What $15.25 buys
Bob and Kate Carpenter had a decision to make.
“I said ‘We have no pension, no safety net. This has to work,’” says Bob.
The question? Whether to give up their lives as journalists and PR execs and take a lease out on this small restaurant space in Escondido.
It was all at a head because they had both been laid off and weren’t spring chickens any more.
Their decision? It’s right here, on Orange Street. Sunny Side Kitchen. All yellow and white. “Panini,” says a swinging sign.
I noticed it heading down Orange towards the Transit Center. Huh, I thought. Looks like a nice mom-and-pop.
Then the little gray cells start sparking. I’m remembering one night, outside Mission Brewery in the old Wonderbread factory down at 13th and Imperial. A pop-up tent. Bright couple, making paninis. Sure that was called Sunny Side, too.
So, natch, got to give this a try. But just before I do, I notice a red sign stuck to the window. “Yelp. Top 100 Places to Eat, 2017. Winner, Sunny Side Kitchen.”
Wow. “Top 100?” I ask the bearded guy behind the counter. “Yes. We were named one of the top 100 places to eat at in the United States,” he says. Bob. I remember him, now. “We were #51. More people gave us 5-star reviews on Yelp than any restaurant in the country, except the 50 ahead of us. And we’re on again this year, but at number 45.”
By now, Bob’s wife Kate, and two of their crew, Analise and Judy, have joined in.
“Everybody said it was the atmosphere, plus the fact that we — specially Bob and Kate — make everything here,” says Analise. “Bake the cookies, roast their own turkeys, squeeze their own lemonade.”
Some alarm pings off at the oven behind. Bob turns around and hauls out a turkey wrapped in foil. He stabs it with a thermometer. I notice five temperature alarms on the back of the oven, and below them, magnet labels. “Quiche,” “brownie,” “tomatoes,” “cookies,” “croutons,” “tea,” “muffins,” “soup,” “eggs,” “orzo [pasta],” “bacon,” “meatloaf.” These guys are for real.
I like that the kitchen is right out here in front, so the cooks and the cooking are part of the action. Also, I’m so thankful. It’s Saturday, and everything around looks either not open or closing down. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon, and I’ve gotta eat something before the long haul down to ’Diego aboard the 235. Except these guys close at 2:30, so I’d better get my breakfast act together.
Lessee. Menu’s on the wall. And — can’t say they didn’t warn you — it’s mainly panini. They start off with egg and cheese ($4 for a half, $7 whole, add bacon for 75 cents). Avocado, egg, and cheese panini’s $4.75 or $7.75, and “The Works,” which I’m guessing is eggs, avo, cheese and bacon, goes for $5.50 or $10. Oh, and something called California Club is $6.50 and $12.50. They all come with a small fruit bowl.
They also have “old-fashioned” oatmeal bowls, from $3.50 to $5, and “lunch panini” such as Tuscan chicken, which Kate says is about their top seller. It costs $6.75 or $11.25. Or a meatloaf lunch panini goes for $5.75 or $9.25, or a vegan one for $5.25 or $8.25. And, hey, a lunch special: half a grilled cheese panini with a cup of soup or a side salad for $7. Deal! Soup of the day’s clam chowder and costs $3.50 if you’re having it separately.
Hmm. Salads look pretty good as well. Like the quinoa ($6.75 or $10.25) or the Sunny Side (basically spinach, bacon, feta and craisins, ($6.25, $10.25). But Analise says to get their newest creation, the strawberry chicken ($6.75, $11.75).
I do wonder about, like, where are the breakfast omelets and pancakes? But Bob ain’t apologizing. “We do panini sandwiches and salads. That’s it,” he says. “I turn away people asking for omelets every day, but I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. We want to stick to what we do well.”
Meantime, decisions. “You should do what I’m doing,” says this customer, Matt Schaifel. He’s a musician. Creates EDM music. Is eating a half BLT panini and a half quinoa salad, plus an iced chai latte.
“Yes, get two halves,” says Analise. “Everybody does it.”
Hmm. Why not, at these prices? So, I go for a half strawberry chicken salad and half The Works panini. Plus a pour-over coffee ($3). Comes to $15.25 plus tax.
But — these are halves? They look like full size when they arrive. Plus, oh man, the bread. Sourdough from Bread and Cie, with butter and herbs worked into the top. And inside, plenty of everything, from guac to bacon to cheese to one big fat oozy egg.
And the salad: Basically sparky arugula with chicken, bleu cheese, a nice tangy purple sauce, and of course, strawbs, to sweeten it all up. And made substantial by the chicken and cheese chunks. I know. It’s too much. Just salad or panini would’ve been plenty.
’Course, I should’ve asked for some of Kate’s cookies, which she bakes every morning. Gluten-free muffins are $2, or three for $5.50. Bite-size cookies are 50 cents each, and brownies go for $2. So, you could just come for cawfee and a cookie or two and get out under $5.
Whatever, it’s all so refreshing. Like coming to granny’s for brekky.
I ask Bob how it felt being named in Yelp’s Top 100. “It was incredible,” he says. “After that, business doubled. And when we won again this year, we got another boost.”
How good has it been?
“Last year we paid all our bills,” says Bob.