9821 Carroll Canyon Road, San Diego
Wow. Scripps Ranch. I've walked across the bridge above that full-flood metal river, the I-15. Dizzying. But here, 50 yards east, it's just a whisk in your ears. Eucalyptus forest surrounds you. Buildings try to be unobtrusive among the trees. Here at, uh, Eucalyptus Square, the gray timber--modern shops and offices have a "sorry we're rich" feel about them, like this is a place where the well-to-do want to be comfortable but not flaunting.
I'm drawn to one little place, mainly because it has a stream of people coming and going. I climb three broad steps, navigate through a cluster of sun-faded green umbrellas and under a blue canopy with the sign that says "Chez Nous."
Inside, the tables are filled with women, grown daughters and sprightly moms, looks like, eating sandwiches and salads out of polystyrene boxes and chatting away about pets and vets and kids' games on Saturdays. It looks fresh-painted, in creams and coffee-browns. A painting of Paris in the rain hangs on one wall, a couple of Picasso's two-eyes-on-one-side-of-the-face pics hang opposite.
"Next, please. Hello, Joanna. Usual spicy chicken? Of course. Oh, a soup today too? Burmese? Tomato? Of course. And, you want it to go, right?"
Huh. Knows the customers by name. Efficient as heck. The face is beautiful, brown-eyed, the voice precise, educated, British-sounding. Every S and T comes out crystal clear. "I was born in Bombay," says Saira -- I ask her name when my turn comes -- "and educated by English nuns. I majored in French...have you decided?"
Uh, right. I look up at the wall menu-board. It's big.
"Our most popular sandwich is the spicy chicken melt," suggests Saira's husband Ali. "Six out of ten orders are for that. It's our signature sandwich."
But with this list, I need more time. So I put off the MOD (Moment of Decision) and check out the soups. Tomato, or -- oh yes. Burmese chicken soup. Curry, for sure. Cup is $2.78, bowl with a roll is $4.64. "Burmese. The cup," I say.
I find a table and, oh gosh. This is delicious. Curryish, sweetish, with chunks of chicken plus lots of cilantro, swimming with soba noodles. Tastes wonderfully fresh and spicy.
I'm still stewing over the sandwich menu when the lady next door takes pity. "Try the roast beef," she says. Annette. "It has a ginger-garlic flavor, and Dijon. And avocado. They really have sophisticated tastes here." She's a regular. A genuine Scrippian. Loves this place on Saturdays. "I come with my girlfriends." She has an afterthought. "See that salad in the cooler? It's sensational. The 'Special Salad.' All sorts of fruit, chicken, nuts..."
I go take a gander. "We change the fruits every day," says Saira, looking over at me. "Today we have citrus berries, strawberries, grapefruit, grapes, roasted sunflower seeds, nuts, greens, and chicken."
My only prob: it's $9.28. Could be stretching it, if I wanna get Carla something, which I do.
So I'm scanning. Turkey, pastrami, ham, the usual sandwich suspects. Tuna, turkey salad, veggie burger, all for a Lincoln plus change. Cheapest are the basic veggie (lettuce, tomatoes, avocado) and grilled cheese, each $3.94. Ooh. They have roasted eggplant on a roll ($5.75), and portobello-chicken (sautéed mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, olive oil, pesto, and chicken) for $6.25.
"Spicy chicken melt?" says Ali. "Do you do halves?" I ask. I've had my spicy fix with the soup, and I'm thinking this is what I'll take back to Carla. Because now I've noticed a roasted leg of lamb sandwich with garlic and rosemary. How often do you find that? It's $6.50, and Ali says the half spicy chicken melt is $3.25. Can just about afford both.
When they come -- it's mighty quick -- I snitch off an undetectable quarter-inch line from Carla's spicy chicken. Dozen micro-bites. Wow. Prickly-spicy. The hot ooze of jalapeño cheese makes it very sexy. But no. By sheer force of character, I eschew more chews, heh heh, seal the rest up and head for my lamb sandwich. Makes me think of Christmases when my dad insisted on lamb as the main course. "You should never have it without rosemary," he'd say. 'Course I thought he meant our Aunt Rosemary, who always used to be there.
My sandwich has a mountain of lamb inside. That, plus mayo, Dijon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. But the meat is it. Juicy, succulent, and hinting at the, uh, rosemary.
"We cook everything fresh, every day," says Saira. "Ali comes in at 7:30 and puts the lamb and the chicken in to roast."
It turns out Saira and Ali both worked for San Diego City Schools. "I was in operations. Ali's an engineer. But we were bored. We decided to bust out."
They used their severance money to launch this place, 14 years ago. "I had done catering in Bombay," says Saira. "And Ali -- he's from Iran -- knows a lot about Persian cuisine." Except they didn't use either cuisine for the menu here. "We just created everything out of our heads and saw what our customers liked," Ali says.
They got it right. Even at 2:30, the place is popping. Guess the Beamer-Audi-Porsche crowd knows when it's on to a good thing.