1152 Seventh Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Q: Why is 6 afraid of 7?
A: Because 7-8-9.
Yuk yuk. I think of that joke every time I come down here between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, to this block of quick-lunch eateries that have sprouted around the financial district. Hmm. Looking for something beyond your standard sandwich shop. And, aha! Just below Body Works, a second-floor gym on Seventh, a menu for Le Cake Chateau stops me in two words.
Ever since I was 13, when my daddy introduced me to it, I've been searching for the perfect croque to match that first.
Must say, this place looks classy. Maybe too classy. It's sandy stucco outside, with nice scrolled black metal lettering and a maroon canopy. Inside, the display cabinet has beautiful golden, flaky croissants, plus other cool-looking pastries. The brown-and-orange walls go nicely with big green floor tiles, green marble bistro-size tables, and solid dark-wood chairs. Blue-painted roof tiles overhang the kitchen area, and a fluffy-cloud sky's been painted onto the ceiling.
The place is buzzing. But the first thing you notice is Humberto's voice from the cash register near the back. "Grilled chicken Caesar wrap? It's a grilled chicken breast, Parmesan cheese, romaine lettuce, and homemade Caesar dressing wrapped in a tomato-basil tortilla, $7.25. You'll love it. Yes. See Mama back there? She'll make it. We're all family here."
Humberto's taking the orders. He handles the line of customers like a tennis kid facing a ball machine. "Monterrey Club croissant? Oh sure. It'll fill you. We stuff it with Black Forest ham, turkey breast, Monterrey cheese, and mayo. It's $6.75."
I get in line. Gal in front of me's talking into her cell. "Dude, you're so not the boss anymore." I check the menu, in case something could trump my Croque Monsieur. I mean, the croque's no big deal. It's French fast food. What could be simpler than a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich? Except the French being French have to add stuff. Like, the whole thing's supposed to be dipped into beaten egg and sautéed in butter. And you can add a Mornay sauce to the top and grill that a bit too. If they get it right, you'll die happily in an oozy, cheesy mess.
I see it on the menu now. "Croque Monsieur: Black Forest ham and cheddar cheese sandwich lightly grilled with egg and pan fried, $6.75."
Yes, I'm tempted by things like the chicken-and-mushroom crêpe "filled with chicken, mushrooms, and spinach" and topped with a creamy sauce or cheese for $7.50. Or the onion roll loaded with marinated mushrooms, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and "caper mayo." Mmm. That's top price on this menu: $7.75.
But history wins out. It's croque or croak. I order it and a (refillable) coffee ($1.45).
It's good. But different. More like a loose toasted sandwich than the sauced grilled-bread clamshell I expected. The nice eggbread is brushed with more egg, but lightly done, and loosely loaded with beef-like ham, served with French fries on the side. It's certainly fresh and filling, even if it's not quite like my memory of Daddy's time.
"Good food has to have good desserts!" calls a gal from the kitchen.
"That's my sister Dorian," says Humberto. "She really runs the place. My brother Francisco is the pastry chef. My mom Margarita does the main cooking. She does each order from scratch, each time."
Margarita waves from the kitchen. Turns out she was once married to a Frenchman. Guess we're seeing his cooking influence here. I notice a gal clinking bottles of wine about. French wine, too. "Another sister?" I ask Humberto.
"No," says the gal. "I'm Gina. I do the wines."
Gina comes from Romania. She says a glass of French would cost around $5 "and up." Altogether, the whole family and Gina create a nice talky, warm atmosphere. You want to linger, even though it seems like everyone else is here to chomp, chat, and fly.
Well, not all. "Orchestra members often come after rehearsal across at Symphony Hall," says Humberto. "Jahja Ling's always in. And the mayor, he sits here, at table number two. He loves our English-Irish scones. And our tuna salad (the tuna salad sandwich with water chestnuts and cheddar is $7.25)."
I'm thinking about Dorian's offer for desserts. The chocolate truffle looks good, the sacher looks great -- chocolate cake with "raspberry marmalade." So does the carrot cake with "pineapple raisins" -- whatever da heck they are -- plus walnuts and cream cheese. Or a wicked-looking chocolate-topped cake called Opera Torte. All slices cost $3.95.
"Yeah, but what do all the health freaks from Body Works eat when they come in hungry?" I ask.
Humberto's ready for this. He flashes out yet another menu card from under the counter. "Le Cake Chateau 'Lean for Life'" menu. "We did this with Body Works," he says. The menu even counts the calories. The Greek omelet ($6.95) has 499, the veggie omelet ($6.95) has 340. The almond ahi salad ($8.25) has 233.
I decide to hang fire on the gâteaux until I can come back with Carla and maybe have a glass of that Beaujolais with it. Après-symphony snack, perhaps? Sigh. We can but dream.
The Place: Le Cake Chateau, 1152 Seventh Avenue, downtown, 619-325-0977
Type of Food: Light French and sandwich food
Prices: Breakfast crêpes with, e.g., blueberries and sweet cream cheese, $5.95; eggs Benedict, $5.95; croque monsieur, $6.75; grilled chicken Caesar wrap, $7.25; Monterrey club croissant (with ham, turkey, Monterrey cheese), $6.75; chicken-and-mushroom crêpe, $7.50; portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, goat cheese on onion roll, $7.75; tuna-salad sandwich with water chestnuts, cheddar, $7.25; special lo-calorie Greek omelet, $6.95; veggie omelet, $6.95; almond ahi salad, $8.25; chocolate truffle dessert, carrot cake with "pineapple raisins," opera torte, other desserts, $3.95 slice
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., Monday-Thursday; till 9:00 p.m. Friday; 8:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m., Saturdays (breakfast and lunch all day); closed Sundays
Buses: all downtown
Nearest Bus Stop: Sixth and Broadway
Trolleys: Blue and Orange Lines
Nearest Trolley Stop: Fifth and C