>Mardi Gras is next Tuesday -- sad to miss the place they used to call "the City That Care Forgot." But if you want to celebrate by eating authentically and well, there's a new destination, aptly named Fix Me a Plate, where you can enjoy a satisfying soul-food dinner to the sound of N'awlins blues and Cajun prairie zydeco.
The chef/owner is "Jimmy P." -- James Pomier, from Lafayette, Louisiana. Jimmy was executive chef at the Gaslamp's late, lamented Juke Joint Cafe. I heard it through the grapevine (e-mail from a Reader reader -- thanks, Denise!) that he'd opened his own place and headed out to a strip mall at the farthest reaches of La Mesa, half a block short of the El Cajon welcome sign. It was worth the trip. The cafe's overall rating is just two stars, but if you choose right you can have a four-star meal.
Fearing we'd get lost en route, we first ventured out by daylight for lunch. The oyster po' boy turned out to be the best I can remember outside of NOLA. The fried oysters are tender, plump, and of fine flavor (with no hint of iodine), the batter is light, and the dressing flawless, with zesty remoulade, crisp lettuce, and ripe tomatoes. True, you can't get real Louisiana French bread in San Diego, but the warm, fresh local French roll is a credible substitute.
Every Cajun (and every Creole) has his or her own recipe for gumbo. Jimmy P's chicken and sausage gumbo is both wonderful and highly personal. It's different from his Juke Joint gumbo but none the worse for it. At the bottom of the cup is a scoop of rice. Over that is a tomatoey broth with a touch of gumbo filé (ground sassafras), loaded with diced chicken, zesty andouille sausage from Louisiana, near-melted green peppers, firm okra rounds -- a fried chicken drumette perches on top. The flavors grow more compelling with every spoonful. As Jimmy says, "The last bite is as good as the first."
Summoning reinforcements -- Marty and Dave, who live in the neighborhood -- we returned soon afterwards to assault the dinner menu. There's lots to choose from, starting with ten appetizers, including a sampler plate of any three. Right now, you can't get the boiled crawfish because it's out of season (wait until next month), but there are four different preparations for chicken wings. We chose "Cajun wings" -- unbattered fried wings in slightly diluted Louisiana-style hot sauce. This is the original version of "Buffalo wings." The dish was common in black households throughout the South well before the Buffalo gals reinvented it (with melted butter to smooth out the hot sauce and celery sticks and ranch dressing on the side). Fix Me a Plate's rendition, spicy but not killing, mainly tastes very tart from the vinegar in the sauce. While authentic, we decided that we like the buttered Buffalo version better.
Heading deeper into soul territory, my partner wanted the chicken gizzards. Jimmy P's version -- which we loved at Juke Joint -- reminded me why my guy is so fond of them. Swathed in seasoned batter and deep-fried, their crisp exteriors and chewy-soft meats make them fun to eat, especially dipped in the garlic aioli that arrives alongside. (It goes well with the wings, too.) Our party also took a chance on the Cajun egg roll. What, you may ask, is a Cajun egg roll? Careful analysis by our laboratory staff (me and mine tearing one apart in our kitchen) has determined that it's a deep-fried Chinese egg roll wrapper stuffed with collard greens, carrots, and cabbage -- a near-exact replica of a Tibetan vegetarian momo but with a thicker skin. (What, may you ask, is a Tibetan momo? See "Cajun egg roll." ) It's served with a light, sweet-spicy tomato-onion dip resembling Thai chili sauce. The dip makes the dish; don't take a bite without it.
The jambalaya here is served farmhouse style -- that is, the rice, sauce, and toppings are all cooked separately and then stirred together at the last moment (this method ensures that the shrimp won't overcook). It's a firm (not soupy) version, the way I like it, and the sauce is savory. The toppings consist of chicken, shrimp, and the gumbo's andouille sausage, which starts out tasting mild but blossoms into a long, slow, and gentle afterburn that lasts a long time.
Pork ribs are tender, if rather fatty. They're glazed on one side with a sweet-tart BBQ sauce, then flipped and slathered with the sauce at serving. Alas, there's no smoker in the house: The ribs are merely oven-baked, so they don't gain the depth of flavor you get with genuine smoked barbecue. If you want to try before you buy, check out the "rib tips" appetizer portion of the same.
Fried chicken emerges with moist meat in a light and simple batter, seasoned with salt, black and white pepper, and a touch of cayenne, but no other perceptible secret herbs or spices. Smothered pork chops are lightly rimmed with fat (which makes them more delicious, sorry to say) and napped in a cream gravy that's light and bright. You'd welcome this gravy on your breakfast biscuits -- it wouldn't weigh you down for the rest of the day.
There's plenty more here to eat, so much that you practically need a road map to the menu -- and here it is: The entrées start with fried seafood selections: crab cakes, stuffed shrimp, and combination platters as well as various fish species such as cat and snapper. Next come "Mo Betta" seafood platters, with your choice of Creole or étouffée sauce. Upon request, you can get your fish "blackened." "Yardbirds" (chicken) are available in BBQ sauce, "Mo Betta" with étouffée or Creole sauce, blackened, fried, smothered, or baked with rosemary and garlic -- and -- at the bottom of the menu -- fried and served on sweet potato waffles. "Southern Traditional Platters" include smothered meat loaf, pot roast, beef stew, and roast turkey with stuffing. (That turkey's what I'm ordering on my next visit.) If steak is your thing, you can have it country-fried, blackened, smothered with mushroom sauce, or you can go for an unadorned rib-eye cooked to order.
All entrées are of a generous size, and most of them come with your choice of 2 sides from a list of 15 possibilities. We all loved the collard greens, simmered until tender and served with the irresistible "pot liquor," which includes a single red jalapeño. I got a kick out of the buoyant hush puppies -- crackly little balls of deep-fried cornmeal with fine-minced scallion, sweet and reasonably moist. Fried okra is similar to the hush puppies, but with a breadcrumb crust. On the downside, the red beans and rice are vegetarian, lacking the traditional smoked-pork garnishes (sausage, hocks, bacon, whatever). Yams, too, are oddly one-dimensional, fluffy and light but missing some needed spice (e.g., nutmeg or allspice). Most entrées come with corn muffins (they were delicious at Juke Joint), but on a slamming Saturday night, our waitress forgot to bring ours, and we were in no danger of starving without them.
For dessert, the same yams are piled high on a thin shortening crust in the sweet potato pie. One evening's bread pudding was very plain and barely sweet, with no raisins or other fruits. (I've tasted a very similar one at a restaurant in the Crescent City.) Other choices include pecan pie, apple pie, and cheesecake, although not all of them are available every day.
The restaurant is housed in the former Trattoria Nostrana. Outside, the roofed patio is painted with an exuberant mural that distills the joyous spirit of Louisiana. Inside, it still looks like a trattoria -- molto Italiano with lots of booths, wine racks above them, and vinous wallpaper and decorations. That doesn't mean that you can get a decent glass of wine. There's Fetzer, Sutter Home, and a jug product, Emerald Something-or-Other. All the beers are from Anheuser-Busch: Bud, Michelob, Miller, and O'Doul's. Want to bring in something better? No way -- no outside beverages are allowed, not even that jeroboam of '61 Chateau Latour you've been aging in your cave all these years, waiting for just the right smothered pork chops to serve it with. However, Jimmy is thinking about expanding his wine and beer selection, so stay tuned.
If I lived closer (it's about a 30-minute trip from my house), Jimmy would see a lot more of me for his yummy-to-the-tummy cooking. In a part of town where most eating-out choices are chains or buffets, this little stand-alone adds something special to the community.
And remember, folks -- just ten days' worth of GW's proposed new war budget would pay for Category Five-worthy levees in the City That Bush Forgot.
In fond memory of NOLA filmmaker Stevenson Palfi (Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together), 1952-2005.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"You can tell by my name -- 'Pomier' means 'little apple' in French -- that I'm Cajun," says Jimmy Pomier. "I was born on the bayou. If you come from there, both boys and girls learn to cook if they want to eat. We cooked Cajun food. The difference between Cajun and Creole is, Creole is city cooking, Cajun is what country folks eat. Every year people celebrate Mardi Gras, but we celebrate life with our food all year long. Jambalayas, gumbos, étouffées."
He spent 15 years in the Navy, and that brought him to San Diego some 25 years ago. At night, he attended the San Diego Culinary Academy. "I realized I had a real love for cooking. Other people read magazines -- me, I read cookbooks. My mentors are Paul Prudhomme, Emeril..." He taught food service in the Navy and, after leaving, went to work for the Department of Defense. "The last three wars we've been in, I've been in all of them," he says.
"I wanted to spend more time with my family, so I finally left. I started managing restaurants -- I managed Jenny's, IHOP, Carrows. Then I decided to start cooking. I was executive chef at the Juke Joint Cafe, and then I was the chef at the Sycuan Buffet and put that prime rib on the map there. I had a small restaurant called Cajun Express near the 32nd Street base. But these people get paid twice a month, the 1st and the 15th, and the rest of the time, they're broke and they eat on the base. So I had to think about where I'm investing my dollars, how I'm investing my dollars. That's when I chose this location."
I asked him why he decided to open a soul-food restaurant in a mainly white neighborhood. "I'm next to Souplantation, and Souplantation does a lot of my marketing. I spent a night in this parking lot before committing. I saw people lining up outside and getting tired of waiting for a table. So I said to myself, I can get all the leftovers. And even those people who go into Souplantation, they see my cafe and say, 'Well, that's interesting.' And they think about it, and many of them come back here. When you think about investing your life savings in a restaurant, it's not about the color of the people but if the food's good. Food is for everyone.
"My motto is, 'The last bite is as good as the first, with flavors that dance in the mouth.' That's my mission. Everything in this restaurant is made from scratch -- nothing comes out of a can, no shortcuts. I don't care if another Cajun restaurant opens next door to me, they'll never be able to do what I'm doing. People will give you a shot the first time, it's getting people to come back that counts.
"When you eat Louisiana-type food, we want you to be able to remember it two or three days down the road. Food that you get excited about, that's not boring. The spices just do a number on you. It's not spicy -- foods that are too spicy are from people who can't really cook. The flavors should complement each other. People are always asking me, 'What do you put in your collards?' and 'How do you make your étouffée?' The answer is always, the main ingredient is L-O-V-E, love."
[2009 Editor's Note: Fix Me a Plate Café has since closed.]