Bases Loaded

"Have a seat, watch the game while I cook you up something good to eat," says chef Mel Johnson, owner of Batter Up! "That's my attitude, that's what Batter Up! is about -- like you were kicking back in my living room."

Chef Mel was one of the founders of the Gaslamp's late, great Juke Joint Café. The food he serves at Batter Up! is less ambitious (so far -- but that's about to change) than Juke Joint's far-ranging Louisiana soul-food menu -- but talent will tell. The quality of the cooking at this casual, pseudo-sports bar (no alcohol yet) is in a different league from standard pub grub.

Although it's several miles from Petco Park (about ten minutes via the MLK), the eatery's name is a pun on both the fried foods on its menu and the great American pastime -- baseball. Johnson is an avid Padre fan and has furnished Batter Up! with baseball-themed decor and four plasma TVs tuned to sports channels. (If golf is the only game on the air, you may find at least one screen tuned to CNN instead.) You order at the counter from one of the notably friendly staffers, pick up a placard, then choose a table and watch the tube until they bring your order.

"Who's on First?" The menu, too, plays on a baseball legacy -- the famous tongue-twister vaudeville shtick created by the legendary comedy team of Abbott and Costello. The menu opens with a section called "Who's on First?" (the title and first line of the sketch), an array of batter baskets of fried fish, shrimp, and/or chicken. All are coated in a thin, flavorful cornmeal-wheat flour batter -- a batter more traditionally used for Outback Steakhouse-style "blooming onions," with black pepper, cayenne, and a pinch of Cajun spices. I'm normally no fan of deep-fried fish, but Batter Up's fillets are cooked moist and tender. They come with a house-made tartar sauce -- an aioli-like garlic mayonnaise with a little sweet pickle relish. The shrimp are terrific, too. They come with cocktail sauce -- chili sauce liberally amended with horseradish. If you want to add lemon, you'll find wedges on the condiment tray next to the Nestea pitcher. And a version of rémoulade -- Dijon garlic mayo -- is yours for the asking at the order counter.

When it comes to fried chicken, you have a choice of chicken breast tenders or wings so large they put me in mind of pterodactyls, condors, or Barry Bonds's forearms. The wings arrive with standard Buffalo wing accompaniments: The house "Batter Up!" hot sauce is a mixture of Frank's Red Hot Louisiana-style hot sauce and melted butter, served alongside a blue cheese dipping sauce dotted with chopped celery. Frank's was the hot-sauce choice of the original Buffalo gals who created the recipe, but since then the brand has been taken over by Durkee's and it's now a fierce brew -- high in vinegar, with a shrill overtone of powdered cayenne. You can get your chicken or shrimp "Wet" or "Fireman Style," drenched with hot sauce, or "Dry," with the firewater served on the side. The latter is the more prudent choice, until you know whether you like the sauce and can stand the burn.

All "Who's on First" batter baskets come with a side of Baseball Fries. These slender fries resemble McDonald's but taste like spuds from the earth rather than generic starch from the chem lab.

"What's on Second?" heads a list of "signature sandwiches," most of them featuring the "Who's on First?" fried items. The fillings include fried fish dressed with tartar sauce, and shrimp -- nearly a po' boy -- served on a hoagie dressed with garlic mayo. Chicken tenders and roast turkey are both dressed with Dijon garlic mayo. All come topped with crisp lettuce and reasonably juicy tomatoes. There's also the Philly Pitcher, a Philly cheesesteak made with thin-sliced beef, imported from its native land, spread on a 10-inch hoagie roll and dressed with chopped grilled onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and melted provolone cheese. I still prefer the version at the Philly sandwich shop on Convoy Street (the peppers and mushrooms are sliced there, not diced, following the original Italian-American mode -- a mouth-feel factor), but my partner liked this rendition almost as well. If you want some potato chips on the side, the brand here is Utz, also from Philadelphia.

"That's on Third!" is the heading for a series of grilled burgers, shrimp, and chicken sandwiches. Lately, I'm rediscovering the joys of juicy char-grilled burgers made with good meat -- after five years of deadline-night Jack in the Box, I'd forgotten why America made the burger the national dish. Here, the burgers are half-pound slabs of certified Angus, cooked to a beautiful blushing medium-rare. The simple Curve Ball comes with Batter Up! mild sauce -- house-made Thousand Island dressing. I was even more enchanted by the lush and spicy Bring on the Heat burger, topped with crunchy caramelized onions, pepper jack cheese, and a splayed-out golden-fried onion, with a whole flattened Ortega green chile in the middle and both fried jalapeños and chipotle sauce for fire. My partner, however, found the combo a little indigestible -- he loves spicy food, but to his tastes, this one overdid it.

I was disappointed, in my turn, by "619" chicken, which sounded like a chicken muffuletta but tasted nothing like that great N'Awlins deli sandwich. It has a tender chicken breast on a bun with roasted red peppers, provolone cheese, and, theoretically, a garlic-olive relish. In real life, I couldn't find the olives, even when I took the sandwich apart to search. Instead, there's a thick layer of browned minced garlic, edging on burnt. More appealing is the California Catcher, the same tender breast on toasted bread with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado, with that good garlic mayo. Both the chicken sandwiches are labeled "lite." I wouldn't call them that. If you really want a light entrée, there's a whole section of "Outfield Salads," several of them made with grilled chicken.

Some days there are specials. Every Friday, chef Mel turns out barbecue ribs. He doesn't have a smoker, but whatever he does to the ribs ($9.95 for a plateful, with fries) is heavenly. They're falling-apart tender and come with a sweet-smoky Texas-style barbecue sauce. If you're into franks, those served daily here are Vienna hot dogs from Chicago on Vienna buns.

On the side, onion rings are a delight -- lightly cooked in the thin batter, the onions still have plenty of white onion flavor and crunch. Ask for a little blue cheese dip to go with them -- the two go together like, uh, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. (Sorry, I'm still true to my team -- the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Other sides include potato salad and coleslaw, both heavy on ordinary restaurant-supply mayo. There's also a kiddie menu with a corn dog, miniature fish nuggets, chicken fingers, and a small burger, all served with fries, Cracker Jack, and a drink.

All desserts are house-made, with real butter (not shortening) for their fat component. They deserve to be called "home run." The carrot cake is my ideal version -- airy, spiked with ginger, a pouf of tangy sour cream frosting on top and between the layers. The apple pie has a crunchy butter-crumb crust over semi-crisp apple slices that aren't oversweetened. (Take it next door to Cold Stone Creamery and have them plop a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top for an indulgent treat.) Chef Mel's own favorite (which I'll have to try next time) is a butter pound cake shot through with caramel syrup -- injected by one of those marinator-hypos.

The downside to all this fine craftsmanship? While the menu looks like fast food, the food doesn't come fast. But it comes good. Everything is made to order, so expect a wait for that perfect fish and flawless chicken. Grab a soda, settle down in front of the boob tube, and relax.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Chef Mel, aged 38, grew up in the Lincoln Park district of San Diego, in the same neighborhood as Batter Up! His family originally came from Louisiana (New Orleans and Baton Rouge), and on visits to relatives there, he fell in love with their cooking. "I would just watch what the old ladies in the kitchen were doing. A lot of traditional Southern recipes are handed down by watching and listening. I wanted to be a chef since the sixth grade. Out of high school I went to culinary arts school at Mesa College, and I've been cooking all over the place for years, traveling in Europe, India, and Japan as a guest chef and going around the country here.

"Right out of school I was a line cook at Cochise and a banquet chef at Grant Grill. Then I started the Juke Joint Café downtown -- that was my first adventure. I really wanted to master a cuisine, and I picked Southern food because that was what I was raised on, what I knew. I went through a lot of energy using Southern ingredients and learning all the different techniques of cooking. I left there after two years because my partners wanted to make it more of a music scene and I was more of a foodie.

"I went to the Cheesecake Factory for corporate training and on to New York, where I was sous-chef at Mesa Grill under Bobby Flay. Then I came back [for family reasons] to San Diego."

Chef Mel was working on the catering team at the French Gourmet when the idea for Batter Up! was born: All the businesses in Market Creek Plaza are chosen, based on neighborhood needs, by a resident-fueled community board under the aegis of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. "I got a phone call from the Jacobs Center," says chef Mel, "saying a space was becoming available. It was a fish and chips place before, and I said, 'Yeah, I'll do another restaurant -- I'm from this neighborhood, I'd like to give this neighborhood some quality food.' I went online, looking at names of restaurants and fish places. I found an article about a fish cannery in Canada, and the title of the article was 'Batter Up!' After that, everything started coming together -- I'm a big Padres fan, and I was going to be making fried fish, so I decided to make the place a celebration of old-school baseball. This neighborhood is mainly chain fast food, so it's great to be bringing in some good food. I can give you a burger with certified Angus beef, I know what's going into it, and we make all our sauces from scratch. What's the number-one thing in cooking? Good ingredients!

"...We're adding on a 30-foot patio, and I just wrote a dinner menu that we're going to start serving in a few weeks, whenever the patio is done. The restaurant is going into some heartier food, try to get some more business at night. After five o'clock, we're going to more of a sit-down restaurant, with sizzle skillets, roasted chicken, grilled salmon with pineapple-mango salsa, blackened flat-iron steaks with Certified Angus beef. I'll be doing the flat-iron topped off with caramelized onions, watercress, a drizzle of olive oil with salt and pepper, keep it nice and fresh, with yam grits on the side. And the roast chicken I'm going to serve with some cilantro pesto-swirled mashed potatoes I learned from Bobby Flay in New York. It just explodes in your mouth."

One reason for the consistency of the cooking at Batter Up! lies in the enthusiastic kitchen staff. "Two guys that started working with me got inspired to go to cooking school. Their applications are in now, so I have to get the whole dinner thing going by September, when classes start. I challenge them a lot to come up with different things. The grilled salmon is something they want to do."

Any chance he'll bring his great Juke Joint gumbo to Batter Up? "Well, I'm working at finding another place for the rebirth of Juke Joint Café," he says. "I still own the name, and sometime in the future I'll be doing that restaurant again. But for now, I'm right next door to Magnolias, a Southern restaurant, and I don't want to do the same food in the same neighborhood.

"Hey, I'm teaching a class on July 8 at Macy's. I'm going to do gumbo, and brown jambalaya, where it's all cooked together, and red jambalaya, where you make a Creole sauce and add it at the end. Come on down!"

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