9621 Mission Gorge Rd. #101, Santee
The other day, a friend asked where I was off to in such a hurry. “I’m gonna check out a restaurant I’ve heard good things about,” I told him. It’s an answer he’s learned to expect.
“Cool,” he responded, “Which neighborhood?”
That is decidedly not an answer he expected. When people talk about things that are hot in Santee, they’re usually the likes of asphalt, leather car seats, or the stifling air. It’s almost never to do with food. But a funky little chef-driven spot is out to change that.
Credit the beer community for turning me on to Fifty-Two East Neighborhood Eatery. Craft cocktails and clean taps pumping curated regional brews attract thirsty locals to its casual bar, and they all come away crowing about the burgers and house-smoked chicken wings.
But there’s more at work here than just the barrel smokers that waft inviting fumes across the dining patio, and out into the restaurant’s suburban shopping center parking lot. At Fifty-Two East, most of the things on the menu are made from scratch. If it’s not meat or vegetables gaining woody flavor in those smokers, it’s being whipped up in the kitchen, up to and including the ranch dressing. And if it’s sourced elsewhere, it’s sourced well. For example, the corned beef on the house reuben is cured in house, but the swirled rye bread comes from local bakery Sadie Rose ($14.50).
That sort of dedication — we might better call it effort — can be appreciated anywhere. But it’s especially valuable here in Santee, where surrounding restaurants tend to fit somewhere between Wienerschnitzel and IHOP. Even something so simple as a turkey sandwich becomes noteworthy when the poultry is seasoned, smoked, and sliced on the premises, rather than peeled, pre-cooked out of its plastic wrapping ($13.50).
Along with such sourcing, the chef-owned restaurant seems to revel in creativity. Not the poached turbot or pureed sunchoke creativity of high-end, “new contemporary” dining, necessarily. It’s more like chef-driven, elevated food for a meat and potatoes crowd. So the Bolognese features short rib, and meat and cheese boards deviate from the likes of soppressata or bresaola, instead veering towards, say, several kinds of house-smoked bacon, including such tantalizing options as chipotle spiced, smoked portobello, or battered Kentucky fried bacon ($17).
I personally could not stay away from a selection of sausages made from game meats — also produced in-house ($17). I never could get a reliable answer which kinds of sausage I wound up served: at first I was told rabbit, elk, and bison, but then it was suggested they were bison, duck, and boar. Served with garlic French fries, whipped potato salad, candied pecans, a litany of pickled vegetables, and two kinds of mustard, the board was gorgeous, regardless, and two of three sausages were delicious.
Therein lies the rub: any chef-driven menu brimming with creativity comes with risks attached, and not every choice will make sense to a foodie, be they from East County, South Park, or La Jolla. If you’re looking for a safe best, go for those burgers and wings, maybe settle in for some meatloaf (($14.50) or a saucy, four cheese macaroni ($15). But if you’re willing to live a little — and I’m looking at you Santee — belly up for a beer, and take a chance on this home-grown alternative to the Chili’s and Olive Gardens of the world.