By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Corner Cafe is the only fast-casual Chinese eatery in Hillcrest that makes dishes to order. But it isn’t on a corner. And it has too big of a menu to qualify as a “cafe.”
Located between Hash House a Go Go and The Loft, owner Tony Chan took over the former Poke Go last month to provide people on the run classic, Americanized takes on chow mein, orange chicken, broccoli beef and the like. He admits the food hardly reflects that of his native Hong Kong, but adds with a chuckle, “We cook it better than Panda Express.”
For better or worse, the dishes I tried escaped the cloying glazes you’ll find in such cafeteria-style concepts, where chicken shellacked in palm sugar can taste like donut holes, or beef drowning in hoisin sauce can resemble candied figs.
The oil levels seemed tamer in comparison as well. An order of house-made pork egg rolls could have passed as oven-baked. But they’re actually deep-fried and then finished off in the wok. Packed densely with tasty mulched pork, they were remarkably free of grease and fatty bits, ranking as some of the most satisfying crispy rolls I’ve had in a long time.
Chan also co-owns Facing East in Kearny Mesa, a full-service restaurant specializing in Asian-fusion cuisine. Though for his Hillcrest venture, he wanted something “fast and easy” despite offering upwards of 85 dishes. Specialty tea and milk drinks, and flavored “snows” are also on the menu.
The interior features sparse décor and about six tables. The only menus for customers to wrap their eyes around are those taped to the order counter and front window. (Printed menus to pass out would benefit the business greatly.)
Tempted by the “ultimate wings” choices — sweet and sour, honey-garlic, Korean BBQ and more — I zeroed in on a few lunch entrees that provided me instant gratification onsite before taking most of the food home for dinner with my spouse later.
Black pepper pork was my favorite. The combination of soy sauce, sugar and coarse black pepper is usually reserved for beef in Chinese kitchens. Though as I suspected, it worked beautifully with thin, tender strips of pork, which are stir-fried with onions and bell peppers. A few squirts of Sriracha sauce added the ideal zip.
A dish called “garlic veggies chicken” featured hearty measures of veggies, including baby corn, and medallions of chicken breast. But the garlic factor was somewhat restrained. I vote for adding an extra clove or two per dish.
Abundant pieces of chicken breast appeared again in a generous order of chow mein strewn with cabbage and shredded carrots — exactly like it’s been served in Chinese-American restaurants for decades. No surprises or twists. Just fresh-tasting wheat noodles that added a soft greaseless backdrop to the poultry and veggies.
Nowhere on the menu did I see stars listed alongside dishes to indicate they’re spicy. Nary a red chili pepper surfaced in my entrees either. But Chan assured that dishes can be made spicy upon request, which I would certainly prefer for items like the kung pao chicken or garlic-pepper shrimp.
Other choices on the lengthy menu — which neighborhood residents will surely welcome as they continue to discover the place — include beef fried rice, barbecue pork chow mein, cashew chicken, honey-walnut shrimp and teriyaki eel.
There are also starters — some common and some not — ranging from cream cheese wontons and hot and sour soup to onion pancakes and fried squid balls. Whatever your preference, few will protest the arrival of Corner Cafe in a city that has seen a sharp decline in Chinese restaurants over the past 10 years.
—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.