"Have a seat, watch the game while I cook you up something good to eat," says chef Mel Johnson, owner of Batter Up! "That's my attitude, that's what Batter Up! is about -- like you were kicking back in my living room."
Chef Mel was one of the founders of the Gaslamp's late, great Juke Joint Café. The food he serves at Batter Up! is less ambitious (so far -- but that's about to change) than Juke Joint's far-ranging Louisiana soul-food menu -- but talent will tell. The quality of the cooking at this casual, pseudo-sports bar (no alcohol yet) is in a different league from standard pub grub.
Although it's several miles from Petco Park (about ten minutes via the MLK), the eatery's name is a pun on both the fried foods on its menu and the great American pastime -- baseball. Johnson is an avid Padre fan and has furnished Batter Up! with baseball-themed decor and four plasma TVs tuned to sports channels. (If golf is the only game on the air, you may find at least one screen tuned to CNN instead.) You order at the counter from one of the notably friendly staffers, pick up a placard, then choose a table and watch the tube until they bring your order.
"Who's on First?" The menu, too, plays on a baseball legacy -- the famous tongue-twister vaudeville shtick created by the legendary comedy team of Abbott and Costello. The menu opens with a section called "Who's on First?" (the title and first line of the sketch), an array of batter baskets of fried fish, shrimp, and/or chicken. All are coated in a thin, flavorful cornmeal-wheat flour batter -- a batter more traditionally used for Outback Steakhouse-style "blooming onions," with black pepper, cayenne, and a pinch of Cajun spices. I'm normally no fan of deep-fried fish, but Batter Up's fillets are cooked moist and tender. They come with a house-made tartar sauce -- an aioli-like garlic mayonnaise with a little sweet pickle relish. The shrimp are terrific, too. They come with cocktail sauce -- chili sauce liberally amended with horseradish. If you want to add lemon, you'll find wedges on the condiment tray next to the Nestea pitcher. And a version of rémoulade -- Dijon garlic mayo -- is yours for the asking at the order counter.
When it comes to fried chicken, you have a choice of chicken breast tenders or wings so large they put me in mind of pterodactyls, condors, or Barry Bonds's forearms. The wings arrive with standard Buffalo wing accompaniments: The house "Batter Up!" hot sauce is a mixture of Frank's Red Hot Louisiana-style hot sauce and melted butter, served alongside a blue cheese dipping sauce dotted with chopped celery. Frank's was the hot-sauce choice of the original Buffalo gals who created the recipe, but since then the brand has been taken over by Durkee's and it's now a fierce brew -- high in vinegar, with a shrill overtone of powdered cayenne. You can get your chicken or shrimp "Wet" or "Fireman Style," drenched with hot sauce, or "Dry," with the firewater served on the side. The latter is the more prudent choice, until you know whether you like the sauce and can stand the burn.
All "Who's on First" batter baskets come with a side of Baseball Fries. These slender fries resemble McDonald's but taste like spuds from the earth rather than generic starch from the chem lab.
"What's on Second?" heads a list of "signature sandwiches," most of them featuring the "Who's on First?" fried items. The fillings include fried fish dressed with tartar sauce, and shrimp -- nearly a po' boy -- served on a hoagie dressed with garlic mayo. Chicken tenders and roast turkey are both dressed with Dijon garlic mayo. All come topped with crisp lettuce and reasonably juicy tomatoes. There's also the Philly Pitcher, a Philly cheesesteak made with thin-sliced beef, imported from its native land, spread on a 10-inch hoagie roll and dressed with chopped grilled onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and melted provolone cheese. I still prefer the version at the Philly sandwich shop on Convoy Street (the peppers and mushrooms are sliced there, not diced, following the original Italian-American mode -- a mouth-feel factor), but my partner liked this rendition almost as well. If you want some potato chips on the side, the brand here is Utz, also from Philadelphia.
"That's on Third!" is the heading for a series of grilled burgers, shrimp, and chicken sandwiches. Lately, I'm rediscovering the joys of juicy char-grilled burgers made with good meat -- after five years of deadline-night Jack in the Box, I'd forgotten why America made the burger the national dish. Here, the burgers are half-pound slabs of certified Angus, cooked to a beautiful blushing medium-rare. The simple Curve Ball comes with Batter Up! mild sauce -- house-made Thousand Island dressing. I was even more enchanted by the lush and spicy Bring on the Heat burger, topped with crunchy caramelized onions, pepper jack cheese, and a splayed-out golden-fried onion, with a whole flattened Ortega green chile in the middle and both fried jalapeños and chipotle sauce for fire. My partner, however, found the combo a little indigestible -- he loves spicy food, but to his tastes, this one overdid it.
I was disappointed, in my turn, by "619" chicken, which sounded like a chicken muffuletta but tasted nothing like that great N'Awlins deli sandwich. It has a tender chicken breast on a bun with roasted red peppers, provolone cheese, and, theoretically, a garlic-olive relish. In real life, I couldn't find the olives, even when I took the sandwich apart to search. Instead, there's a thick layer of browned minced garlic, edging on burnt. More appealing is the California Catcher, the same tender breast on toasted bread with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado, with that good garlic mayo. Both the chicken sandwiches are labeled "lite." I wouldn't call them that. If you really want a light entrée, there's a whole section of "Outfield Salads," several of them made with grilled chicken.