By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
“Beware of the salsas. Especially the green one,” I said to my out-of-town visitors after settling into a corner booth at the wildly colorful, gringo-owned Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Cafe.
The eatery’s namesake proprietor — no relation to the former U.S. president — began introducing commendable takes on Mexican food in 2002, when he briefly operated an offshoot eatery in Mission Hills. A steep rent hike drove him out. So he took the Mexican concept to his original corner lot location in Bankers Hill, which he launched in 1991 as a place for all-American comfort grub.
“It was my midlife crisis,” said 76-year-old Carter in reference to starting the business nearly three decades ago.
The revised concept ushered in vivid Mexican colors and design elements, which begin at the building’s exterior and run straight through the dining room and into the rear cantina/bar area. In addition, nearly 99 percent of the menu offerings became Mexican-inspired.
All of my guests who roll into San Diego from taco-deprived lands dig the atmosphere and food at Jimmy Carter’s. Over the years, I’ve steered them to many of my favorite dishes such as the carnitas egg scramble, huevos rancheros, house-made tamals, and the deeply flavored chili Colorado made with a choice of chicken or pork.
For my culinary companions, who were visitors from Germany, both the red and green salsas that accompany complimentary table chips were in fact too hot for their untrained palates. They’re made with generous measures of serrano and jalapeno peppers respectively. I dab them onto everything — eggs, refried beans, burritos and even toast at times.
While placing our orders, a decorative feature stood out. Overlooking the dining room is a life-size mustached bracero holding a placard that reads: “The Second Amendment was written when Arms were Muskets.” We unanimously chuckled in full agreement.
In a subsequent phone interview, Carter said the eye-catching display went up earlier this year, and that a handful of customers have since declared they’d never return to the cafe because of it.
“To the people who complain, I say it’s just a fact. I’m not making an argument. And I don’t plan on taking it down,” he added.
The food that hit our table carried the same level of backbone as Carter’s astute Second Amendment observation.
For two vegetarians in the group, the soyrizo scramble tasted so much like real meat was strewn throughout the eggs, that we double-checked with our waiter to confirm it wasn’t the case. The faux meat, he pointed out, is made in-house. Indeed, it’s more convincing than popular commercial brands.
Another vegetarian dish, “Shelly’s veggie medley,” featured a tasty, eggless mix of sauteed spinach, artichokes, mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions and potatoes. Soft, warm cubes of queso fresco served as the protein element. Miraculously, the dish wasn’t watery, given all of its high-moisture ingredients. My visitor loved it.
Well-seasoned pieces of carnitas gave rise to a second scramble on our table. The meat is consistently flavorful, tender and a little sweet. Whether you order it in tacos, burritos, quesadillas or on top of nachos, even the sternest of Mexican food snobs won’t be disappointed.
My never-ending lust for corned beef hash was sated with this classic homemade recipe, which is minced to a desirable consistency, unlike chunkier versions that really can’t be called “hash.” As requested, the two eggs on top were cooked over-medium, and the buttery sourdough toast I chose received a few long dunks in the salsa bowls.
We shared a short stack of buttermilk pancakes, served two to an order. One person in the group said they had no flavor. Another blurted, “I’ve had better.” Only one person actually liked them. I was ambivalent until overloading my share with butter and syrup, at which point I also finished off what had been cast aside. Though fluffy, they carried a slight bitter flavor I suspect originated from residual grease on the griddle.
In a previous visit I made during dinnertime, I caved in to one of my standbys — the chili Colorado. Depending who you ask, the dish is claimed by Mexico, Spain and Texas. Ironically, it has no connection to Colorado, but rather jives to an accepted meaning of the word “red” in Spanish — that being “colorado.”
Jimmy Carter’s uses a choice of pork or chicken in the dish while adhering to the classic draping of deep-red adobo sauce. If you order it, prepare your palate for a stampede of pasilla and dried ancho peppers as well as copious herbs and garlic.
Robust house-made sauces prevail throughout a number of dishes, enough to justify a “sauce guide” that lists their ingredients. Tlaquepaque, for example, is a creamy blend of cilantro and roasted jalapenos. Nortena combines serrano chilies, tomatoes and cilantro, while the mild tomato-based ranchera puts onions and bell peppers in the forefront. There’s also chocolate-kissed mole and a fabulous red guajillo sauce I’ve requested on the side for taquitos and tacos.
New to the menu are dishes such as pork shank served over Peruvian-style beans and leg of lamb. They rotate through the weekend specials board.
Carter also recently added a small outdoor seating area with four tables, despite a roomy interior that feels no less vibrant than any spirited restaurant you’d find south of the border. Only now it comes with a tinge of political logic over an issue that we can’t ignore.
—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.