By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Ric Libiran closed Cafe Bleu in Mission Hills last year and replaced it with Jo’s Diner in an effort to “bring something different to the neighborhood.” In casting out his long-established French concept for what he terms “a familiar sounding diner,” he wholly succeeded.
Though given the lack of vinyl booths, stainless steel trim and retro décor — not to mention the absence of patty melts and cream pies — this diner is an iconoclast.
The space greets with sunshiny orange and yellow walls, neatly arranged tables and banquettes lined with throw pillows. You immediately realize upon entering there’s no chance of seeing poodle-skirted waitresses shuffling across the dining room to Elvis and Motown tunes.
Although the prospect for scoring a milkshake is realistic, provided your palate is positioned for flavors tilting toward gourmet, like chocolate ganache or strawberry with sweet wine reduction.
I opted instead for a house-made agua fresca that tasted as though I was drinking straight from a cantaloupe. The frescas also come in watermelon, strawberry and cucumber-mint.
Breakfast is served all day, which thrilled my companion on this early-afternoon visit as he sipped from a cup of good, strong coffee.
I took the lunch route and kick-started with a cup of wine-spiked French onion soup flaunting a thick, toasted cap of divine Gruyere cheese. It’s one of the few carryover items from Cafe Bleu.
Of the breakfast fare, the buttermilk biscuits drizzled in sausage gravy and flecked with green onions will be the No. 1 reason my companion comes back.
The coined-size biscuits, arranged like dominoes, were airier than most — practically pastry-like. The gravy was velvety and sported beads of lean, flavorful sausage.
Hams are glazed and baked in-house. Several generous slices of it complemented two eggs over easy and tender potatoes on yet another breakfast dish he ordered. With the help of my meddling fork, both plates were left barren.
Other egg-based choices include various Benedicts such as salmon, short rib or spinach-artichoke. Omelets and scrambles capture everything from bacon and Brussels sprouts to goat cheese, shrimp and the house ham. There’s also brioche French toast, which includes brandy-kissed bananas foster that looked gorgeous when it whizzed past our table.
In lieu of a tempting hanger steak salad with white balsamic vinaigrette, I opted for the “angry Jo,” one of several burgers in the offing served on excellent focaccia-style buns from Con Pane bakery in Point Loma.
The ground beef is infused with chili peppers and crowned with Gruyere, spicy aoili, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. (I got lucky with very crisp sheaths of the lettuce.) This was a commendable burger, but one that could have been angrier. The heat level was tamer than I anticipated, failing to leave me red in the face.
It was accompanied by coleslaw so fresh I’d swear the cabbage (green and red) was shredded to order. Ditto for the julienne pieces of green apples adding a touch of sweetness to the mildly creamy dressing. Clearly, this isn’t your typical diner-style slaw scooped out of a drum with a pool of watery mayo at the bottom.
Jo’s is about to receive its beer and wine license. Libiran has operated patiently without alcohol since opening the business in July.
He predicts it will a few weeks before the license comes through, allowing him to add craft beers to the beverage list as well as boutique wines selected by his daughter, who is a level-three sommelier.
In addition, customers can opt nightly for three-course prix fixe dinners. They cost $17.50 Sunday through Thursday, and $21.50 on Friday and Saturday, and include soup or salad, a main entree, and a house-made dessert. Those menus along with many of the regular offerings go to show that Jo’s really is a nice, respectable restaurant that thinks it’s a diner.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.