8795 Villa La Jolla Drive, La Jolla
A new sandwich shop opened in La Jolla last month. Despite the Northern California reference in the name, Mendocino Farms is a small chain of fast-casual farm-to-table restaurants based in Los Angeles. They have been expanding south through Orange County the past couple of years, and the La Jolla spot marks its 15th location, with another due in Del Mar in 2017. It operates under the motto “eat happy” and clearly stresses attentive hospitality.
Unlike McDonald’s, which is vowing to switch to self-ordering kiosks to save the big money it pays its employees, Mendocino Farms is going in another direction. The process of ordering your meal there requires three employees, and it starts when you walk in.
First, a host or hostess greets you to take your salad or sandwich order. There’s a large menu beside the door, and a hostess stood in front of me, ordering tablet in hand, offering suggestions. Actually, she just read the menu aloud as I tried to choose from more than two dozen options. A second hostess did the same for another customer a couple of feet away.
While in theory this isn’t different than a server taking your order at a table, for a first-time customer it feels like you’re being solicited by a petition-gatherer in front of a grocery store.
I settled on one of the chain’s most popular dishes, the Not So Fried Chicken Sandwich, and the hostess entered it on her touchpad. But it wasn’t over. She directed me to a second server standing behind a nearby glass counter filled with side dishes. These didn’t appear on the sandwich and salad menu but may be added to your order for $3.50. This part of the ordering process proves a little more fun because you can taste through a litany of items such as dill mashed potatoes, curried couscous, and kale-and-beet salad.
A third employee, further along the counter, finally completes the order, adding drinks and cookies and etc. and taking payment. From here I could see several other workers hustling behind the counter, preparing the food. I saw a couple more bussing tables around the dining room and patio. Sitting down to eat around 2 p.m. on a weekday, a head count told me there were as many people working as there were customers.
The not-so-fried chicken gets its name by being a roasted chicken sandwich that adds crispy bits of buttermilk batter to emulate a fried chicken crunch. It’s served with pickled onions, mustard pickle slaw, and herb aioli on a toasted ciabatta. It was terrific but nothing like a fried-chicken sandwich. With a generous portion of aioli dousing the veggie toppings and chopped breast meat, “not so fried” is really a euphemism for chicken salad.
I’d even call it a great chicken-salad sandwich, and I appreciate the naturally farmed ingredients and that better-than-fast-food jobs are being created for this friendly staff. But I could have ordered it from a single cashier.