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Sep 17, 2007 10:51 PM

More East County (SD) Dining

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...

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


    1. 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

        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

          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.


          1. re: Fake Name

            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

            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

              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. 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

            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

              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. 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

              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. 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

                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 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

                  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.