"There's the sign," said my wife Grace.
"No, Grace, that's the Colonel. No fried chicken tonight. Tonight is all about the grilling."
"No, not that sign. The other one. Behind the Chevron."
"Good gravy, you're right." There it was, backlit and black and curiously tasteful, mounted at the end of a strip mall and behind a well-lighted gas-island canopy: the sign for Mesquite Restaurant.
Except for the sign, everything pointed toward standard suburban comfort food: plenty of parking, freeway close -- no farther from the 15 than Chili's. But though it's been plunked down amid the mini-marts and nail salons of Scripps Ranch, Mesquite has a pedigree. It's the third venture from Matt Rimel, whose Rimel's Rotisserie and Zenbu restaurants made his reputation in La Jolla. Mesquite borrows a little from both eateries, offering a menu of "fresh local seafood, rotisserie chicken, chops, steaks, and sushi."
The restaurant's front wall was mostly windows, rendered opaque by swaths of stick-on rice paper. Grace admired the ingenuity: the paper blocked the view of the gas island outside while enhancing the Zenbu-sushi bar vibe; the windows were transformed into an ersatz Japanese screen. The paper also filtered out most of the exterior light, and it took a moment to realize that the walls, ceiling, and exposed ductwork were painted not black but midnight-blue. Lamps swirled watery light onto a wall painted with silvery fish, but the brightest spot was the exposed kitchen. That's where they put the serious décor -- the rotisserie and the cast-iron grill, their gleam dulled by smoky carbon and hidden under browning meat. "Bitchin'," murmured Grace when she noticed the flaming M on a chef's camouflage ball cap.
A techno beat made me wonder what the old-timers and the business-suit types made of the music, because they were packing the place, along with hipsters in all-black ensembles, couples on dates -- some looking as if they might have hired a sitter -- regular Joes in humorous sweatshirts and a few families who had brought the kids with them.
The wine list, "designed to feature small-production, unique wineries," was studded with smart, offbeat selections -- Nora Albrarino, Preston Barbera, Hanzell Chardonnay, Storrs Merlot. The prices were reasonable, and the staff was intelligent -- every description accurate, every suggestion helpful. We chose a Keller Pinot Noir -- less fruity than the Gary Farrell.
We bounced around the menu that first visit, maybe a little too hard. Just because you can mix sushi rolls, tortilla soup, and chicken-and-vegetable gyoza doesn't mean you should. But we did -- and that was just for starters.
The Zenbu roll, rather than wrapping itself around a tempura-crusted delectable, was itself coated with a tissue-paper layer of near-greaseless fried goodness. A sauce made from wasabi and Japanese mayo added heat, smelt roe popped like champagne bubbles as we ate, and the crunch and tang of pickled radish played well against the general softness. But the rice exterior gummed up our tongues with sweet starch, muting the flavors of the crab and avocado within. (We thought maybe the deep-frying had cost the rice some of its fluffy solidity, but a California roll ordered on our next visit was similarly marred. The rice wasn't bad; it just wasn't perfect.)
Nothing, however, muted or muddied the chicken stock that served as a base for the tortilla soup. Grace wondered how many carcasses had been cooked down to obtain such concentration. Green chiles and cilantro did their part to excite the palate, but the soup's glory belonged to the more homey flavors of the broth and the tortillas, whether they were submerged, newly fried and sprinkled on top, or grill-warmed and served on the side. The aroma of woodsmoke clung to the grilled tortillas and testified to Mesquite's mastery with its chosen fuel. In two visits and seven dishes, only once was the grilling less than ideal. Once, it dazzled. More on that later.
Grilling was one theme; sauce was another. (When I spoke with owner Matt Rimel, he explained, "My mom was an incredible cook, always puréeing things to go with dinner -- salsas and things like that. It started with chicken -- if you had enough different things to dip the chicken into, everybody would eat.") Mesquite serves many dishes with two or more of seven sauces: green chile garlic, sweet pepper, sriracha (chili), BBQ, peanut, salsa fresca, and teriyaki. The first three showed up underneath and around the chicken gyoza, which slipped down my gullet almost like warm oysters -- a melty vehicle for the sweet 'n' heat of the sauces. (The sriracha and sweet pepper sauces are imported; everything else is made in-house.)
Grace was hoping that the sauces would enliven her entrée, a steaming rice bowl piled with vegetable chunks and cubes of wokked filet mignon. But while the peanut sauce was the best she had ever tasted, the dish never quite held her interest. "Everything is competently prepared," she said. "The rice is good. I want to like it. But I don't. The sauces get soaked up by the rice, and filet isn't that flavorful a meat. Maybe I should have gotten shrimp." I ended up tearing tiny legs off my grilled quail, dipping them in a sauce that nearly convinced me peppers were a fruit, and handing them over. That cheered her up, which made my loss bearable. That, and the crisp on the roasted herb potatoes.
By dinner's end, our palates were fatigued. I was astonished to find that fully half a bottle of wine remained. We had forgotten to drink as we ate, so dizzied had we been by the variety of flavors. Other times, there had been too much spice in our mouths to taste the Pinot. We resolved to return and do less bouncing around.
The opportunity soon came, when my parents, who live in upstate New York, came out for a visit. My father still recalls the first California swordfish he ever tasted, more than 30 years ago -- "I never had swordfish like that on the East Coast," he says. When Grace and I took them to Mesquite, the swordfish was billed as both local and harpooned. Again, the place was packed (and again, it was empty by 8:30).