Early birds heading to the Del Mar Fair often arrive hungry, appetites aroused by the pre-festivities thrill ride through the I-5/805 Merge of Death. There's food inside the fairgrounds, but as the locals already know, Bay Grass Café offers delicious breakfasts to reward you for a successful voyage -- at prices that won't eat up your Fair budget.
The eatery is a cute renovated Quonset hut with open-beam ceilings, tall windows, and terra-cotta interior walls. Seating arrangements (listed in order of comfort) include booths, tables, and tall bar-tables with sky-high, straw-backed bar stools. These last seem a waste of precious floor space -- Solana Beach's wild young bar-crowd of 25 years ago has grown older and wider, and we witnessed several customers declining the climb. If you can handle street noise, the heated, roofed-over patio by the front door is rarely full and provides a sea-level alternative.
The extensive breakfast and brunch menus feature so many choices that you could start your day here twice a week for a year without risking boredom. One dish that displays an intelligence for flavor combinations offers polenta roasted inside a banana-leaf wrapper, two eggs over easy, and a spicy Louisiana andouille sausage. The banana leaf imbues the cornmeal with an earthy rain-forest flavor. The sausage is rich and punchy. Mingling with the flawlessly cooked eggs, all three flavors are in love. After then you discover sweet-corn kernels hidden in the polenta, Cupid to this ménage à trois.
In "Beach Benedict," superb crabcakes replace Canadian bacon. They're soft, creamy, and as crabby as can be. On top are impeccably poached eggs and made-from-scratch lemony hollandaise strewn with grated fresh peel. Between the eggs and the crabcake are tomato slices (of whatever degree of ripeness the season provides) "Café potatoes," which come with most egg dishes, are a tasty hash of red creamers, red and green peppers, and red onions.
Some of the breakfasts are more debatable, competently cooked but with devil-in-the-recipe details. A pair of plate-filling Shrek-size blue corn pancakes offer well-crisped surfaces, with the satisfying flavors of blue cornmeal and a modicum of sugar. But they're too thick to cook through, so the centers remain moist and heavy. In New Mexico, where the blue corn grows, restaurants typically make these pancakes the size of small tortillas, a scale that works better with this batter. Given Beach Grass's up-market feel, it's surprising to find as accompaniments a "maple flavor" syrup (not pure maple) and a blob of a bland, fatty substance that I believe to be a "butter blend."
When's the last time you saw Hangtown Fries on a menu? They make 'em here -- sorta. You remember the story: A '49er miner who'd just struck it rich walked into a saloon in Hangtown (now Placerville). He asked the waiter, "What's the most expensive food you've got?" The waiter named oysters (tinned and shipped all the way from Boston), bacon (scarce), and eggs (scarcer). The prospector said, "Put 'em all on a plate for me." Hence, Hangtown Fries, an oyster and bacon scramble. Well, Beach Grass gives you perfectly fried oysters mixed with great scrambled eggs and high-quality bacon. And then they ruin it all by baking it under a heavy coating of melting Parmesan shreds. That's not what the prospector ordered.
Other tempting choices include upside-down pineapple pancakes, house-smoked salmon, "awesome chilaquiles" (per the menu -- they're made with corn tortillas, homemade red sauce, Asiago cheese, and scrambled egg), quiche du jour, and a host of omelets. The fresh, house-squeezed orange juice is manna -- it's apparently whirled in a blender to the texture of fluffy cream. If you prefer a sweeter quaff, a "BGC Cooler" is a sugary blend of tropical juices. The coffee, with unlimited refills, is good by American breakfast standards. If you crave a stronger brew, there's espresso.
Beach Grass Café started out as a spin-off of Parkhouse Eatery in Hillcrest. The latter is known for bang-up breakfasts; its dinners have never attracted the same enthusiasm. Last year, chef-owner Tommy Golden sold Beach Grass to a local mini-chain, Mazatlan, Inc. (which includes Swami's Café and Honey's Bistro in Encinitas). According to the restaurant manager, most of BGC's original kitchen staff remains in place, cooking the recipes Golden taught them. Parkhouse's weak spots also still hold: While breakfasts are generally terrific, dinners tend to be hit or miss, at about a 50:50 ratio.
There are some excellent dishes to be had in the evening, if you guess well. An appetizer of light chicken-liver pâté sweetened with apple juice was likable French bistro fare, served on toasted baguette slices. It even won over my partner, a hater of chopped liver. "Moroccan style" crabcakes were of a different order than the breakfast version, equally soft but twice as large, seasoned with ground coriander seed, diced red and green pepper, and scallions. The tartar sauce was, refreshingly, an authentic precommercial version (from the days before Kraft's et al. cheapened the formula), house-made with sour cream, mayo, dill weed, lemon juice, and -- a touch of faux danger -- minced fresh hot pepper.
A Caesar salad with a raw egg dressing earns points for approaching the original, but its flavors are off-balance -- light on anchovy and heavy on Dijon mustard, while the chopped romaine includes bitter outer leaves among the clumps of sweet chartreuse heart. "She-crab" soup could be a new Campbell's variety, "She-Crab Vegetable," were it not for the hot chilies. The loose, tomato-based broth offers a spicy serrano nip, along with crab shreds aswim among the mushy diced veggies. All of my tablemates liked it, but none enough to finish. Our least appealing starter plate held three small tostadas topped with shreds of "Kailua pork" reheated to dryness, plus caramelized red onion and a cilantro-jalapeño cream sauce that tasted like Mexican sour cream.
Among our entrées, seafood dishes were the best bets. A clam bake fulfills its mandate by including a host of species. Manila clams, small black mussels, grilled shrimp (which overcook in the boil), crab claws and legs, Louisiana andouille, whole red creamer potatoes, and grilled yellow corn all float in a broth of white wine and shellfish liqueur, lent a touch of sweetness by the corn. Servers give you lots of napkins and seafood-surgery tools, plus slabs of toasted baguette, which you'll want for sopping up every last drop of broth. A dish called "Fish and Chips NOT" centers on battered, deep-fried "local catch" -- rock cod, in this instance (going by the fake name of red snapper, which isn't a local species). Our fish pieces were greaseless, the accompaniments alluring. These included the house-made tartar sauce first encountered with the Moroccan crabcake. We also loved a mashed-potato pancake made of chunky, skin-on red potatoes softened with cream and sour cream, flattened in a skillet, and crusted on both sides. Reaching for the pale, crisp yam chips, cut like French fries, my friend Lynne moaned, "I can't keep my hands off these!"
Meats didn't fare as well, but in most cases they didn't spoil the veggies. "One FAT pork chop, spicy crusted" is the menu listing for a gravyless version of chicken-fried bone-in pork. The chop was chubby, indeed, under its heavy, crunchy bread-crumb crust. I ordered it medium-rare; it arrived unnecessarily well-done. The garnishes, however, were fine: The mashed red potatoes of the pancake were served un-pancaked, alongside a mystery mound of beet-red, sweet-spicy succulence. This turned out to be serrano-spiced apples cooked with whole cranberries. Filling out the plate were carrots, green beans, and soft zucchini.
The nadir was the most expensive dish, a Prime aged New York strip steak that the menu describes as "sugar-basil cured." Evidently, the cure didn't take. If the cut was genuinely aged Prime, there's a USDA meat inspector out there somewhere with his palm outstretched. This heifer tasted more like Sysco Select or ungraded carnicería, with a chewy, dry texture even when cooked rare. It was topped with charred-bitter leek shreds and served with roasted red potatoes and a warring blend of tough, salty spinach and harsh, raw basil leaves.
Desserts are made in-house but seem not to be the restaurant's strong suit. A lilikoi (passionfruit) cheesecake was tall and ordinary on a slightly burned crust, gaining most of its allure from a sexy veil of light passionfruit syrup. A misnamed fruit cobbler was actually a primitive crisp: A mixture of finely diced fresh fruits (apple, mango, underripe pineapple, and strawberry) under a streusel (crumb) topping was heated but not fully cooked, emerging still crunchy and none too sweet. The dish was crowned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream of store-brand quality. Fortunately, the desserts change frequently, so if you're craving a sweet, it shouldn't be too hard to pick one that complements your dinner -- perhaps a nice low-risk sorbet before you hit that highway again.