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‘Check engine soon’

Posted: June 15th, 2018 | Featured, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

A pricey vehicle repair leads to a cheap poultry fest

It was the gloomiest of mornings. May gray hung thickly overhead as I rolled in to my least favorite environment on earth — an auto repair garage. I needed a smog test, and because the check engine light on my dashboard was illuminated, I was required to replace the “fuel composite sensor” in order to pass the test. The price tag: about $850.

The iconic eatery found its third home in 1990 on El Cajon Boulevard. (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Feeling angry and conflicted over the regulations that keep our air breathable, I wandered aimlessly onto nearby El Cajon Boulevard while the mechanics performed their expensive sorcery. Finding a bag of hundred-dollar bills or a shoulder to cry on would have been divine. Instead, comfort came through a consoling meal at the historic San Diego Chicken Pie Shop.

I hadn’t eaten here since 2012, when the eatery’s famous chicken pie dinner was an easy $7.50. They’ve gone up a painless notch to $9.99; the meal still includes the savory pie filled with both chicken and turkey, with the yellowish gravy draping it, plus whipped potatoes, vegetables, a biscuit, and a slice of fruit or cream pie to boot.

Even though it was only 10:30 a.m., the meal felt like a sympathetic back rub rather than something I’d scarf down indifferently for lunch or dinner.

The pie shop originally opened in Downtown in 1938. Its founder, the late George Whitehead, moved the business to Fifth Avenue and Robinson Street in Hillcrest in the 1940s. It eventually became so popular that it ended up moving to its current, much-larger space in North Park nearly 30 years ago.

In 2000, John and Lynn Townsend purchased the business from Whitehead and ran it until their passing. Today, their sons Bob and Chris, and their respective wives, Lisa and Amanda, run the show. Through it all, the recipes for most items — pie crusts, the fillings (both savory and sweet), gravy, and coleslaw — haven’t changed in the shop’s 80-year history.

Relatively new is the availability of bottled craft beer and wines by the glass. Breakfast “all day” has also been added. The succinct offerings include pancakes, Belgian waffles (with or without chicken), and a chicken pie topped with eggs and gravy called “the neighborhood grind.” It’s served with hash browns and bacon or sausage — and should probably include a week’s worth of statins.

The second you start comparing the Pie Shop’s food to contemporary cuisine, you’ve set the stage for disappointment. Everything about the place is the antithesis of hip — from the homey décor and the middle-age waitresses pushing around their rattling food carts to the lack of culinary surprises, in what boils down to sustenance straight out of a Betty Crocker cookbook.

The famous chicken pie dinner (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Otherwise you’re in for a palatable good time amid dozens of ceramic chickens perched around the dining room. There used to be more — 124 to be exact — but the shop’s insurance carrier recommended they be caged up inside a display hutch near the entrance in case of an earthquake.

The chickens and turkeys used in the pies are pressure-cooked. Their drippings are captured for making the gravy, which isn’t as salty or insipid as you might expect. Also, I’ve found the meat inside these poultry pies to be consistently tender. The kitchen makes between 700 and 900 of them a day, according to general manager Lisa Townsend. She added that the shop sold 5,000 during its three-day anniversary celebration last month.

The whipped potatoes taste suspiciously fake, but they’re likable. The corn in this visit popped with crispness; it wasn’t of the chewy, canned ilk I feared. As for the coleslaw, the cabbage is finely chopped and bathed in a thin, sweetish mayo sauce. It’s much like KFC’s, which I’ve never rejected.

The following week, I returned with a smog-certified vehicle and a gaping hole in my wallet. The Reuben sandwich had previously caught my eye. I brought along my spouse, who ordered the day’s special: sirloin tips with standard button mushrooms in dark, viscous gravy.

The remaining half of a filling Reuben sandwich (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Served with corn and slaw, the meal played right into the eatery’s great ability to resist decades of culinary changes and snobbery. It was hearty and flavorful, the kind of all-American grub trendy chefs might throw off kilter with alternations like waygu beef, kale coleslaw and enoki mushrooms.

I was forewarned by our brusque but efficient waitress about the corned beef in the Reuben. It’s chopped into small julienne strips and blended in messy fashion with the sauerkraut. Not bad, but I prefer the meat stacked in thin, wavy slices, separate from the sauerkraut.

A daily special featuring sirloin tips and mushrooms in dark gravy (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

A slice of dessert pie came with the sirloin special, just as it did with my chicken pie dinner the week prior. The choices on any given day are vast, ranging from apple and blueberry to chocolate and banana cream. The latter was fluffy and ambrosial, although I’m a stickler for the cherry because it tends to be slightly tart rather than overly cloying.

Old-fashioned cherry pie (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

As of June 9, the Townsends have introduced three new savory pies — short rib, carnitas and vegetarian — that will rotate on Saturdays only through Labor Day. Also, for those who have been away for a while, the shop now offers taco Tuesday, when you can indulge in three rolled chicken tacos or two fish tacos, with rice and beans, for a total of $9.65.

Maybe next time. Although probably never — since I’m now pretty much stuck within that 85 percent of customers who Townsend says arrive clucking for the chicken pies and nothing else.

—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 fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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