San Diego–raised, Top Chef–winning Frankie "the Bull" Terzoli offers up jambalaya — "a wow" — at Proud Mary's.
  • San Diego–raised, Top Chef–winning Frankie "the Bull" Terzoli offers up jambalaya — "a wow" — at Proud Mary's.
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What’s a Louisiana restaurant doing in a Ramada in a sterile business district near Montgomery Field? Well, it’s making a lot of pilots happy, and me, too. With Magnolia gone and Bud’s moved up to Tierrasanta (terra incognita to a downtown gal like me), it’s a place to feed my N’awlins jones.

Local-born chef Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli started cooking at his uncle’s restaurant (the Venetian in Point Loma) as a teenager, fell in love with the job, and has since cooked his way around the world, including a few years in Lafayette, Louisiana, the culinary border between Cajun and Creole cuisine, and in New Iberia, next door to Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce. So he knows the real tastes of this food. An original owner of Bull’s BBQ in the Morena District, he broke from his partners to open the Big Easy on Hillcrest’s “site of doom,” a location that’s been home to a long line of dead restaurants, including the much-missed Better Half. That died, too.

But I’ve had faith in Frankie’s abilities since Bull’s. At Proud Mary’s (where he can relax, sort of, as a salaried restaurant manager and chef), he’s keeping the faith. He’s honed his Louisiana cooking since the Big Easy days, although his insanely delicious “foie gras crêpe suzette” isn’t on the menu here. It’s not the sort of thing pilots and military guys would likely order, and they’re the backbone patrons of the restaurant.

The decor is an odd mishmash, with three large Mardi Gras oil paintings by the hotel owner’s wife, photos of the red-leather-boothed olden days (there are now plain wooden tables and unpadded chairs), huge flat-screen TVs (muted the night I was there — whew!), plus a festively lighted bar. Nashville-style Muzak plays on the sound system — Frankie prefers other genres (e.g., smooth jazz) but the patrons demand it. When he’s not stuck to the stove, he comes out to schmooze with the patrons.

Lynne, Ben, Fred, and I chose a six-top, knowing we’d be ordering more than a four-top could hold. From the appetizer list, we centered on Louisiana’s holy trinity of cooked dishes: jambalaya, filé gumbo, and red beans and rice. Portions are ginormous. Any of these would be a full meal, and every Tuesday here is “fat Tuesday,” with all appetizers just $5 each.

The jambalaya (much improved from the Big Easy version; Frankie has hit the cookbooks) was a wow, with chicken, andouille, and shrimp in a just-fiery-enough, just-wet-enough tomato-based sauce permeating long-grain rice of a luscious, firm-soft texture from cooking in the sauce. “Now, this is rice I really like,” said Ben-the-stew, who flies the Asia routes. “I’m bone-tired of Asia’s plain white rice.”

In NOLA, red beans and rice is the Monday-night washday miracle, since the beans can simmer for half a day while mama’s at the washateria. It’s also the classic entrée at local Mardi Gras open-house parties. It’s typically made with fatty smoked pork, like ham hocks, thrown in with the beans, and sausages tossed in near the end of cooking. Here, it’s a tidy presentation of beans over rice with sliced andouille circling the plate. The menu calls it “dirty rice” but it isn’t — “dirty” means chopped, sautéed chicken hearts and gizzards, or for lazy cooks, ground meat. This rice was chaste. The beans weren’t smoky or fatty, but soulful, flavorful, and the andouille — made-to-order for Frankie by a local Portuguese sausage company — was convincing, with the right spices in right amounts, and a bare modicum of fat.

Looking at the walnut-brown chicken filé gumbo, Fred said, “Wow, how long did it take to cook the roux for that?” Frankie later revealed that, since he couldn’t get his inherited kitchen staff to stand over the stove stirring a roux nonstop for 45 minutes, he’d discovered he could toast the flour in the oven until browned, then finish it off by stirring on the stovetop with oil until it reached the chestnut color he likes. The roasting creates a faint smoky flavor. Filé powder added near the end thickens the broth, although I can’t taste the sassafras. Rice is served on the side in traditional fashion; when you add it to taste, the soup comes alive. Better yet, it comes with irresistible cornbread, slightly sweet, moist, dotted with baked corn kernels; not authentic dry Southern cornbread, as Fred pointed out, but oh, so much better.

In a fourth appetizer of shrimp and watermelon ceviche, the already cooked shrimp exposed to the citrus dressing firmed up to rubber. And the entrées, as usual, fell short of the starters. The crowd-pleaser was the “Memphis-smoked” spare ribs, oven-steamed in coffee before being smoked for a while, then slathered with a sweet barbecue sauce and grilled to heat. (Authentic Memphis ribs are dry-rubbed with seasonings, deep-smoked overnight, barely sauced.) Due to the moist-heat pre-cooking, these had no smoke flavor but were fall-apart tender. “In Southern California, nobody wants to see that ‘smoke ring’ of meats smoked all the way. People say it tastes like an ashtray,” Frankie told me later.

A Californified oyster po’ boy was served on a soft, large frankfurter roll, too mushy to assemble and pick up with all the lettuce-tomato-onion salad heaped atop the oysters. The bun could be okay with the pulled-pork sandwich (traditionally served on a burger bun) but useless here; a kaiser roll might make a better substitute for Nawlins’ crisp-crusted, soft-inside French bread. Fred, with Southern relatives, didn’t appreciate the side of fried green tomatoes — too much breading, too-bland tomato, for his taste. Lightly sautéed collards on the side were crisp, certainly not Southern.

Crawfish étouffé (it’s on the plastic-sheathed menu, not the paper menus at the table, which ran out of space to list it) is a classic tomatoey restaurant rendition with less cayenne and garlic than my favorite home recipe from Cajun music heroes Mark and Ann Savoy. As for Steak Diane, the spicy sauce is interesting and new, but the meat was the toughest filet mignon I’ve ever attempted to chaw. The tall rectangular cake of mushroom grits was dense and bland. I’ve just started to love grits. Halve the height, lighten it up, and seduce me with more butter or cheese, Frankie cher!

The only dessert available that night was a doozy: a caramel bread pudding, gooey, soft, but not disgustingly sweet. No serious coffee, but Frankie buys from Café Moka and he’s promised to add some dark French roast for dinner customers.

I drank a couple of hurricanes at just $5 each, and they were terrific — strong, refreshing, not oversweet. Fred enjoyed a Chubasco, a tequila-based Mexican Hurricane usually made with grenadine, but Frankie substitutes hibiscus juice (aka jamaica or sorrel). Ben and Lynne drank good Merlots left from the official opening-night party a few days before, also $5 per glass.

“Lagniappe” is a Louisiana term meaning “a little something extra.” This is a concept that Frankie the Bull seems to have taken to heart; that spirit of generosity, the underlying idea that it’s more fun to give than to withhold, and it’s what you’ll find at Proud Mary’s. ■

Proud Mary’s Southern Bar and Grill

★★★ (Very Good)

Ramada Inn Conference Center, 5550 Kearny Mesa Road, Kearny Mesa, 858-278-0800, ext. 399;
HOURS: Breakfast 6:00–10:00 a.m. daily; lunch 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. Monday–Saturday; dinner 5:00–10:00 p.m. daily.
PRICES: Breakfast buffet $7; dinner starters, soups, salads $7–$10; po’ boys and burgers $10; entrées $13–$19; desserts $7. Tuesday special: appetizers $5.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Gulf Coast food with a strong Louisiana accent. Wine list brief, not quite coherent but adequate. Full bar with Louisiana beers (Abita, etc.), generous, tasty cocktails, including $5 Hurricanes daily.
PICK HITS: Gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, Memphis spare ribs, cornbread, bread pudding. Other possible bets: soft-shell crab, pecan-crusted grouper, blackened catfish, pulled-pork sandwich, crawfish boil when offered.
NEED TO KNOW: Huge portions, most starters sized as entrées. Call to learn when crawfish boil is on the menu. Sporadically crowded; reservations not required but advisable. Top Gun atmosphere, with military guys, Montgomery Field pilots, and the Nashville country music they love. To avoid short staircase down to dining room, enter on the other side of the building, by the pool tables. Vegetarians: fuhgeddaboudit.

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Naomi Wise June 9, 2011 @ 5:22 p.m.

Just after this article went into its final edit, I learned that Bud's has actually just moved from Tierrasanta to -- Kearny Mesa. (See blogs for the address).


mikehamm June 11, 2011 @ 7:08 a.m.

This sentence: "Local-born chef Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli won a TV chef contest (Bravo’s Top Chef)." is very misleading. It implies he won Top Chef. He didn't. I believe he won one Elimination Challenge, but was sent home half way through the season. He'll always be known as the guy who physically threatened Marcel, on camera, because all Marcel did was move Frank's toothbrush. Really?!? However, this doesn't mean I won't try his restaurant. Just need to set the record straight regarding his "TV chef contest" win.


pcindy June 14, 2011 @ 10:37 p.m.

Just a few comments about this rave review. My husband and I who live in Hillcrest, went to Frank's restaurant, "The Big Easy" from the moment it opened. We love to support local small businesses in our neighborhood, and wanted to see it succeed. Our experiences were this:

First time, stopped by for lunch. Had some good (not exceptional, but good) sandwiches. We liked siting on the outside patio.

Second time, we brought about a dozen members of our French language group. Thought it would be fun to have a Cajun brunch. First, he assured us that he would have live Cajun musicians there (we'd seen them before, playing on the patio). Second, he assured us that he'd have umbrellas at all the tables for sun protection. Third, he tried to price-gouge us shamelessly, suggesting a bouillabase for something like $25 a head, when the average brunch menu item was around $10. We declined the bouillabase, and when we arrived, no umbrellas, no music. Food was weird. Terrible presentation, and completely inconsistent portions. Nothing tasty to the extent of being at all noteworthy. Just a head-scratcher overall. The sense was that the place was completely indifferent to our patronage.

Third time (can't believe we gave him another chance!), took the in-laws (they're from Europe, so we thought a uniquely American type of food- Cajun would be a rare treat). The food was pretty good, but even though the place was nearly empty, we couldn't believe how we were rushed through our our meal. Taking away plates and asking if we wanted desert or anything else while some of us were still eating our main course. Uch. Meanwhile Frank played the part of the Big Chef, strutting around to talk with the only other diners in the restaurant, a couple of women who seemed to be regulars.

Overall, his restaurant did NOT fail because it was in a "site of doom." It failed because he failed to deliver an inviting atmosphere, good service, consistently good cuisine, and it seemed to just be a vehicle for an over-weaning ego to play the part of the Big Chef/Restauranteur. To prove this point, the very next restaurant to move into this so-called "site of doom" is called Empire House, and is flourishing like crazy, and has been since the moment it opened. Nothing in the neighborhood around it changed, just the restaurant. Seems like ol' Frankie "the Bull" doomed(and not for the first time) himself.


dimereel June 8, 2012 @ 11:55 p.m.

As one who is paid to evaluate restaurants and who has experienced the gamut from 5 star sit down establishments to casual fast food style dining; I must say, Proud Mary's Southern Bar and Grill lacks southern hospitality and its food is barely adequate at best.

The food is fair. It is far from mouth watering or spectacular. The crab cakes are filled with more crab than cake and the sauce compliments without being over powering or bland. The mac and cheese is not "country" mac and cheese, but rather pasta shells in a smokey creamy cheese liquid with a Cajun style crust on top. The presentation was more than food plopped on a plate and still no frills. The drinks were adequate. They were not strong and were not watered down.

The service was friendly and professional all the while lacking in knowledge of quality customer service and standard food service. The server/bartender that took our order never introduced herself, never explained the menu or current specials, failed to place 1/3 of our order, did not check back until half way through our meal, did not return with the condiments once requested, did not explain the happy hour specials that were currently running and did not apply the happy hour pricing until questioned as to why the happy hour prices did not appear on the final bill, empty dishes were not cleared in a timely manner, when the food order arrived to the table it was "auctioned off" by asking who ordered what item. The General Manager was visible in the dining room and did not make table visits on general principle. When expressing to the GM disapproval with the level and quality of service, the GM was dismissive and unconcerned.

The atmosphere and ambiance is very much that of a 2 star bar and grill with Mardi Gras beads wrapped around fixtures and figurines placed on the table. There is a pool table in the dining room and flat panel screens mounted to the dining room wall and behind the bar. It was very dark and empty at 6:30 PM, however the business level picked up within the hour, which the two bartenders who double as servers could not keep up with the demand and support staff appeared to pitch-in from the kitchen for a total of 10 minutes. The website claims the location is kid friendly; however, there is no children's menu, there are two high chairs for the dining room and IS more bar than grill.

The lasting impression is that I should have dined closer to my hotel located in the Gas Lamp district and chose any number of the establishments downtown, rather than venturing out to Proud Mary's where, if I were Mary, I would not be so proud. If you stay at the Ramada, it might be worth ordering "to go" because the food would seem better if served over a counter and eaten with plastic utensils. The food is OK and the service makes you want to stay home.


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