By Maria Desiderata Montana, Senior Food and Wine Critic
After you’ve tasted the old-fashioned home cooking at the Chicken Pie Shop, you’ll be tempted to peek into the open kitchen to see if your grandma is behind the scenes standing over a hot stove…I did.
Actually, Grandma wasn’t back there, but Grandpa was, or I should say, Great-Grandpa. At 74 years young, Executive Chef Steven Mercado, with a boyish grin on his face, was proud to give me a tour of the kitchen he has occupied since 1955, filling me in on soul food and comfort food done right.
So right in fact, that what was started in 1938 by owner George B. Whitehead as a tiny eatery on the corner of Fifth and Robinson avenues in Hillcrest, has moved not once, but twice. “After our parking lot became so full at our second Hillcrest location, we knew we had to move to an even bigger space,” said waitress June Dawson. The present location in North Park on El Cajon Boulevard is definitely big enough for everyone to enjoy.
The inside dining room is not fancy by any means, offering a laid-back country-style atmosphere with plain wooden tables and chairs, and waitresses catering to your every whim. “The demand for the signature chicken pie is so overwhelming that the restaurant prepares about 2,000 pies daily,” said Dawson. “Generations of families have been coming here for the last 50 years; they just can’t get enough chicken pie and gravy.”
Old photos and memorabilia adorn the walls, including old clippings and historical pictures, and a photo of Chef Mercado. “A couple came in here a while back and the gentleman proposed to his girlfriend under that exact picture of our chef on the wall,” said Dawson. “The gentleman said to me: ‘Blame it on the chickens, I guess!’ ”
You will never be served food that has been sitting under a heat lamp here. The chickens and turkeys come in fresh from Cisco farms. After roasting, Mercado takes the meat off the bones, and stuffs it into the pies. The crust is flaky, stuffed with meat and rich with gravy. “We don’t believe in cutting corners,” said Mercado. “And we don’t believe in using leftovers. If we don’t use the ingredients today, we throw it all out and start over fresh.”
The chicken pie dinner may not be 10 cents any longer, but at $6.50 it is still a dirt-cheap deal served with soup, salad, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, veggies, warm roll, and a slice of pie for dessert. Another fast, affordable answer to your hunger problem is the fried chicken dinner ($8.75). Boasting a crackling crust that reveals moist delicious meat inside, it’s a fix worth the trip, served with soup, salad, whipped potatoes, veggies, warm roll and dessert. Other daily hot plate specials include chicken fried steak ($7), roast sirloin of beef ($7) and turkey burger with cheese ($5.50).
Don’t miss a slice of homemade pie ($1.20) or take a whole pie ($5.50) home with you. Great choices include blueberry, peach, lemon, coconut and pineapple cream. “I also make great muffins in assorted flavors,” said Mercado. “I take care of everything in the kitchen, including keeping everything clean. Clean is our motto.”
This home-style restaurant with a come-back-soon hospitality offers food a la carte as well as a take-out menu. No checks, no credit cards, no debit cards. It has been a cash-only business since 1938.
San Diego Chicken Pie Shop, located at 2633 El Cajon Boulevard, is open daily from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. For information call (619) 295-0216.
Maria Desiderata Montana is an award-winning food and wine journalist, editor, and published author based in San Diego. She gained an appreciation of European cuisine from her parents who were born and raised in Calabria, Italy. Visit her website at www.sandiegofoodfinds.com.