By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I recently met my first Donald Trump supporter. His name is Mario Waclawski, an eccentric Polish immigrant who over the past several months turned his obscure Hancock Street Café into a blatant shrine for the political candidate.
But even without the “Trump 2016” sign looming gigantically above the café’s outlandish façade, or the scads of Trump memorabilia placed everywhere throughout the multi-room interior, first-time customers are in for a head spin.
Whatever appetite you arrive with suddenly becomes distorted by a carnival-like atmosphere festooned in effigies of famous people — Marilyn Monroe in the front, and Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin on the back patio. In between are walls painted in psychedelic patterns, like those inside a garage where heavy-metal stoners hang out.
Retro bric-a-brac abounds. Though it is Waclawski’s loquacious ability for telling tall tales about his life that steals the show, as you try zeroing in on the makeshift menu of mostly sandwiches and pizzas perched over a cluttered order counter.
He speaks of meeting the pope in Rome with his late wife in 1985, and said he later walked across the country on her behalf to promote cancer awareness. He talked about serving in the Polish army, and as a musician, boasted about his brushes with notable artists such as Herbie Hancock — all followed by an earful of other stories as he hospitably tries selling you a bottle of Polish beer.
It isn’t until you begin absorbing the photographs and newspaper articles camouflaged among the dizzying décor that you realize it’s all true. And you quickly learn he’s an endearing character with a seemingly humanitarian soul, which prompted us to question his die-hard allegiance to Trump.
“I love him. He represents a movement in this country,” he said without citing any particular “policy” that has dribbled loosely out of Trump’s mouth since the campaign began.
Enamored more by the candidate’s grand personality — ever since witnessing Trump Tower go up while previously living in New York City — he opens a notebook filled with penned political messages from customers. Most of them are supportive of Trump. Although if you choose to bash him, Waclawski doesn’t mind, saying he plans to personally deliver the ledger, unedited, to the supposed billionaire if he wins the election.
After 20 minutes of chit chat, we finally got around to ordering a vegetarian pizza and a bratwurst sandwich tucked into a hoagie roll with sauerkraut, pickles and mustard. Waclawski does the cooking in a kitchen hidden from sight. I soon learned this isn’t the place to ask if the pizza dough or brats are made in-house, or from where ingredients are sourced. We were given no straight answers.
Eating in the company of ceramic gnomes on a patio table, the pizza had a thin pastry-like crust topped with an odd sauce resembling chili paste — not bad, but not classic Italian. The six-slice pie was mantled also with mozzarella, cooked spinach, onions and black olives.
The bratwurst sandwich was excellent, except for the thick casing on the link that I peeled off along the way. We washed down the meal with pure-tasting Worsteiner beer from Germany.
When I asked Waclawski about the absence of Polish food on his menu, he said it’s too time-consuming to make. Particularly pierogies, which he added, “need a woman’s touch.”
I was going to return to try more dishes, such as the Parmesan chicken sandwich a fellow customer recommended, or lamb gyros. But the café really isn’t so much about the food as it is for marveling at the layers of wonky décor and learning about Waclawski’s storied life — and perhaps more so, struggling to understand what makes Trump supporters tick.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.