25484 Lake Wohlford Road, Escondido
At the top of a steep, winding drive to the northeast of Escondido, you’ll find tiny Lake Wohlford. The dammed lake is routinely stocked with trout for recreational fisher folk, and a mobile home park has grown up into the hills above its northern shore. Smokey’s Lake Wohlford Café feeds both communities.
A sign proclaims their catfish dinners to be “famous.” But I took a look at the menu anyway, noting that the Southern influence continued with chicken fried steak, biscuits and gravy, and ribs. There were also plenty of burgers, all the usual hot diner sandwiches, and standard American breakfast fare.
A view of the lake in the restaurant’s dining area deserves the most attention, though it’s tough to ignore the giant marlin trophy. The rest of the place is a hodgepodge of wood dining furniture, kitschy signs, and a bar/breakfast counter. Walking into this Lake Wohlford cafe feels like finding a rural Southern diner just 20 minutes from a major Southern California freeway.
I’m not a big catfish fan, but I had to try that signature dish, opting for a two-filet catfish plate served with coleslaw and hush puppies. To further disregard my years spent growing up in the South, I’ve never much enjoyed hush puppies either, and I almost subbed french fries for the little balls of fried corn meal.
I’m glad I didn’t, because I wound up appreciating the crispy outside/chewy inside take. The coleslaw also exceeded expectations, winning me over with the unlikely inclusion of diced cherries. There’s nothing about shredded cabbage, carrots, and mayonnaise to suggest cherries should be added, yet somehow the salad worked.
The catfish was a letdown. There were flaky sections to be found in each filet, but for the most part the fish was mushy. And while the cornmeal batter came off both crispy and gritty, it lacked the seasoning to pick up the fish and needed plenty of tartar sauce to complete the dish.
I didn’t know Lake Wohlford existed before dropping by for this visit, and I’m certain this café doesn’t count on people like me making a long drive from the city center to find it. It’s nice to imagine it out there, though, off the beaten path, hosting live music and karaoke and serving all-you-can-eat catfish nightly. I haven’t seen anything like it in greater San Diego.