band sounds quite tight now, thank you.
The five members include a lead singer, drummer, lead guitarist, bass player and a versatile keyboard player and trombonist named James De Bose, one of several band members sporting dreadlocks.
The band was definitely on when I visited. They play a long set, a combination of classic reggae songs from artists such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, plus a few of their own compositions.
First, they did a nice arrangement of Bob Marley's famous "Natural Mystic." Then they played one of their own tunes, "Paranoia."
Around 11 p.m., things really started to heat up. Several couples got up from their tables on the perimeter of the parquet dance floor and began to groove themselves.
The band is so enthusiastic that this almost feels like a beach club in Negril or Ocho Rios, but when I stepped outside for a breath of air, I spied the Interstate 5 entrance directly beyond the limit of China Beach Canteen's parking lot and the sign reading North--Los Angeles.
It all seems like a dream, mon, down here in sleepy San Clemente.
China Beach Canteen, 2369 El Camino Real, San Clemente. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Live or disco music, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday-Sunday. No cover. (714) 492-6228.