My friend Rosa convinced me — with an arsenal of photos she’d taken of dishes, including her favorite mac ’n’ cheese — to go to the Red Door for happy hour. “The vegetables are always so fresh, this place makes me think I could eat vegetarian,” she declared.
741 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills
This wasn’t my first time at the Red Door, so I was familiar with the straight-from-the-garden freshness of the produce, much of which is sourced from the owners’ own farm in La Mesa (as well as several local partners, including Suzie’s Farm and Stehly Farms). The beautiful, fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables are entrusted to the very capable hands of chef Miguel Valdez.
We were trying to make the happy hour, which I didn’t know ended at 5pm — unfairly early for the daily office grinders, but it begins at 3pm, my personal happy-houring sweet spot. Unfortunately for Rosa and me, we were coming from La Jolla after 4pm, and traffic was at a standstill. We didn’t make it to the door (newly painted more of an orange-red) until after 5.
The dish Rosa was craving was not available after happy hour, but the kitchen was kind enough to make an exception when we expressed how hard we’d tried to make it in time, and Rosa got her wish. It was indeed a delectable version of mac 'n' cheese, served in a skillet and prepared with a mixture of cheeses, some sharp, some mild, and bits of bacon that gave it a meaty satisfaction, without too much smokiness.
In addition to the mac ’n’ cheese, we decided to share a few other dishes. I was happy to go in with a fork and the same share plates that we’d been given with the skillet; however, the kitchen took the initiative to split the dishes for us, and they were both presented beautifully. First, there was the Fried Green Tomato Salad ($13), with mixed greens, bacon, pickled red onion, candied garlic, and buttermilk dressing. The sweet sourness of the pickled red onion was a fine way to cut the richness of the fried green tomato. The garlic was soft, like hard-boiled egg white, and lightly sweet, with a hint of the underlying garlic taste. The greens were as fresh as we expected them to be, and the mild buttermilk dressing, lightly drizzled, perfectly complemented the rest.
Next, we ordered the Seasonal Zucchini Pasta ($20), in which there is no actual pasta. Rather, the zucchini is cut into long, thin spaghetti-like strips. There was so much richness and depth in this dish, I had to remind myself it was borderline vegan (the only nonvegan item was the feta). The zucchini squash — in a broth made of the combination of its liquid with roasted cherry tomato, squash blossom, and chili cashews — created a unique and satisfying vegetable umami.
Rosa had more than one photo of the Banana Cream Pie ($10) in her aresenal, but she was urged by a server who recognized her as a regular to try something new, the Sticky Toffee Pudding ($10), which we ended up sharing. Though she enjoyed it, she reluctantly admitted she still preferred the Banana Cream Pie.
As for me, it’s hard to imagine a more gratifying meal-ender than a hot and cold salt ’n’ sugar bomb, as with this housemade toffee and date cake with toasted pecans and vanilla gelato from Gelato Vero.