Suburban Grillmasters

"There's the sign," said my wife Grace.

"No, Grace, that's the Colonel. No fried chicken tonight. Tonight is all about the grilling."

"No, not that sign. The other one. Behind the Chevron."

"Good gravy, you're right." There it was, backlit and black and curiously tasteful, mounted at the end of a strip mall and behind a well-lighted gas-island canopy: the sign for Mesquite Restaurant.

Except for the sign, everything pointed toward standard suburban comfort food: plenty of parking, freeway close -- no farther from the 15 than Chili's. But though it's been plunked down amid the mini-marts and nail salons of Scripps Ranch, Mesquite has a pedigree. It's the third venture from Matt Rimel, whose Rimel's Rotisserie and Zenbu restaurants made his reputation in La Jolla. Mesquite borrows a little from both eateries, offering a menu of "fresh local seafood, rotisserie chicken, chops, steaks, and sushi."

The restaurant's front wall was mostly windows, rendered opaque by swaths of stick-on rice paper. Grace admired the ingenuity: the paper blocked the view of the gas island outside while enhancing the Zenbu-sushi bar vibe; the windows were transformed into an ersatz Japanese screen. The paper also filtered out most of the exterior light, and it took a moment to realize that the walls, ceiling, and exposed ductwork were painted not black but midnight-blue. Lamps swirled watery light onto a wall painted with silvery fish, but the brightest spot was the exposed kitchen. That's where they put the serious décor -- the rotisserie and the cast-iron grill, their gleam dulled by smoky carbon and hidden under browning meat. "Bitchin'," murmured Grace when she noticed the flaming M on a chef's camouflage ball cap.

A techno beat made me wonder what the old-timers and the business-suit types made of the music, because they were packing the place, along with hipsters in all-black ensembles, couples on dates -- some looking as if they might have hired a sitter -- regular Joes in humorous sweatshirts and a few families who had brought the kids with them.

The wine list, "designed to feature small-production, unique wineries," was studded with smart, offbeat selections -- Nora Albrarino, Preston Barbera, Hanzell Chardonnay, Storrs Merlot. The prices were reasonable, and the staff was intelligent -- every description accurate, every suggestion helpful. We chose a Keller Pinot Noir -- less fruity than the Gary Farrell.

We bounced around the menu that first visit, maybe a little too hard. Just because you can mix sushi rolls, tortilla soup, and chicken-and-vegetable gyoza doesn't mean you should. But we did -- and that was just for starters.

The Zenbu roll, rather than wrapping itself around a tempura-crusted delectable, was itself coated with a tissue-paper layer of near-greaseless fried goodness. A sauce made from wasabi and Japanese mayo added heat, smelt roe popped like champagne bubbles as we ate, and the crunch and tang of pickled radish played well against the general softness. But the rice exterior gummed up our tongues with sweet starch, muting the flavors of the crab and avocado within. (We thought maybe the deep-frying had cost the rice some of its fluffy solidity, but a California roll ordered on our next visit was similarly marred. The rice wasn't bad; it just wasn't perfect.)

Nothing, however, muted or muddied the chicken stock that served as a base for the tortilla soup. Grace wondered how many carcasses had been cooked down to obtain such concentration. Green chiles and cilantro did their part to excite the palate, but the soup's glory belonged to the more homey flavors of the broth and the tortillas, whether they were submerged, newly fried and sprinkled on top, or grill-warmed and served on the side. The aroma of woodsmoke clung to the grilled tortillas and testified to Mesquite's mastery with its chosen fuel. In two visits and seven dishes, only once was the grilling less than ideal. Once, it dazzled. More on that later.

Grilling was one theme; sauce was another. (When I spoke with owner Matt Rimel, he explained, "My mom was an incredible cook, always puréeing things to go with dinner -- salsas and things like that. It started with chicken -- if you had enough different things to dip the chicken into, everybody would eat.") Mesquite serves many dishes with two or more of seven sauces: green chile garlic, sweet pepper, sriracha (chili), BBQ, peanut, salsa fresca, and teriyaki. The first three showed up underneath and around the chicken gyoza, which slipped down my gullet almost like warm oysters -- a melty vehicle for the sweet 'n' heat of the sauces. (The sriracha and sweet pepper sauces are imported; everything else is made in-house.)

Grace was hoping that the sauces would enliven her entrée, a steaming rice bowl piled with vegetable chunks and cubes of wokked filet mignon. But while the peanut sauce was the best she had ever tasted, the dish never quite held her interest. "Everything is competently prepared," she said. "The rice is good. I want to like it. But I don't. The sauces get soaked up by the rice, and filet isn't that flavorful a meat. Maybe I should have gotten shrimp." I ended up tearing tiny legs off my grilled quail, dipping them in a sauce that nearly convinced me peppers were a fruit, and handing them over. That cheered her up, which made my loss bearable. That, and the crisp on the roasted herb potatoes.

By dinner's end, our palates were fatigued. I was astonished to find that fully half a bottle of wine remained. We had forgotten to drink as we ate, so dizzied had we been by the variety of flavors. Other times, there had been too much spice in our mouths to taste the Pinot. We resolved to return and do less bouncing around.

The opportunity soon came, when my parents, who live in upstate New York, came out for a visit. My father still recalls the first California swordfish he ever tasted, more than 30 years ago -- "I never had swordfish like that on the East Coast," he says. When Grace and I took them to Mesquite, the swordfish was billed as both local and harpooned. Again, the place was packed (and again, it was empty by 8:30).

The opening California roll, its center damp with fresh crab, served as a palate cleanser before the principal appetizers: grilled calamari steak and wasabi-seared tenderloin. Both offered heat without becoming intrusive, and both had everyone grinning. The wasabi-marinated tenderloin was a masterpiece of grill-work: the exterior had been caramelized, not charred, and the center of each thin slice glowed red. And in the middle of the fanned-out meat: yams, shredded and deep fried, the rich uncle of crispy onions. The calamari we dubbed "the veal of the sea" for its tenderness and the way it showed off the crushed-crouton Cajun crust. As we ate, Dad found another reason to envy California -- his new favorite cocktail sauce. No ketchup, no paste. Fresh Roma tomatoes, horseradish, pepper, Tabasco, lime juice. Light and kicky, and even better with a little lemon squeeze.

What he didn't find was a reprise of his swordfish epiphany. The fish was cut unevenly, one end thinner than the other, and much more cooked. He admired the accompanying peanut sauce but eventually turned to Mom's drawn butter (she ordered lobster) to perk things up without hiding the fish's flavor. Even then, he found himself looking to my baby-back ribs for consolation and speculating that a smaller, thicker cut of swordfish might have been more successful. To further his frustration, the fish was dwarfed by a pile of roasted potatoes that were lukewarm at best. "It's too much and it's too cold," he concluded.

Grace had similar trouble with her garlic mashed potatoes, which, while dusted with scallion shards, arrived at the cool end of appetizing. The plates -- locally produced discs of brown pottery -- could have stood warming. She was happier with her fish -- Ono, thick and still translucent under the just-browned surface. It helped restore our confidence in Rimel, the celebrated fisherman, as did Mom's lobster, caught that day and served cracked open and grilled. She paired it with spinach -- wokked with garlic, then dabbed with butter and doused with chicken stock.

Still, my ribs carried the day. First dry-rubbed, then cooked in the oven, then smoked on the rotisserie, then slathered with a molasses-thickened sauce and grilled, the meat crumbled off the bone and won universal praise. So did my chipotle black beans. "They're inviting," said Grace as she spooned up another bite.

Fried plantains drizzled with chocolate and joined by coconut gelato made us think of all the best things about Mesquite, while a crumb-topped Julian pie -- itself topped with caramel gelato -- recalled the missteps. Why not serve the gelato on the side and keep the crumb top crumby? Little quibbles -- certainly not enough to tarnish a new star in a formerly dark patch of sky.

ABOUT THE OWNER

Matt Rimel, self-described hunter and fisherman, "grew up commercial fishing. I still do. Touching and seeing fish is my whole life. I do all the fish-, produce-, and meat-buying for all my places -- that's the way I spend my day. My whole theory is, start with the perfect product and cook it the way it's going to best show itself in your mouth. Growing up, we did freediving down in Baja, and we'd cook grouper on a mesquite fire on the beach. We'd eat it with lemon, corn tortillas, and Tecate -- not even salsa -- and it would blow us away."

Over the past two decades, he has cast his nets a little wider. "I've made some incredible connections all over the world. We have a really neat little boutiquey fish market. We have a bunch of fishermen that fish all over Kona, Oahu, and locally." They bring in things like Opakapaka and Onaga (snapper), and to Rimel's delight, he's found that such exotic fare is welcome at Mesquite. "It's a little more pricey, but people are just into good stuff everywhere, I guess. It's really nice to see -- whatever we put out there just goes."

The restaurant's general format is taken from Rimel's Rotisserie and is overseen by Rimel's veteran chef Andrew Abel. (Rimel is careful to give credit where it's due: Tim Johnson, the head sushi chef at Zenbu, is in charge of Mesquite's sushi offerings, and manager Cindy Shaffer and her predecessor assembled the wine list.)

But all this is prologue. The real question for a man who has made it in La Jolla is, "Why open a restaurant behind a Chevron in Scripps Ranch?"

Rimel says: "A friend just dragged me out of La Jolla and opened my eyes up to what's going on out there. As far as the numbers go, it's like a hundred times what the La Jolla neighborhood is. I didn't want to do anything else, but he said, 'Look, there are millions of people out here' " and a decided lack of better restaurants. "We looked at the demographics and took a huge gamble. It's a funky location, but it's centrally located. For anybody within 20 miles, it's 10 minutes. It was pretty sketchy for the first year, but we've survived, and now the place is doing really well. You get quality from word of mouth and people returning. It was the right choice -- definitely."

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