By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The last time I ate at The Trails Eatery was in 2011, when owner Stacey Poon-Kinney was riding a high wave of publicity from the Food Network show, “Restaurant Impossible.” The San Carlos eatery had been selected for a $10,000 makeover, which meant the show’s domineering host, Robert Irvine, would rescue the business from despair — his way.
The result was the addition of dinner service, an artistic remodel, and the catapulting of Poon-Kinney into the national spotlight as the episode aired numerous times over many months. Sales at the restaurant spiked significantly.
Business has remained brisk ever since as The Trails celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Although Poon-Kinney decided earlier this year to axe the dinner menu Irvine devised and return to her original format of a breakfast- and lunch-only establishment, citing increased labor costs as the reason.
The interior design still appears fresh, a reflection of nearby Mission Trails summoning earthy green walls and tree branches rising from plant boxes. The network’s designers also incorporated into the double-storefront dining room a lunch counter framed in subway tiles and enlarged photographs of Poon-Kinney’s family members.
The atmosphere is as heartening as the food, which covers everything from crafty eggs dishes and decadent pancakes to luscious sandwiches and homespun entrees.
Customers are keen to Poon-Kinney’s presence, recognizing her not only from “Restaurant Impossible,” but from 11 episodes of “Food Network Star” (season 9), in which she vied to land her own show on the network. She ended up in fourth place, but has since conducted cooking demos on local television stations and is slated to appear in the coming months with her 11-year-old son on Stove Tots for the FYI Network.
Visiting as a twosome, we ordered from both the breakfast and lunch menus, starting with exceptional crab cake eggs Benedict draped in kicky chipotle hollandaise sauce. I didn’t mind at all the “cake” is constructed with a 50-50 blend of lump crab and pollack — aka krab. The combination was sweet and fluffy, and the eggs on top sported warm, oozy yolks.
A plate of “Elvis” pancakes, which we ordered at the end of our meal as dessert, pays homage to Presley’s favorite ingredient combo: bananas, chocolate and peanut butter. What you end up with is an intoxicating flavor profile of sweet and salty.
The eatery’s pesto chicken sandwich rises above other chicken sandwiches, thanks to herby basil aioli smeared inside and buttery Gouda cheese melted over the filet. Add to the equation tangy sourdough grilled to a delicate crisp, and you’ll never go back to the plain Jane versions garnished merely with mayo, lettuce and tomatoes.
Torn between the French dip using house-roasted beef and meatloaf hailing from a pork-beef recipe by Poon-Kinney’s great-grandmother, I suddenly fell into a Thanksgiving state of mind and opted for the hot turkey entrée instead.
Turkey breasts are also roasted in-house. And it became obvious when cutting into the thick, uneven slices slung over comforting mashed potatoes. Gently seasoned brown gravy and tender steamed broccoli rounded out the meal.
“Scratch cooking” defines nearly everything on the menu, which includes a bevy of other choices such as chocolate-bacon pancakes, blueberry-multigrain waffles, pulled pork eggs Benedict, omelets and scrambles, daily soups, diner-style sandwiches, and various burgers.
“I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity,” said Poon-Kinney, referring to the two frantic days she spent under the microscope of a full television crew when filming “Restaurant Impossible.” “My job ever since is to give people a reason beyond the show to come back.”
Based on what we ate and the number of patrons we saw clustered at the front door — on a weekday no less — it appears that mission has been accomplished.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.