2205 S. Melrose Drive, Vista
When I visit a restaurant for the first time without knowing much about it, my usual MO is to ask a server for recommendations. When I got to the Vista location of Hungry Bear Deli (there’s another in Escondido), I found a long line of fellow lunchgoers and a crowded dining room, both good signs.
I studied the row of TV screen menus over the counter and couldn’t settle on a particular sandwich. There were a variety of hot sandwiches including steak, burger, chicken, and omelette sandwiches. There were “Favorites” including a Reuben and Italian sub and build-your-own sandwiches covering the usual deli meats, cheeses, and breads.
When I reached the counter, I asked for a signature sandwich, something popular that represented the shop particularly well. The answer: cheesesteak. I hadn’t seen this specific option listed on the screen, but who am I to say no to a cheesesteak?
So I went for it, on a wheat roll, with grilled onions and peppers, and per recommendation, a little mayo. Since I told my server I was a first time customer, a drink came free. A nice perk, and another good sign.
Problem is, I’m not sure cheesesteak does best represent this place. First, nobody in the kitchen seemed to know which cut of steak goes into this sandwich — they just grab what’s there and grill it. Second, I learned that you need to specifically request toasted bread, which in my experience works best on this particular hot sandwich. Third, it just wasn’t a great cheesesteak.
Really, it’s about that steak. The bread was fine, soft, and fresh, and the lack of toasting is just a personal preference that can be easily remedied. The grilled onions and peppers were fine, and my choice of cheese — provolone — served me well. But the “steak” lacked seasoning, and more than anything tasted like crumbled hamburger.
It probably goes without saying that sliced rib eye makes the best cheesesteak, but so long as the meat is tasty the sandwich will hold up. This hamburger-esque meat might be considered an interesting alternative texture, but I could barely even get some salt and pepper flavor out of it, and apparently salt and pepper were included in the toppings. Most of Hungry Bear’s sandwiches also include basics such as lettuce, tomato, mustard, etc. My sandwich did not, but then cheesesteaks rarely do.
Bottom line: I can’t recommend this place for cheesesteaks, even if local customers apparently like it. While there’s nothing terribly exciting about a turkey sub with bacon or a basic pastrami or corned beef Reuben, these would probably make a better recommendation for a place that seems to be a successful North County sandwich shop. Even an omelette sandwich might have been better, though ordering such a thing at Hungry Bear seems counter-intuitive.