I found Cafe One Three thoroughly likable -- to line up the adjectives, it's enjoyable, unpretentious, affordable, and creative enough to keep you coming back for more. This is the neighborhood bistro that every neighborhood needs, and it's a mark of San Diego's culinary backwardness that every neighborhood doesn't have its own version.
ABOUT THE OWNERS AND THE CHEF
Jason Dean and Carlos Legasty are the owners of Cafe One Three. Jason, the more actively involved owner, grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. "I've been in the restaurant industry over half my life now, and I wanted a place where the experience and the food ran hand in hand. It's a neighborhood bistro. I love going to places like that myself, and I really felt that this neighborhood, specifically, could use what I was trying to create.
"I started my first restaurant job when I was 15, as a busboy at a French-style epicurean restaurant in Tennessee, cummerbund and black tie, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That job turned into other restaurant jobs over the years, from busboy to server to bartender to trainer to manager. I moved to San Diego in 1996. I needed more sunshine, and I met someone from San Diego in a restaurant in Monterey where I was working, and he encouraged me to come down here and check it out. I worked at the Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park for five years and was assistant manager. It was the most challenging and 'funnest' job I have ever had in my life. But it was time for me to spread my own wings and fly. The Prado's owners, David and Leslie Cohn, have been incredibly supportive.
"This being my first venture, I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. I wanted a neighborhood restaurant. I knew the previous owners of Indulgence -- Tom and Fritz were friends of mine -- but Fritz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early last year. They had three years left on their lease, and I had already quit my job and was actively looking for a restaurant. So that's how it fell into our laps. So we opened for business December 29 of last year. We've gotten a lot of word-of-mouth. I rely on doing what I do best -- feeding people and giving people a good time. The reason I built this was for the community, and not just the surrounding neighborhood but for people who love food and wine and the experience.
"The name, Cafe One Three, is synonymous with my lucky number, 13. The digits in the address add up to 13. The numbers of my home address add up to 13, too, and we started the escrow process on the 13th of May. And we have 13 tables. But I didn't want to call it '13' because some people are superstitious about that number and might be turned off."
Realizing that he had a full job handling the business side of the café, Jason hired chef John Kennedy. Born in Long Beach, California, Kennedy has weighty credentials for a bistro chef. (A hilarious malapropism in the G&L Times review referred to it as his professional "pedicure" rather than "pedigree" -- QED, Kennedy has the prettiest toenails of any chef in town.) "I was a ranger in the U.S. Army, and I'd always enjoyed cooking, and when I got out of the Army and became a civilian, I looked at my prospects and what I enjoyed doing -- and believe it or not, a kitchen is the closest to a regimented system outside of the military. They don't call it a 'kitchen brigade' for nothing.
"I got my degree in culinary arts from the California Academy of Culinary Arts in San Francisco, with my veteran's benefits paying for a great deal of it, and I've worked with some really fabulous chefs, including Thomas Keller at French Laundry, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Gary Danko. I was with the Hyatt for about six years, first at the Grand Champion in Palm Desert, and then two years at the Manchester here." Unfortunately, his position at the Manchester was in the banquet department -- a stultifying rut for any creative chef who wants to have fun exploring fresh flavor combinations. "One day, I went home and responded to a posting on craigslist, and 15 minutes later, Jason Dean called me to schedule an appointment.
"Everything I do, I like to throw my own gist into it. People throw around the word 'fusion,' but I do like to bring in different ingredients from different areas and blend them in. Like in the vegetarian paella, there's an Indian-based five-spice blend in the ratatouille that goes on top of it. I like complex flavors, explosions in the mouth." I asked him if he'd traveled. "Oh, yes, dear, when I was in the military I went to 36 countries. That's probably another reason I got into cooking -- I so enjoyed traveling and the different cuisines. The cuisines that inspired me most were India, Thailand, and Korea. In India there are 120 different spices not used within the Western kitchen, and I have a number of them in my kitchen here. I like to throw those little nuances into my food. But I try to tailor to my clientele. I'm not one of those chefs that wants to train people how to eat. I'd rather give them food they can enjoy, with a little twist. I see the restaurant as an eclectic comfort-food café. It was Jason Dean's concept when I came on board, and I try to uphold that."
NOTE: Restaurant RIPs -- just as bad money drives out good, ordinary food drives out exceptional food. So we bid a fond and heartbroken farewell to Asia Vous, a superb "fusion cuisine" restaurant hampered by its location in far-off Fluoristan -- I mean, Escondido. Riko and Kim Bartolome and family are moving to Maui. We wish them the best of luck and will miss Riko's brilliant cooking and Kim's gracious greetings. Also a slow fade for Cendio, a Latin-Caribbean restaurant that opened last winter in La Jolla with cuisine by a distinguished Irish chef. In spring, it garnered some strong positive reviews (G&L Times, et al). A couple of weeks ago, I went, I ate -- too late. The food was too sketchy to have justified those glowing reports, so a tablemate asked if the chef was still there. No, she'd departed four months ago, and the restaurant has been sold to the Vigilucci empire of North County Italian restaurants and steakhouses. Adios Cendio as well, and buon giorno Vigilucci's Steak and Seafood. (Nothing against Vigilucci's, but Cendio's menu offered more creative, entertaining cuisine -- while it had a chef to pull it off.) And by now you probably know that Chilango's, one of the few local restaurants to offer true Mexico City cuisine (not border fare), has presto-change-o become yet another Hillcrest sushi bar. There are no plans to reopen in another location. My best guess is that Ortega's, opening across the street, ate up all that block's clientele for Mexican food. Ortega's is good and it's fun, but Chilango's was terrific and will be missed.
[2009 Editor's Note: Café One Three has since closed.]