Some days there are specials. Every Friday, chef Mel turns out barbecue ribs. He doesn't have a smoker, but whatever he does to the ribs ($9.95 for a plateful, with fries) is heavenly. They're falling-apart tender and come with a sweet-smoky Texas-style barbecue sauce. If you're into franks, those served daily here are Vienna hot dogs from Chicago on Vienna buns.
On the side, onion rings are a delight -- lightly cooked in the thin batter, the onions still have plenty of white onion flavor and crunch. Ask for a little blue cheese dip to go with them -- the two go together like, uh, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. (Sorry, I'm still true to my team -- the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Other sides include potato salad and coleslaw, both heavy on ordinary restaurant-supply mayo. There's also a kiddie menu with a corn dog, miniature fish nuggets, chicken fingers, and a small burger, all served with fries, Cracker Jack, and a drink.
All desserts are house-made, with real butter (not shortening) for their fat component. They deserve to be called "home run." The carrot cake is my ideal version -- airy, spiked with ginger, a pouf of tangy sour cream frosting on top and between the layers. The apple pie has a crunchy butter-crumb crust over semi-crisp apple slices that aren't oversweetened. (Take it next door to Cold Stone Creamery and have them plop a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top for an indulgent treat.) Chef Mel's own favorite (which I'll have to try next time) is a butter pound cake shot through with caramel syrup -- injected by one of those marinator-hypos.
The downside to all this fine craftsmanship? While the menu looks like fast food, the food doesn't come fast. But it comes good. Everything is made to order, so expect a wait for that perfect fish and flawless chicken. Grab a soda, settle down in front of the boob tube, and relax.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Mel, aged 38, grew up in the Lincoln Park district of San Diego, in the same neighborhood as Batter Up! His family originally came from Louisiana (New Orleans and Baton Rouge), and on visits to relatives there, he fell in love with their cooking. "I would just watch what the old ladies in the kitchen were doing. A lot of traditional Southern recipes are handed down by watching and listening. I wanted to be a chef since the sixth grade. Out of high school I went to culinary arts school at Mesa College, and I've been cooking all over the place for years, traveling in Europe, India, and Japan as a guest chef and going around the country here.
"Right out of school I was a line cook at Cochise and a banquet chef at Grant Grill. Then I started the Juke Joint Café downtown -- that was my first adventure. I really wanted to master a cuisine, and I picked Southern food because that was what I was raised on, what I knew. I went through a lot of energy using Southern ingredients and learning all the different techniques of cooking. I left there after two years because my partners wanted to make it more of a music scene and I was more of a foodie.
"I went to the Cheesecake Factory for corporate training and on to New York, where I was sous-chef at Mesa Grill under Bobby Flay. Then I came back [for family reasons] to San Diego."
Chef Mel was working on the catering team at the French Gourmet when the idea for Batter Up! was born: All the businesses in Market Creek Plaza are chosen, based on neighborhood needs, by a resident-fueled community board under the aegis of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. "I got a phone call from the Jacobs Center," says chef Mel, "saying a space was becoming available. It was a fish and chips place before, and I said, 'Yeah, I'll do another restaurant -- I'm from this neighborhood, I'd like to give this neighborhood some quality food.' I went online, looking at names of restaurants and fish places. I found an article about a fish cannery in Canada, and the title of the article was 'Batter Up!' After that, everything started coming together -- I'm a big Padres fan, and I was going to be making fried fish, so I decided to make the place a celebration of old-school baseball. This neighborhood is mainly chain fast food, so it's great to be bringing in some good food. I can give you a burger with certified Angus beef, I know what's going into it, and we make all our sauces from scratch. What's the number-one thing in cooking? Good ingredients!
"...We're adding on a 30-foot patio, and I just wrote a dinner menu that we're going to start serving in a few weeks, whenever the patio is done. The restaurant is going into some heartier food, try to get some more business at night. After five o'clock, we're going to more of a sit-down restaurant, with sizzle skillets, roasted chicken, grilled salmon with pineapple-mango salsa, blackened flat-iron steaks with Certified Angus beef. I'll be doing the flat-iron topped off with caramelized onions, watercress, a drizzle of olive oil with salt and pepper, keep it nice and fresh, with yam grits on the side. And the roast chicken I'm going to serve with some cilantro pesto-swirled mashed potatoes I learned from Bobby Flay in New York. It just explodes in your mouth."
One reason for the consistency of the cooking at Batter Up! lies in the enthusiastic kitchen staff. "Two guys that started working with me got inspired to go to cooking school. Their applications are in now, so I have to get the whole dinner thing going by September, when classes start. I challenge them a lot to come up with different things. The grilled salmon is something they want to do."
Any chance he'll bring his great Juke Joint gumbo to Batter Up? "Well, I'm working at finding another place for the rebirth of Juke Joint Café," he says. "I still own the name, and sometime in the future I'll be doing that restaurant again. But for now, I'm right next door to Magnolias, a Southern restaurant, and I don't want to do the same food in the same neighborhood.
"Hey, I'm teaching a class on July 8 at Macy's. I'm going to do gumbo, and brown jambalaya, where it's all cooked together, and red jambalaya, where you make a Creole sauce and add it at the end. Come on down!"