By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Before trendy cuisine and craft beer descended on La Mesa, a local couple was preparing to fill the void by remodeling an old 7-Eleven destined to become Craft Kitchen.
It took Dena and Randy Shamoo almost three years to convert the store into a place where things like sprightly salads, tuna tacos, grass-fed beef burgers and bacon-wrapped bratwurst are served amid sour beers and oatmeal stouts.
Their menu focuses on scratch-made cuisine while the beer program spans across 30 taps and a large bottled selection displayed in the store’s original door coolers.
Having just passed its two-year anniversary, the restaurant greets with a lengthy bar and ample seating set along its windowed façade. The trappings are stylishly industrial, encompassing a fast-casual concept where food is delivered to tables after customers place their orders at a counter. Full service, however, is available at the bar.
Visiting with a vegetarian friend, he started with the colorful house salad mingling assorted lettuces with watermelon radishes, ripe tomatoes, banana peppers, red onions and chubby house-made croutons — all dressed in subtle balsamic vinaigrette.
As the least expensive salad on the menu ($6), it was prettier than expected and tasted garden-fresh.
The tomato bisque soup he ordered was darker red than most and boasted a more intense tomato flavor, which jived well to swirls of sour cream on top.
I opted for the seasonal corn chowder stocked heartily with grilled, sweet kernels, cubed potatoes, smoky ham and sneaky bits of jalapenos. It was love at first slurp.
From the flatbreads category, we chose the “greens” mantled with mozzarella, leafy basil, garlic, artichokes and exceptionally juicy sun-dried tomatoes, which I felt stole the show.
The crust was decent, falling into that inexplicable zone between crispy and bready.
Skipping over a tempting turkey club with avocado and bacon, and a smoked salmon sandwich with caper sauce on grilled sourdough,
I wondered if the hot pastrami sandwich would stack up to those served in New York delis.
Served alongside fresh-cut french fries, the sandwich was a monster with the meat piled generously between toasted rye bread and oozing with crispy coleslaw, wholegrain mustard and thinly sliced dill pickles.
Setting it apart was melted Gouda cheese instead of the usual Swiss.
Unless you’ve fasted for a day or two, you’ll be hard-pressed to devour the thing in one sitting.
The veggie burger my friend ordered is described on the menu as containing quinoa, bulgur, brown rice, corn and black beans.
Served on a gluten-free bun, none of the ingredients were apparent and he wondered if the patty with its smoke-infused flavor and soy texture was pre-manufactured rather than house-made.
Either way, he wolfed it down with gusto and appreciated the smear of peppery romesco sauce inside.
Lobster is a fairly new addition to the kitchen.
It’s used in lobster rolls listed on the specials board and during breakfast in a three-egg omelet crowned with brie and avocado.
“We opened right in the beginning of the big boom as one of the first places in the area to serve craft food and craft beer under one roof,” said Dena. “And we’re proud of all these other really cool restaurants in La Mesa that are recently taking off.”
Craft Kitchen is located about a mile south of the village and a block away from Palm Springs Liquor, which Randy has owned for 24 years.
The kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.
—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 email@example.com.