By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The name is a misnomer.
La Mesa Bistro & Bakery more closely resembles an all-American diner rather than some quaint bistro serving rustic French fare. The menu and chalkboard listings bombard you with hearty food choices for breakfast and lunch, and despite its small façade, the interior greets with two sizable dining rooms perfect for family dining.
In addition, there is no bakery component.
“We used to make muffins, but no longer,” said manager Felipe Dominguez, admitting the word “bakery” could potentially be dropped from the establishment’s identity since muffins, bagels and breads are sourced from outside vendors.
Though unlike classic greasy-spoon diners, La Mesa Bistro offers a sturdy selection of trendy coffee drinks and fresh-fruit smoothies. You’ll also find house-made sauces, dressings and breakfast hashes; seasonal vegetables comprising sprightly salads; and meats such as corned beef roasted onsite.
The bistro is owned by Dominguez’s uncle, Jaime Osuna, who operates Swami’s cafes all over San Diego County, including one a half-mile down the road from here. The concepts are similar, except that Swami’s serves dinner and the bistro doesn’t. It actually closes at 3 p.m. daily, but compensates with so many morning and midday options, you can easily burn 20 minutes mapping out a meal.
Arriving with an equally ravenous friend in tow, we plunged into both the breakfast and lunch menus, starting with a triple stack of organic blue corn pancakes. Imagine thick, fluffy buttermilk flapjacks sporting a dark-blue hue and fibrous texture.
My friend hoped for a stronger corn flavor. I liked them exactly as made, applying light drizzles of maple syrup contained in cute, little Coke bottles.
Excellent finely ground corned beef hash made in-house came with two eggs cooked over-medium as requested, plus well-seasoned roasted potatoes and fresh fruit. It’s a permanent dish listed only on one of several chalkboards. Although from the large, printed menu you’ll find “bistro hash,” a busier version of flat iron steak, potatoes, avocado, green onions, tomatoes, jalapenos and pepper jack cheese.
A couple of thick smoothies carried us through our visit: dragon fruit (pitaya) blended with summer berries and another called “gone grapefruit,” which puts the subtropical fruit at the forefront amid strawberries and bananas. It was semi-bitter and uniquely delicious.
The “everything salad” with basil dressing we ordered is a new offering described on a separate, smaller chalkboard perched atop the order counter. Expect a garden’s worth of produce, including freshly roasted beets and colossal cucumber wedges, plus pumpkin seeds and a mound of sliced chicken breast sporting chili seasoning along the edges. The medley could have easily fed an additional two people.
Before toting home a payload of leftovers, we ordered the “grilled Ortega” turkey sandwich and a vegetarian cheeseburger with avocado and smoky soy bacon.
The deli-style turkey was generously stacked and layered with squishy panels of the mild green chilies, caramelized onions and melted Swiss cheese – all captured between buttery, griddled sourdough. Though enjoyable when eating some of it at the restaurant, the ingredients unleashed sturdier flavors when I reheated the sandwich in the micro later that evening.
Conversely, the veggie burger was as sloppy and savory as any meat burger, especially after dousing it in ketchup and mustard – not something you want sitting in your fridge hours later.
With the exception of appetizers and desserts, which we didn’t see listed anywhere, the bistro obliges to whatever your palate desires, from omelets, assorted pancakes, chilaquiles and breakfast burritos to Cubano sandwiches, tacos, seared ahi tuna and much more.
The trick here is to order with your brain and not your stomach, a lesson we realized could take a couple of visits to learn.
—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.