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Smokey’s Lake Wohlford Cafe: old-school country diner

“I always sit here,” Neil says. “Been coming for 40 years.”

Mary and Andy - took over just as Covid hit. But they’re still here.
Mary and Andy - took over just as Covid hit. But they’re still here.

Sparkling waters! Blue, rippling, and fresh.

You come across them suddenly, on this twisty road in the mountains, heading towards Valley View Casino.

It’s Lake Wohlford. First time I’ve ever seen it. Two minutes later, stepdaughter Mag and I are high-stepping it towards this house among the bungalows on the lake’s hillside. It’s more than a house: it’s an eatery. We’re hungry.

Place

Smokey’s Lake Wohlford Café

25484 Lake Wohlford Road, Escondido

Inside’s as near as you’ll get to old-school country diner. We sit down near a guy with a big hat and a bigger beard. He looks over from his stool, the third-last in the row.

“I always sit here,” he says. Neil. “Been coming for 40 years. I have a small vineyard. I grow Cabernet. But I couldn’t do better than bronze medal at the Del Mar Fair with them, so I’ve switched to making port.”

He takes a sip of beer. “Don’t want to hold you up,” he says. “They’re about to close for the day.”

Oh wow.

Crumbed cat fish with hash browns, scrambled eggs, $11.

This is when someone from the kitchen comes out and clangs a bell. “Two o’clock! Two o’clock, everybody!”

“Quick, make up your mind, Khun paw,” says Maggie. We sometimes do a little bit of Thai. She’s American, but we all first got together in Bangkok.

“You’re okay,” says Andy. He’s pouring a beer. Looks straight out of Bonanza, cowboy hat and all. Turns out he and his wife Mary own the joint. Have done since the previous owner Smokey passed away last year. He’d had this place for ages. Andy and Mary have kept the same hours — 6 am-2 pm — and basically the same formula. Andy says he’d like to extend the hours to dinner, “except we can’t get a second cook. Combo of government handouts and all restaurants opening again means we just can’t find someone.”

So hey, check the menu. It’s hard to hurry, there’s so much. Three pages. Lessee. First page is breakfast. And the first one I see would be perfect: chicken fried steak, with two eggs, home fries, toast. Not bad for $13. But then, the chorizo and egg burrito with home fries and flour tortilla sounds a deal for $10.

“What would you have?” I ask Neil. He doesn’t hesitate. “Chicken curry bowl. Excellent curry. Just had it. Not the watery slop you get elsewhere. This has coconut milk. It’s just like the curry my mother cooked, back in England. Her family had been in India.”

Neil, wine grower, mountain man.

He says Lake Wohlford reminds him of the mountainous English Lake District where he was brought up. “But as far as a regular breakfast, I would definitely suggest their corned beef hash. Proper corned beef, made here. Not the dog food version you usually get.”

He takes a sip from his pint of beer. “This too is excellent. BNS brewery. Santee. Yellowtail Tuna golden ale. It has the sharpness of a good cold lager, but also the fullness of a red ale.”

Now he’s thinking about it, he also recommends their “magnificent” burgers (they range from the $15 “Defibrillator,” with two 1/3rd-pound angus patties, cheese, avocado, grilled onions, mushrooms and bacon, with a choice of fries, coleslaw, or salad (or for two bucks more, onion rings or Parmesan garlic fries) for $15, to a chicken burger for $11, or an open-faced chili burger with diced onions and mixed cheese for $13. Or even a catfish burger ($13).

So hmm. Mag goes for the “Smothered and Covered,” two scrambled eggs with onion, ham, green pepper, and cheese, topped with gravy ($12).

Smokey’s rifle-totin’ beer supplier, BNS, from Santee. Stout? Outa this world!

And while I’m stewing about it, even though this is breakfast, it is two o’clock, and Andy’s saying I look like a stout man. Certain amount of truth to that, but he’s talking about the stout he has on tap. “The ‘Gatling Gun’ could be just the thing for you,” he says. Most of his Santee-based BNS beers have something to do with guns. There’s a “Revolver” American IPA, “Flintlock” American Pale Ale, on and on.)

But have to say, Gatling stout turns out to be the most delicious I can remember. Rich, malty, and lets you go with no bitterness as it says goodbye. Man. We humans should learn that. If it weren’t 9 percent ABV, I’d have another. And even better, it goes with the catfish brekky I end up getting (deal at $11).

Meanwhile, Neil’s proving to be quite the historian. Turns out the Scottish aristocracy got wind of this part of the world a century ago. “Lord Somerville bought 640 acres up in Bear Valley in 1925. He built a 6000-square-foot, 18-room Mediterranean mansion, Melrose Manor, not far from here. It was called one of the greatest showplaces in the West. And in 1933 he hosted Edward, Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson to give them some, uh, private time together. It is still there, alive and well. People stage weddings. So yes, sir, there’s more going on up in these hills than people realize.”

He also says Lake Wohlford has some of the biggest fish around. A 54.8-pound catfish was caught and released last year.

My catfish breakfast is a little less than that, but its crumbed flesh is sweet and tender. Still, next time I’ll go for the corned beef hash or the chicken curry bowl. More to taste.

All in all, I don’t wanna leave. This place is ripped out of a dozen ‘50s movies. You expect Bogart and the Duke to mosey up to the bar at any moment. “Actually I have a bunch of John Wayne pictures to stick up, when I find time,” says Andy.

I dunno. The way he and Mountain Man Neil look, I don’t think they need no Wayne.

  • The Place: Smokey’s Lake Wohlford Cafe, 25484 Lake Wohlford Road, Escondido, 760-525-8088
  • Hours: 6am-2pm, daily (closed Monday)
  • Prices: Chicken fried steak, $13; chorizo and egg burrito, home fries, flour tortilla, $10; chicken curry bowl, over white rice, $12; corned beef hash, 2 eggs (Saturday, Sunday only), $14; “Defibrillator” burger (two 1/3rd-pound angus patties, cheese, avocado, grilled onions, mushrooms, bacon, with fries, coleslaw, or salad, $15; chicken burger, $11; open-faced chili burger, onions, cheese, $13; catfish burger, $13; Smothered and Covered, (two scrambled eggs, onion, ham, green pepper, cheese, gravy), $12; catfish, 2 eggs, home fries, $11
  • Buses: No buses
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Mary and Andy - took over just as Covid hit. But they’re still here.
Mary and Andy - took over just as Covid hit. But they’re still here.

Sparkling waters! Blue, rippling, and fresh.

You come across them suddenly, on this twisty road in the mountains, heading towards Valley View Casino.

It’s Lake Wohlford. First time I’ve ever seen it. Two minutes later, stepdaughter Mag and I are high-stepping it towards this house among the bungalows on the lake’s hillside. It’s more than a house: it’s an eatery. We’re hungry.

Place

Smokey’s Lake Wohlford Café

25484 Lake Wohlford Road, Escondido

Inside’s as near as you’ll get to old-school country diner. We sit down near a guy with a big hat and a bigger beard. He looks over from his stool, the third-last in the row.

“I always sit here,” he says. Neil. “Been coming for 40 years. I have a small vineyard. I grow Cabernet. But I couldn’t do better than bronze medal at the Del Mar Fair with them, so I’ve switched to making port.”

He takes a sip of beer. “Don’t want to hold you up,” he says. “They’re about to close for the day.”

Oh wow.

Crumbed cat fish with hash browns, scrambled eggs, $11.

This is when someone from the kitchen comes out and clangs a bell. “Two o’clock! Two o’clock, everybody!”

“Quick, make up your mind, Khun paw,” says Maggie. We sometimes do a little bit of Thai. She’s American, but we all first got together in Bangkok.

“You’re okay,” says Andy. He’s pouring a beer. Looks straight out of Bonanza, cowboy hat and all. Turns out he and his wife Mary own the joint. Have done since the previous owner Smokey passed away last year. He’d had this place for ages. Andy and Mary have kept the same hours — 6 am-2 pm — and basically the same formula. Andy says he’d like to extend the hours to dinner, “except we can’t get a second cook. Combo of government handouts and all restaurants opening again means we just can’t find someone.”

So hey, check the menu. It’s hard to hurry, there’s so much. Three pages. Lessee. First page is breakfast. And the first one I see would be perfect: chicken fried steak, with two eggs, home fries, toast. Not bad for $13. But then, the chorizo and egg burrito with home fries and flour tortilla sounds a deal for $10.

“What would you have?” I ask Neil. He doesn’t hesitate. “Chicken curry bowl. Excellent curry. Just had it. Not the watery slop you get elsewhere. This has coconut milk. It’s just like the curry my mother cooked, back in England. Her family had been in India.”

Neil, wine grower, mountain man.

He says Lake Wohlford reminds him of the mountainous English Lake District where he was brought up. “But as far as a regular breakfast, I would definitely suggest their corned beef hash. Proper corned beef, made here. Not the dog food version you usually get.”

He takes a sip from his pint of beer. “This too is excellent. BNS brewery. Santee. Yellowtail Tuna golden ale. It has the sharpness of a good cold lager, but also the fullness of a red ale.”

Now he’s thinking about it, he also recommends their “magnificent” burgers (they range from the $15 “Defibrillator,” with two 1/3rd-pound angus patties, cheese, avocado, grilled onions, mushrooms and bacon, with a choice of fries, coleslaw, or salad (or for two bucks more, onion rings or Parmesan garlic fries) for $15, to a chicken burger for $11, or an open-faced chili burger with diced onions and mixed cheese for $13. Or even a catfish burger ($13).

So hmm. Mag goes for the “Smothered and Covered,” two scrambled eggs with onion, ham, green pepper, and cheese, topped with gravy ($12).

Smokey’s rifle-totin’ beer supplier, BNS, from Santee. Stout? Outa this world!

And while I’m stewing about it, even though this is breakfast, it is two o’clock, and Andy’s saying I look like a stout man. Certain amount of truth to that, but he’s talking about the stout he has on tap. “The ‘Gatling Gun’ could be just the thing for you,” he says. Most of his Santee-based BNS beers have something to do with guns. There’s a “Revolver” American IPA, “Flintlock” American Pale Ale, on and on.)

But have to say, Gatling stout turns out to be the most delicious I can remember. Rich, malty, and lets you go with no bitterness as it says goodbye. Man. We humans should learn that. If it weren’t 9 percent ABV, I’d have another. And even better, it goes with the catfish brekky I end up getting (deal at $11).

Meanwhile, Neil’s proving to be quite the historian. Turns out the Scottish aristocracy got wind of this part of the world a century ago. “Lord Somerville bought 640 acres up in Bear Valley in 1925. He built a 6000-square-foot, 18-room Mediterranean mansion, Melrose Manor, not far from here. It was called one of the greatest showplaces in the West. And in 1933 he hosted Edward, Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson to give them some, uh, private time together. It is still there, alive and well. People stage weddings. So yes, sir, there’s more going on up in these hills than people realize.”

He also says Lake Wohlford has some of the biggest fish around. A 54.8-pound catfish was caught and released last year.

My catfish breakfast is a little less than that, but its crumbed flesh is sweet and tender. Still, next time I’ll go for the corned beef hash or the chicken curry bowl. More to taste.

All in all, I don’t wanna leave. This place is ripped out of a dozen ‘50s movies. You expect Bogart and the Duke to mosey up to the bar at any moment. “Actually I have a bunch of John Wayne pictures to stick up, when I find time,” says Andy.

I dunno. The way he and Mountain Man Neil look, I don’t think they need no Wayne.

  • The Place: Smokey’s Lake Wohlford Cafe, 25484 Lake Wohlford Road, Escondido, 760-525-8088
  • Hours: 6am-2pm, daily (closed Monday)
  • Prices: Chicken fried steak, $13; chorizo and egg burrito, home fries, flour tortilla, $10; chicken curry bowl, over white rice, $12; corned beef hash, 2 eggs (Saturday, Sunday only), $14; “Defibrillator” burger (two 1/3rd-pound angus patties, cheese, avocado, grilled onions, mushrooms, bacon, with fries, coleslaw, or salad, $15; chicken burger, $11; open-faced chili burger, onions, cheese, $13; catfish burger, $13; Smothered and Covered, (two scrambled eggs, onion, ham, green pepper, cheese, gravy), $12; catfish, 2 eggs, home fries, $11
  • Buses: No buses
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