Austin Straus 8:30 a.m., April 23
Fashion Week: Gingham
So far this week, I’ve covered two restaurants in the Enlightened Hospitality Group family that have required retooling. One that didn’t, with the exception of a quiet GM change, is Gingham (8384 La Mesa Boulevard), the most casual and unexpected of Brian Malarkey and James Brennan’s venues.
The only big misstep I can remember was the duo opening the place in the midst of San Diego Restaurant Week and offering a limited array of sausages served hot dog style in lieu of their actual menu. It was a terrible way to roll out this new kid on the triangular-tipped block on the east side of La Mesa’s Village area to locals both surprised and psyched to somehow land such a high profile eatery.
One fellow food writer still can’t get over the under- and over-cooked sausages they were served that week when they went to scout the place. I, too, showed up during this period and was underwhelmed by these throw-together offerings, but shrugged it off and came back…and was very glad I did.
Gingham is so different from the other EHG restaurants; the red-headed, calorie-loving, (non-designer) jeans-wearing, small-town cousin who doesn’t show up in as many family photos because he doesn’t run in the same circles. Best of all, he charges a lot less for his food. Most dishes are at or under twenty bucks.
Early on, it seemed some Del Martians, hipsters, and the self-believed foodie intelligentsia were making their way out in droves to check the place out. When they found food that was much simpler and straightforward in its blue collar-meets (or, more aptly, meats)-blue plate special nature, and a lack of ultra cool clientele, many deemed it not for them or not worthy of a cross-county trek, and headed back for Searsucker and Burlap.
The result—Gingham is an easygoing place where numerous EHG elements are present, but the brand is much looser and the expectations—for the restaurant and its guests—are much more relaxed.
I’ve been to Gingham more than any of the EHG restaurants. Part of that has to do with the fact I have a family base in La Mesa. Part of it also has to do with the fact I enjoy it. Chef Ryan Studebaker, who came over from Prepkitchen’s Del Mar location, has settled into the daily operations of smokers, grills, and similar cooking vessels, finding consistency that has been a struggle for the likes of Searsucker, Burlap, and Gabardine.
For me, every meal at Gingham begins with something off the "Bites" portion of the menu. I really enjoy their fried pickles and BLT fries for the start of a gorgefest on I-give-up days. When I’m looking for a full-on appetizer, I’m all about the shrimp and oxtail grits made runny by a zesty, meaty broth; and the simply delightful deviled eggs.
My fave first used to be big ol’ turkey wings served buffalo chicken-style with blue cheese and a spicy, neon orange glaze. Those have since been removed from the menu and replaced by generic chicken drumettes I haven’t tried, but imagine taste relatively as good. Another deep-fried option that's a bit more interesting is a plate of crisped up frog's legs with bacon butter, blue cheese and a balsamic chile reduction.
When it comes to the gray area between starters and mains I go with the creamy “big smoke” mac and cheese, which ranks higher on my list than most of the other thousand or so versions of this dish available in San Diego County.
As a rule, I skip the salads. With the exception of a beet and Burrata salad at La Jolla’s Herringbone, no plate of lettuces at an EHG restaurant has impressed me. Quite the contrary. They are the universal chink in the group's armor, but I can forgive a greenness with greens at a meat-based place like Gingham.
Speaking of meat, the gingHAMburger is a good, not to mention gargantuan, one that’s served up with thick orange cheddar plus thick, nicely charred bacon. The runny sunny-side-up egg they’ll slap on top seals the deal and is worth an extra dollar. The dry-rubbed brisket is also very good, and I love that one of the sides it’s served with is a spicy hot link versus bland potato salad or baked beans.
For rib lovers, giant Kobe beef ribs that bring to mind the closing credits of The Flintstones do the near impossible, beating out baby back ribs that are also quite tasty and come with a better side—fried Brussels sprouts.
Gingham has also won fans for its sweeter side, a menu of playful desserts developed by EHG pastry chef, Rachel King. The Candy Bar Cake features a frosting both salty and sweet atop a texturally diverse combo of devil’s food cake and peanut butter mousse. A fudge pretzel sundae brings the same salt and sugar punch, only colder, along with the same sureness a stomach ache’s coming on tempered by the satisfaction such discomfort is worth it for a moment of sugar-fueled enjoyment.
The only EHG restaurant where stuffing one’s self is both common place and part of the kitchen’s game plan, Gingham is the most likely place diners who claim they hate Brian Malarkey and his less loveable restaurants can find some peace…or at least a piece of cake.