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More East County (SD) Dining

DiningDiva Sep 17, 2007 10:51 PM

So we're now on day 42 of the kitchen remodel. That's 42 days of eating out in San Diego's east county. Ed may refer to Hotel Circle as one of Dante's circles of H*ll, but I'm here to tell you East County is not far behind. First of all, eating out for 42 straight days presents it's own set of problems. So does eating east of the I-15. There are tons of chains, and tons of uninspired cooking. I've learned that sometimes beggars can't be choosers and uninspired isn't as bad as it may seem on the surface, especially when nothing is open or you're too tired to drive too far afield. Eating out for 42 straight days takes has been work, it takes, time, energy and imagination to keep it fresh, and I don't mean the food.

Last Sunday we had breakfast at Cafe One-Three up on Park between Henry's and El Cajon Blvd. That doesn't exactly qualify as the East County but desperation drove us West. The back of the receipt was stamped with a notice that we could get 50% off food (not beverages) if we came back for dinner the following Sunday, which was yesterday. It's a nifty little promo to get customers back in the door. And, since my mother is the Queen of Coupons, there was no way we were going to pass up that deal.

Somehow "Soup of the Moment" sounds rather contrived to me, why not just call it what it is, soup of the day. Melon soup with cilantro and sour cream sounded good but the Tart du Jour sounded better, Apricot and Brie. The operative word here is sounded, because I found the tart to be something of a disappointment. The plate presentation was quite nice with the tart resting on a bed of mesclun greens that had been dressed with just a little too much of a mayo based dressing. The brie and the apricots had been completely blended so that neither had any identity left, and baked in a flakey crust, but the flavors didn't quite meld. My mother loved the dish, I didn't. It did pair well with the salad, and that starter would actually be enough for a light lunch or dinner. But for some reason, it just struck all the wrong notes with me.

My mom had the meatloaf which came atop some really tasty garlic mashed potatoes as well as some impossibly thin red onions that had been flash fried until they reached the shatter point. This dish worked in spades. I should also mention that the meatloaf also makes an appearance in a delicious scramble on the Sunday Brunch menu.

I had the flat iron steak medium rare. I had no quibbles with the steak, it was medium rare, tender, and flavorful. It was served with a lovely Dijon mustard and tarragon sauce. I was less enamored of the humongous heap of ultra-thin shoestring potatoes. Frankly, after a few bites they tasted too much like the Durkee's canned shoestring potatoes. Look, I know I love potatoes but I don't need a portion big enough to feed the entire restaurant...with leftovers. Somewhere under that ill-advised haystack of spuds was some squeaky, chewy green that I think was kale. Bitter greens are not my thing, so it was probably just as well I couldn't locate them due to the potato barrier. The bits I did taste were okay, matched well with the beef, but didn't turn my crank.

For dessert we had chocolate-raspberry creme brulee with lots of fresh berries. Loved it, though I wish they would have used a darker, richer chocolate.

Don't get me wrong, even though I had some issues with dinner last night, I really, really like Cafe One-Three. It has shown improvement and growth over the last 3 months and the bulk of the food is great. Gone are those dreadful cakey-pies and service has improved dramatically. Cafe One-Three is absolutely everything a small, neighborhood indy restaurant should be -- a warm, inviting, friendly place to have a drink, a desert, or a meal and know that the food is going to be satisfying without being fussy or over-wrought.

Tonight we hit up The Fish Merchant on Navajo Rd. between Jackson and Golfcrest Drs. Other than Trattoria Antica, this is the best restaurant within a 5 mile radius of the house. This is an easy place to dismiss and drive by but it is easily one of the best, if not the best, fish house in the East County. There is nothing fancy about it, but it has a comfortable nautical theme and no pretentions. Dinners start with a choice of soup - Manhattan or New England Clam Chowders - or salad, which is a pile of crisp chopped romaine, a slice of tomato and cucumber, an olive or two and a mass of grated carrots, all on an old-fashioned fish shaped glass plate.

I can honestly say that I have never had a bad piece of fish here, nor a bad or ill-conceived preparation. Tonight I decided to try the Pan Seared Ahi. I would never have believed it, but I was served some of the best sashimi grade tuna I've ever had outside a Japanese restaurant. The tuna was crusted with black and white sesame seeds and flashed seared so that 98% of it was still raw. A plate with 3 little ramekins of pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi was served along with a set of chopsticks. The tuna was as soft and smooth as butter, delicate and meaty at the same time. I had 10, that's right 10 nice size slices of tuna on my plate. I'd guess that was at least a 10-12 oz portion of fabulous Ahi tuna. The tuna was accompanied by the ubiquitous broccoli, carrot, zucchini, onion and mushroom melange of vegetables and the starch choices were baked or french fried potatoes or rice pilaf. I happen to like the rice pilaf at the Fish Merchant because it has mushrooms and bacon in it. That's what I chose but, let's face it, that's not exactly the best companion with nearly raw tuna. Oh well, decent salad and lots of tuna and I was a pretty happy camper tonight.

My mother has a penchant for coupons and other than the aforementioned one for Cafe One-Three she also had one for Baker's Square last week. For $7.99 you could get a 5 oz. steak, soup or salad, potato, vegetable and a piece of pie. That's a lot of food for not a lot of money and I think just about everyone in the Baker's Square on Balitmore Dr. at Fletcher Parkway was using that coupon. I should have known better than to get my hopes up after eating a respectable tomato-basil soup. I order my steak medium rare, it arrived well done, very well done. I sent it back and the 2nd steak was medium and not a bad piece of meat. Can't say much for the rest of what was on the plate though. The baked potato, which was twice as big as the steak, was cooked but still hard in the center, much like a potato that's been microwaved. There is really only one reason to go to Baker's Square and it's not for the food, it's for the pie. If you can't bake a pie or don't want to spend big bucks with a famous name bakery, Baker's Square pies are good, way better than Marie Calendar. I had a very satisfying French Apple Pie and the Coupon Queen was happy with Chocolate Cream.

After 42 days we've been served a good deal of food, some of it exceptionally good, some of it merely good, some okay, but none of it truly bad. We've had wonderful chicken schwarma and gyros sandwiches at Vine Ripe Cafe; love, love, love the flat bread they use for it. We've had outstanding pancakes at Original Pancake House and Perry's. Wonderful, smoky beef with a smoke ring and savory beans from West Coast BBQ. We've eaten spicy Thai on a sidewalk in a parking lot on Mission Gorge Rd., as well as a sophisticated chicken picatta a few more miles down Mission Gorge. The 2 most disappointing meals we've had came at 2 local chains, Anthony's and The Brig.

The counter tops were installed today but we've got at least 2 more weeks before we're back in business in our own kitchen. It can't come soon enough...

  1. e
    evilipoo Feb 24, 2008 10:28 AM

    Finally tried The Vine on Alpine Blvd. Very nice little wine bar with a more extensive menu than I planned on. Friend was picking up the tab, so I did not pay as much attention to the prices as if I had been paying.

    They have a neat little tasting that you can buy for $16 that gives you a number (the server said 10, but that seems like a lot) of 1oz tastings of anything they have open at the time. You get a punch card so you can just drop in and taste a few and come again later. Seems like a neat idea. We all ordered a red flight (which they served with a small bowl of chocolate pastilles ?sp) that they had on special--3 3oz pours for $18. Honestly, they did not seem like 3oz pours but it was a nice little tasting. And sorry--I was paying more atention to the company so I could not tell you which wines we were served--except one was SKN Napa and it was great.

    The menu ranged from bread and butter & a nice cheese plate to soups such as Creamy Mushroom with Brie ($8) and French onion to salads and wraps. Our host had the Roast Beef Horseradish wrap on previous occations and loved it. My husband thoroughly enjoyed the Mushroom Brie soup--it was in a decent sized bowl and came with a couple slices of bread. We also shared a cheese plate which was beautifully presented (no price posted on the menu as they will do them for any number of people, so the price varies) and a Vine Onion which is a roasted onion served with an assortment of breads and butters. I think the onion was about $7. I did not see desserts on the menu, though our server did offer them but we were satisfied and did not indulge.

    The interior has not changed much from when it was an espresso/dessert joint a while back. Kind of woodsey looking with a nice stone fireplace in the front area where the bar is and then a longish room that curves around to the side of the building. I really enjoyed the ambiance and that it was fairly low-key. No loud music or that sort of thing--very relaxing. There were about 5 other parties there and the noise level was very pleasant.

    One thing I would have liked was more information on the wines. When I've ordered flights in the past, they usually come with a little write-up on the wines. We asked for this, but the owner could not find anything on 2 of the 3 wines that we tasted. Too bad.

    They are open from 10a-Midnight Friday and Saturday and until 10ish on other nights. I understand that they do happy hours during the week so I plan to stop in again next week and pay more attention.

    Gosh, I hope this place makes it... We could really use this in Alpine.

    1. Dagney Jan 3, 2008 01:28 AM

      My dearest East Countyans- New place on Alpine Boulevard. The Liar's Club Tavern and Grill. An extensive beer selection with many locals included, fresh hand cut fries, fresh hand cut sweet potato fries, decent jambalaya, smokey savory BBQ pork sandwich....

      1 Reply
      1. re: Dagney
        Alice Q Jan 3, 2008 08:24 AM

        Is it open? I think they decamped from the beach - seems like sort of an odd move, but hopefully it will work for them!

        We also just had a great takeout meal from Arrivederci in the Rancho San Diego Target shopping center - the Hillcrest restaurant opened a new branch. Husband said it was super crowded - the food was excellent.

        We're also slated to get a Sammy's sometime this year in the La Mesa/Grossmont area - woo hoo!

      2. Dagney Nov 27, 2007 10:41 PM

        There is a new Bistro-Wine bar gig in Alpine. Let us all join hands in prayer to the East County Gods (hopefully they are not out riding Harleys at the moment) that this little hovel is a hidden gem. I will try to have a review this week for those of us in living out here in culinary Siberia.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Dagney
          Alice Q Nov 28, 2007 02:17 PM

          If they're not riding their Harley's, they're probably driving their pickup trucks. ;-)

        2. DiningDiva Nov 13, 2007 03:41 PM

          Well, I am please to report we finally have most of the kitchen up and working. Oh, there are still a few things that need to be completed, like the water line to the fridge, moldings and 1 more pendant light, but the bulk of it's done and we now have working appliances (YEA!!). So, here's the final list of every place we ate during the 12 longs weeks without a kitchen, as you'll notice most of it was in the dreaded dining dessert we all lovingly refer to as the East County.

          BREAKFAST
          Megan's Cafe (San Carlos)
          Cafe One-Three (Park Blvd.)
          Omelet Factory (Santee)
          Original Pancake House (Kearny Mesa)
          IHOP (Mission Valley)
          Coco's (Lake Murray)
          Perry's (El Cajon)
          The Chicken Nest (La Mesa
          Gus's #2 (Lake Murray) Gus's was the only place we ate breakfast twice

          The best breakfast was at Cafe One-Three followed very closely by the Original Pancake House. The least successful was the Omelet Factory in Santee

          LUNCH
          LIttle Fish Market (Mission Valley)
          Burger Lounge (Kensington)
          El Comal (North Park)
          Urban Solace (North Park)
          Pappelecco (Little Italy)

          Each one was different but all were uniformly good to very good. Loved the salad at Papplecco (not to mention the gelato) and the Caldo Tlapeño at El Comal. Mostly I ate lunch at work, which I did not list here.

          DINNER
          La Trattoria (Santee)
          West Coast BBQ (Lake Murray)
          Blue Water Grill (Mid-City/India St.)
          Cafe One-Three (Park Blvd.)
          Anthony's (La Mesa)
          The Brigantine (La Mesa)
          NIcalosi's (Allied Gardens/SDSU)
          Ranas.com (Casa de Oro)
          Coco's (Lake Murray)
          El Torito (La Mesa)
          Vine Ripe Market Cafe (La Mesa)
          Ra*Ka*De*Ka (SD, Zion at Mission Gorge)
          Soup Plantation (Mission Gorge Rd. location)
          Chopsticks Inn (La Mesa)
          The Linkery (30th & Upas)
          Scootz (Santee)
          Fix Me A Plate (La Mesa/Fletcher Hills)
          Sabor Latino (San Carlos)
          The Fish Merchant (San Carlos)
          Urban Solace (North Park)
          Mr. Chicken (SD - Zion at Mission Gorge)
          Baker's Square (La Mesa, go for the pie, not the meals)

          Most of our dinners were decent to good. While the food at the chains we visited (Anthony's, The Brig, Coco's, IHOP, El Torito and Baker's Square) wasn't all that bad, the service was pretty lackluster. It felt like the servers were really just going through the motions whereas at the indy restos, the servers felt more engaged in the service process.

          But it wasn't the food and it wasn't the service. After 12 weeks of having to eat out by necessity, dining fatigue definitely set in. There came the point where none of us could face one more meal out and we began to dread walking through a restaurant door. I don't know if it was the impersonalness of the dining experience over time, the time commitment itself, or if it was because menus and flavor profiles all tended to blur together after awhile, but whatever the cause, I am delighted to finally be able to cook again in my own kitchen.

          And now, after 12 solid weeks of eating out the damage has been done. I am seriously back on a diet and have dropped 6 pounds, but there's still more to go <sigh>.

          1 Reply
          1. re: DiningDiva
            Alice Q Nov 13, 2007 09:09 PM

            Congrats on the new kitchen - will you post some pictures for us on your blog? :-)

          2. Dagney Oct 24, 2007 06:23 AM

            There is always the Yogurt Mill.

            1. e
              evilipoo Oct 11, 2007 06:31 PM

              Howdy. I'm new on this board and live in Alpine so I feel your pain... Tho it might not technically be EC, how about DZ Akins? I've never had a bad meal there and it's just on the other side of Lake Murray Blvd.

              Desserts in the case are pretty pricey, but worth it.

              1. Dagney Oct 11, 2007 01:15 PM

                DD- If you and Mom are inclined to have a low maintenance wine and cheese night, Harvest Ranch Market on Jamacha is a good choice.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Dagney
                  DiningDiva Oct 11, 2007 01:19 PM

                  Thanks for the suggestion. At 88 my mother doesn't do much wine anymore ;-)

                  Tonight we're hitting up Sabor Latino at the intersection of Navajo Rd. and Lake Murray Blvd. I think we're going to try El Comal over the weekend as well.

                2. l
                  LisaSD Oct 11, 2007 04:24 AM

                  Well, since we opened up the possibilities of Alpine in this thread - I HAVE to recommend Janet's Montana Cafe in Alpine. Best breakfast in East County, bar none! Also, Antique Row Cafe on Main Street, near 2nd street in El Cajon usually has a line because people love their food.

                  We also have a Johnny B's burger at least twice a month. Consistent, consistent, consistent!

                  Try Gus's Italian Sandwich (heated up)...now that's a good sandwich.

                  If you're in the mood for a well prepared Polish Sausage on a crusty Italian roll, go to Windy City Beef in the Von's shopping center at Navajo and Jackson.

                  Mangia Bene on Main Street in El Cajon has delicious, reasonably priced Italian food. They drop off a hot basket of Foccacia to munch on while you wait. Yum!

                  60 days for a remodel? Makes me want to continue to put it off!

                  1. Dagney Oct 10, 2007 06:58 PM

                    Well, I have one out of left field for you. The Casino Inn in Alpine on Alpine Bl started serving breakfast a couple of years ago. This bar is a double whammy of old school 1970's dive bar AND located in east county. I am not sure if they still do breakfast. But if they are, and you are feeling especially adventurous...

                    1. Dagney Oct 7, 2007 05:37 PM

                      Have you tried the Omelette Factory in Santee? I know that's the east east of East County, but their omelettes are good.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: Dagney
                        c
                        Cathy Oct 7, 2007 07:49 PM

                        Omelette Factory in Santee is less than 1/4 mile from the San Diego City border. East- East county is way past Alpine.

                        With all the freeways, Santee is very central now ( I can get to La Jolla in 13 minutes, downtown in 18 minutes and I-5 in Chula Vista in 26 minutes),

                        That being said, Omelette Factory has gone way downhill. The coffee is horrid and they don't have real half and half...and it is mainly a breakfast place, so that is frustrating. The interior, cutlery, plastic plates and atmosphere have not been updated since it opened and the food portions have gotten a bit skimpier and the meats and even breads are of lower quality than before. I used to get a very hearty, quality rye toast with my eggs and now it is more of a thin barely rye flavored bread that when toasted usually comes out burned, cold and crispy/crackerlike.

                        I only go there if I have to-this means someone else was paying.

                        1. re: Dagney
                          DiningDiva Oct 7, 2007 08:15 PM

                          Yes, we have tried the Omelette Factory. We're in San Carlos it's less than 5 miles away. Of all the breakfast meals we've eaten out - and that would be every Sunday since Aug. 6th - the WORST, absolute WORST breakfast was at the Omelette Factory.

                          The interior is a disgrace. Ratty, run down, mismatched, shoddy, threadbare furnishings. I'd say it was like eating at the Elks Lodge, but that would be an insult to the Elks. This is a low, low, low, about as low budget as you can go. The pancakes were tough, the coffee dull, the hash browns, well, the hash browns were actually good.

                          So drive on by and go on into Santee for breakfast. The Omelette Factory makes IHOP seem like the French Laundry.

                          1. re: DiningDiva
                            c
                            Cathy Oct 7, 2007 09:22 PM

                            Almost every taco shop in Santee makes a great breakfast plate and/or burrito. Los Michoican, on the other end of the block where Omelette Factory is located, comes to mind.

                            1. re: DiningDiva
                              soulshine Oct 7, 2007 10:29 PM

                              I agree that the Omelette Factory is terrible. Worst breakfast I've had in years was there. I just can't understand why people line up to wait and pay to be served some of the nastiest, low quality breakfast food.

                              Drive a little further down Mission Gorge Rd to Jimmy's and have a decent omelette. I recommend the Baja, which is machaca style beef, jalapenos and cheddar. Get a little of their fresh housemade salsa and some sour cream and you've got a great hangover cure.

                              1. re: soulshine
                                Dagney Oct 8, 2007 03:42 PM

                                Okay my bad. Ixnay on the Omelette Factory.

                                1. re: Dagney
                                  DiningDiva Oct 8, 2007 04:38 PM

                                  You had no way of knowning unless you'd been there.

                          2. DiningDiva Oct 7, 2007 02:11 PM

                            Another installment in the continuing saga of the kitchen remodel. We're now up to day 60-something. Frankly, at this point we've lost count without a calendar. One thing we have discovered is that if you don't get up and out for breakfast on Sunday the wait is terminal because it seems that everyone else in SD has the same idea.

                            So as it approached 10 o'clock this morning we were casting about for a breakfast spot where we wouldn't have to wait. The first suggestion was DZ Akins, but since I really, really don't care for DZ, that idea was quickly tossed. In sheer desperation we settled on Gus's #2 which is on Balitmore Dr. a half block up from Lake Muarry Blvd. across from the Outback Steak House (to which we have not been), in the spot formerly occupied by defunct The Balitmore Cafe.

                            Gus's has been there about 18 months or so and in that time we've had a couple of pizzas from them. One was good the other dreadful, so we kind of crossed it off the list. But we knew we could get in for breakfast and not have to wait so we thought we'd give it a go again. The inside seating was already full so we decided on a table on the patio that fronts the building. Coffee and menus showed up quickly.

                            I had a basic breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries and toast. My mother had the omelet, home fries and a pancake from the Senior menu. And at $3.95 on the senior menu she actually ended up with more food than I did!! Not that either one of us needed or could eat the volume of food served. To say that it is generous is an understatement. Omelets are 4 egg affairs filled with a vast variety of fillings from a simple cheese omelet up to something with shrimp, cheese and chiles.

                            Almost all plates come with a choice of home fries or hash browns. We'd seen several plates go by with the homes fries which is what prompted us to order them. Our waitress asked if we wanted onions and bell peppers with them...we did. I have no idea how the hash browns are but the home fries were divine. Large, soft chunks of potates had been sauteed until the outside was crisp and golden and the onions/peppers retained their crunch. I could have made an entire meal just off the potatoes. Fruit can be substituted for the potatoes. Most breakfasts also offer a choice of toast, muffin, house made biscuits, pancakes or tortillas. The pancake was light and tender and really quite tasty.

                            The bulk of the breakfast menu was between $4.95 and $7.95 and the portions are large. I won't need to eat again until dinner :-). Service was kind of spotty because they were training a new waitress and she was having a hard time keeping up with the volume, but they were friendly.

                            Gus's pizza may not be too good but their breakfasts are.

                            1. Dagney Oct 3, 2007 11:48 AM

                              The DH and I just returned from getting married in Big Sur, and this board makes me want to throw an old fashioned tantrum. We ate sooooo many heaps of astounding food. The whole experience of love and food was a hedonistic dream.

                              And then we drove south. Sigh.

                              Anyway, we spent our summer buying a house; which meant selling his old house, renting my condo, remodeling here and there and pretty much eating out a lot. We found ourselves at the Wrangler BBQ in El Cajon a few times. VERY VERY down home, casual, BBQ beef and pork sandwiches and the like. They run a clean efficient shop, and the meat is good quality.

                              Jane's Country Kitchen in Lemon Grove used to be a decent breakfast joint, but I have not eaten there in a while.

                              Dagney

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Dagney
                                Alice Q Oct 3, 2007 07:43 PM

                                We're in Mt. Helix - we need to try Wrangler BBQ - and it looks like there are some other good ideas on this thread!

                                1. re: Alice Q
                                  Dagney Oct 3, 2007 08:35 PM

                                  Alice- The Wrangler is on the far east end El Cajon Bl. It is, ummm, a rather quintessential east county dining experience. But the beef sandwiches are worth the free side order of east county mystique. Have you gone up to Big Sur yet?

                                  Dagney

                              2. b
                                bethsd Sep 26, 2007 03:44 PM

                                We moved to the college area 3 years ago after stints in SF, Philly, and Seattle and spent our first year floundering while looking for restaurants (I sure wish I knew about CH then). This thread is terrific and I am excited to actually have some new neighborhood places to try- Fish Merchant, Carnitas Uruapan, and Tiramisu are now all on my list. We eat at Toshi Sushi on El Cajon most frequently- good sushi and a two block walk make it a weekly stop. BMH comes in a close second- for a Sopranos finale party I got endless compliments on an antipasto that I had put together using all ingredients from BMH and also on their meatballs and sauce. Their Italian sandwiches remind us of good Philadelphia hoagies. DZ Akins is good for mish mash soup when I have a cold, and Trattoria Antica is where we go when we feel flush and don't feel like going far. We like the atmosphere in the bar at Habana, but I'm not such a fan of their food- I usually stick to the Cuban sandwiches. Tamarind Thai is a regular stop and so is Johnny B's. When we want Mexican, though, I feel like we have venture out of the neighborhood. We usually end up in Hillcrest at Mama Testa's or Ortega's. I'll have to put Mario's on the list as well, because we need a good local place. Thanks to everyone for the recommendations!

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: bethsd
                                  DiningDiva Sep 27, 2007 12:26 PM

                                  These are kind of downscale Mexican but they'll due in a pinch. There is a place in Del Cerro called Mi Guadalajara; it's in the same shopping center as Windmill Farms. In fact, it's next door to 3 Square which does do upscale take out food. Mi Guadalajara won't set the world on fire, but when you're in need of a quick taco or burrito it's certainly more than adequate.

                                  The Los Panchos in Allied Gardens is actually pretty good. Once again, it's mostly the usual taco, burrito, taquito, quesadilla menu, but it's usually pretty good. And across the street next in the Albertson's shopping center is an outpost of El Rodeo. I've had very good luck here. They serve some of the soups, such as caldo de res and siete mares, in addition to the usual suspects.

                                  All 3 of these places are truly off the eaten path, and probably not worth seeking out unless one lives in the area or close by. Like many neighborhood eateries they do somethings really well, a lot of things reasonably well, and a few things pretty poorly. You generally have to eat there a few times to figure out which are the menu items to go with and which ones are to be avoided.

                                  1. re: DiningDiva
                                    b
                                    bethsd Sep 27, 2007 05:57 PM

                                    Thanks for the tips, DD. Sometimes I don't need the world set on fire- just a no hassle - easy to park place that provides a reasonably good meal- and doesn't mind if I'm in my ratty jeans and flip flops!

                                    1. re: bethsd
                                      DiningDiva Sep 27, 2007 06:31 PM

                                      Mi Guadalajara, El Rodeo or Los Panchos fits that bill to a T, and, IIRC, you can even drive through at Los Panchos.

                                2. l
                                  LisaLM Sep 25, 2007 08:57 PM

                                  OK, I'm admittedly on this posting late, but I just have to throw in my two cents. We moved to La Mesa from Connecticut a little over a year ago, and we're slowly but surely exploring the dining scene, such as it is, in our area (and beyond, don't worry!). So we were most happy to see East County represented on the board and make a list of places to try. Some votes and some questions:

                                  We second votes for:
                                  1) Antica Trattoria (on Lake Murray) - Jeremy there is a hoot, and we enjoy our meals there. Last time we went, though, we got some of their meat-centric specials and were startled by the prices of them, so be careful about that. Still, we'll continue to frequent this place.
                                  2) Habana (on University) - agree with other posting that the food is hit and miss at times, but many good dishes can be had, and it would be a shame to lose this place (especially being just down the hill from us)
                                  3) Manhattan Pizza (on Lake Murray) - they actually HAVE a pizza margherita. It's garlicy and a tad heavy-handed, but after eating pizza at San Filippos (shoot me now), we are not complaining.

                                  We were surprised to see nothing about:
                                  1) Johnny B's (on La Mesa Blvd, downtown) - sure it's a plain ol' sports bar, but the burgers are sinfully easy to eat. I think they grill the buns with butter. That's gotta help. Fries are good but not great. Still, it beats the chain burgers by a mile.
                                  2) Fix Me A Plate Cafe (on Fletcher Parkway) - I am sure this one gets people going regarding authenticity of the southern/creole/cajun selections, but, perhaps like Habana, there are certainly some good dishes to be had. Fried chicken is different but kicks butt. The collard greens are delightful. Cornbread is not so great. Service is fantastic.
                                  3) Carnitas Uruapan (in Lemon Grove) - we've never been, but it is routinely cited as "worth the drive" for even North County snobs (sorry, I had to go there).

                                  We honed our palates in New York City, but actually lived in a semi-rural part of Connecticut. So we are accustomed to working through mediocre/disappointing food in our local area to find some gems. Once you frame it to yourself as a challenge and/or a noble cause (supporting good food), it gets less depressing. However, DD, you're in a special situation with no kitchen and a non-foodie mom.... hang in there! This too shall pass.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: LisaLM
                                    DiningDiva Sep 26, 2007 01:09 PM

                                    Lisa, agree with you about the prices at Antica Trattoria. If you aren't mindful when ordering that bill at the end can be sticker shock, especially for East County. For 88 years of age my mother is actually fairly adventurous. She LOVES Ranas.com. After our 2nd visit I'm less enamored than I was after the first visit. I've considered Fix Me a Plate and could get her there, not so sure about Habana. That used to be Jamar's that we frequented a lot in the 60s.

                                    Last Thursday in the "Wolfgang" paid food plug column my mother read his "review" of The Chicken Nest restaurant in La Mesa. Old Wolfie said they had FABULOUS breakfasts, so last Sunday off we went to The Chicken Nest, which is on the frontage road on the north side that runs parallel to I-8 between Fletcher Parkway and Lake Murray Blvd. Breakfast wasn't awful, but it wasn't FABULOUS either, in fact it was in the bottom two of all the breakfasts we've eaten out in the las 2 months. The inside of the Chicken Nest is done up in aqua and black vinyl banquettes, pink formica and paler pink walls and more chicken tchokies than you can imagine... or want to imagine. Portions are generous. I had eggs, bacon, potatoes and a bagel, which is a choice that comes with the eggs. The bacon was crisp, which is the way I like it, nothing is worse than flacid bacon. The potatoes were really good. My mother had buttermilk pancakes - mostly because they were $4.99, the cheapest thing on the menu - and said they were good. Coffee was disappointing. At 10 AM on a Sunday they weren't exactly doing land office business, which most other breakfast places would be. That may be due, in part, to their off the beaten path location and part to the laid-back, ultra casual, rather down at the heels feel of the place. While the food was neither stupendous, nor terrible, there wasn't much about the place to make us want to go back. Someone else's milage may vary, that's why I would encourage anyone to try this place at least once and form their own opinion.

                                    (Also on the skip-it list is The Lake Murray Cafe, which does do a land office breakfast business that has always mystified me. The semi-fine dining place that was there before couldn't stay in business, but this current ode to mediocrity can. Go figure)

                                    1. re: LisaLM
                                      j
                                      JRSD Sep 26, 2007 07:52 PM

                                      We live walking distance to Manhattan and the pizza there is good. Its not Luigi's/Ciro's, but we do enjoy it. It seems like they may have just changed owners, as it seems like a new cast of characters in the store, and the pizza has gotten somewhat better the last 2 times we were there...

                                      We have been to fix me a plate a few times, and have generally been happy with the food - especially the fried seafood and the jambalaya. The smothered pork chops were extremely salty and they have been out of sweet potato pie every time.
                                      I agree that the service there is great, they are super-friendly and really take their time without ever neglecting us.

                                      Overall, though, we liked the food at Magnolia's on Euclid much more.

                                    2. l
                                      lbidsfood Sep 18, 2007 09:21 PM

                                      Nice to see east county represented on the board. I have been living in San Carlos or the college area for about 10 years now. Yes, we venture out of the area for special meals, but here are our local regular stops. None are "gourmet"- but value/neighborhood kind of places.
                                      1. Mario's of La Mesa- good "advanced taco shop" level mexican.
                                      2. Arigato Japanese at Baltimore and Lake Murry blvd.
                                      3. Tiramusu Italian on La Mesa Blvd in La Mesa village- better than average pastas.
                                      4. Tamarind Thai at University and La Mesa Blvd- a step up from the typical San Diego thai places.
                                      5. Habana Cuban on University in La Mesa- Good drinks and fun live music in the bar on weekends. Food is hit or miss but worth a try- ropa viejas is good, papa dulce too.

                                      Other places I want to try- Chef Axel's german on University (is it still there?) Sabor Latin place at Navajo/Lake Murray.
                                      And I agree with Dining Diva that Alazanes is a shady place. Never a customer there, but still in business. Cotjas a better taco shop, but not worth a trip.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: lbidsfood
                                        DiningDiva Sep 18, 2007 10:39 PM

                                        Almost went to Mario's for dinner tonight. My mother uses the dry cleaners (excellent, btw) next door to Sabor Latino. The folks at the cleaners said the resto didn't appear to be doing much business. I've driven by Arigato a million times but haven't stopped, nice to know it might be worth a try.

                                        Has anyone tried Los Pinos on Lake Murray, just east of Baltimore and just beyond the Vons? And is the European Cafe still at El Paso and Lake Murray. I know the grocery part of it is still open, but not sure about the restaurant part.

                                      2. Alice Q Sep 18, 2007 08:52 AM

                                        How about the Charcoal House? We went there for the 1st time a few weeks ago, and it wasn't exactly gourmet, but it was pretty satisfying. I had the ribeye with twice baked potato and we split a bottle of wine - with tax and tip the bill was $80. They have a popular karaoke night, with a slightly older crowd - if you're into that sort of thing. ;-) I've been meaning to try the Fish Merchant - I keep forgetting it's there.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Alice Q
                                          DiningDiva Sep 18, 2007 09:09 AM

                                          That's an idea, though I'd heard last year it had really deteriorated and wasn't that great. Sounds like maybe they've got a new kitchen staff.

                                          1. re: DiningDiva
                                            deckape Sep 18, 2007 10:48 AM

                                            I've had a couple of fantastic sandwiches at Antonelli's in El Cajon. In fact, when I get that far east of I-5 I make it a point to plan my afternoon around that sandwich. I'm absolutely enamored with their #1 Sub. It's commonly very busy, but service has been quick both visits.

                                        2. j
                                          JRSD Sep 18, 2007 07:16 AM

                                          I had been overlooking Fish Merchant since I moved to San Carlos recently, but wound up trying it this week. Two comments, though - Dont try oysters there, we got one that was definitely way off, and the others were not particularly good. Also, the bisque was much better than either of the chowders, definitely worth the extra .50 or 1.00 with the meal. Good luck on what sounds like the home stretch of the remodel.

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: JRSD
                                            DiningDiva Sep 18, 2007 09:08 AM

                                            Hey, welcome to the 'hood ;-}. Out of curiosity where else have you eaten. My parents have lived in San Carlos for 40 years, I graduated from PHHS, this is my oh, so familiar stomping grounds. Unfortunately, it is rather culinarily challenged. On the brighter side, however, it's pretty easy to get someplace else from there.

                                            The Cheers Deli inside the liquor store in the Kiel's shopping center produces an outstanding sandwich, but you could starve to death waiting for it. Tivoli's changed owners about 10 months ago and there has been a VAST improvement in the pizza, especially the crust. I really like the new owners, they're trying hard, service is improving and I hope they can stick it out. Skip Alazanes on Jackson, really mediocre Mexican food (it was pretty good when it opened). I'm convinced it's now only a front for laundering drug money. Cotija's around the corner isn't much better and there always seems to be a high school hoodlum element in there when I stop by. And the donut place next door is disappointing. If you need a donut fix, however, there's always Marys' in Santee or Heavenly in Allied Gardens.

                                            What have you tried? What's worked and what hasn't? Thanks for the tip about the oysters, I'll be sure to skip those next time I'm in. I didn't expect much from the tuna and was truly floored by how the qulaity and flavor really were.

                                            1. re: DiningDiva
                                              Fake Name Sep 18, 2007 10:54 AM

                                              Wow. PHHS and Heavenly Donuts in the same post. I ditched class to go to Heavenly, of course we called it Heave-Enly.A neck-snapping time travel excursion right in front of the computer. It's like 1977 all over again. Learned to cook at PHHS in "Bachelor Survival" class. Is Mona Lisa still there? I understand the Longhorn at the foot of Zion is good for burgers, My boss from the Shell Station used to eat up there. Gas was .59 cents per gallon.

                                              fn

                                              1. re: Fake Name
                                                DiningDiva Sep 18, 2007 12:29 PM

                                                Yes, Mona Lisa is still there, I think we're going there later this week. That and the Foster's Freezer are the only things that are consistent in that area. The market that used to be a couple doors down from Mona Lisa is now a restaurant called Brothers. The food is so-so, not good, not bad, but I swear I can never get past the overpowering aroma of industrial strength commercial restroom deodorizer. And yes, Longhorn has been and still is, good for burgers.

                                                I hate to admit to this, but I pre-date you at PHHS. I was there the day they opened the school. Gas was $ .28/gallon when I took Drivers-Ed.

                                              2. re: DiningDiva
                                                j
                                                JRSD Sep 18, 2007 04:12 PM

                                                Thanks for the welcome, we are loving it so far. Foodwise has been a challenge, and most of what we have really liked has been in La Mesa or recommended by you on other threads - thanks BTW. (For the record, Chopsticks Inn is exactly what I would refer to as "east coast chinese")

                                                There is a thai place on Lake Murray, near West Coast BBQ, called Dragon House, that seems like it recently converted from chinese food. We had one very good meal there - the Happy Fish with green apple salsa had a great sour, spicy flavor, but the fish filets were fried so that the breading was really tough. (On a second meal, my wife's grandmother could not bite through them). The second meal was such that if it had been first, we would not have returned...

                                                Fish Tacos and more on Jackson, near Fletcher has had the best Mexican we have found in the area - the Shrimp Burrito was very good, the fish burrito was very good, and the red chicken torta was very good. They have a nice, avocado-y green salsa on the bar, too.

                                                BMH Italian Deli on El Cajon in La Mesa may be the best place we have found in the area. Excellent italian meats and a great caprese sandwich w/ pesto. (we tried cheers and did not feel well afterwards...) Kiel's deli has boars head meats and makes a great sandwich as well.

                                                We have been going to A Brooklyn Pizza on mission gorge lately, and Manhattan Pizza on Lake Murray has been surprisingly good. It seems like new owners recently, with an improvement on the quality.

                                                I want to try the pan-latin restaurant on Navajo near Lake Murray, but keep forgetting about it until after we eat. I think its called Sabor Latino, and it looked pretty nice inside, but no menu posted to see what they had.

                                                1. re: JRSD
                                                  DiningDiva Sep 18, 2007 10:46 PM

                                                  I think I know the Chinese place you're referring to and if it's now serving Thai, then, yes, I think they have changed.

                                                  I know the "B" in BMH and they've done really well on that pretty isolated strip of El Cajon Blvd. Unfortunately for them the partnership broke up and B is now out of the picture. The original plan was to turn BMH into a small chain of very upscale deli shops and possible franchise if the concept took off. Didn't work out that way did it.

                                                  There's a funky little place serving very Americanized Chinese food at Baltimore and Lake Murray called P.G. King's. It's owned and operated by a group of Latinos, who play classical music while cooking Chinese food. They're a hoot, very friendly and if you order judiciously (avoid the egg rolls at all costs) not too bad. Plus they'll deliver.

                                            2. Fake Name Sep 18, 2007 04:52 AM

                                              I remember reading about a steakhouse in Lemon Grove somewhere. Old Barn or something?? Might be an East County tip.

                                              fn

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