By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Not until recently did I learn of an option for food and drinks inside Balboa Park other than The Prado, Panama 66 and various cart vendors perched here and there.
Behold the often-overlooked Flying Squirrel Cafe, found just inside the north entrance of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Your landmark is the park’s humongous 104-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree sitting majestically across a small road right outside the doors. Situated in the center floor of the museum’s naturally lighted atrium, the cafe is accessible to non-museum guests when using this point of entry.
The space greets with a defined area of blond-wood tabletops, bright-green metal chairs and a small order counter stocked with grab-and-go parfaits, salads and wraps. They’re replenished two or three times a day as needed.
At the front of the layout sits an imposing cast skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur that predated T. rex. Opposite that are replicas of large turtles and taxidermy displays, which include an American badger. There’s also a kid’s seating area toward the back.
At first glance, you don’t get the impression the cafe serves made-to-order food. But hidden behind the walls is a kitchen headed by chef Reid Nichols, who previously worked as a sous chef at The Oceanaire Seafood Room in the Gaslamp Quarter and at the former Salt & Cleaver in Hillcrest.
Nichols’ menu is succinct. It features only a couple of scratch-made soups, five hot sandwiches, and exquisite mac n’ cheese that brings together white cheddar, Parmesan, Romano and Asiago in a smooth bechamel sauce sprinkled with fresh herbs and breadcrumbs.
“This is worth the cholesterol,” said my lunch companion upon forking into the dish. Indeed, even after cooling, the cheeses never congealed and the elbow pasta stayed divinely moist.
We placed our entire order at the counter, and first came away with a boxed sesame-sunflower seed salad. It was evident Nichols sources his veggies from a respectable vendor, Specialty Produce, as everything in the medley tasted summer-fresh — from the mixed lettuces (some sporting awfully long stems) and heirloom carrots to the edamame and shredded cabbage. The lemon-sesame dressing was lively and a tad sweet.
A bowl of creamy chickpea soup with piquillo pepper puree was brought to our table afterwards. Made with vegetable stock, it had a slightly acidic edge that was tempered nicely by cooked-down onions, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes.
While sipping cucumber-mint kombucha dispensed from a tap, and fantastically refreshing blueberry lemonade made in-house, our sandwiches arrived. Both were sizable.
The “firebird” offers a busy but alluring bouquet of flavors from marinated chicken, pepper jack cheese and fajita-spiced veggies. They’re kicked up by poblano pepper sauce and aioli made with guajillo peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. The ingredients are captured on an airy brioche bun, which my friend didn’t prefer because of how its above-average sugar content interfered with the savory fillings. So she ate her half of the sandwich ketogenic-diet style, sans the bread.
But the sweet-salty interplay of the “grand grilled PB&J” proved exciting. It’s a “posh” version of the all-American sandwich, as my friend accurately described. The crunchy honey-kissed peanut butter is made onsite. So is the berry jam. Adding further fruitiness are macerated fresh berries.
My only caveat was that I wished for a thicker layer of peanut butter, which would have stood up better to the thick-cut grilled white bread and generous berry components.
The Flying Squirrel Cafe is named after a citizen-science research project through the museum that focused on the elusive San Bernardino flying squirrels. The cafe launched two years ago after the museum acquired the space from Cohn Restaurant Group, which ran it as Dino Cafe.
The museum also opens its rooftop for drinks and noshes from 5 to 10 p.m., on Thursdays and Fridays, but only through Aug. 30. With wine and beer available, food choices include a “surf-and-earth” salad, various tacos, and ceviche.
In a town that lacks rooftop spaces for eating and drinking, I vote to see the space open more often. Consumers love high perches. And prestigious museums such as this can always use the extra revenues.
— 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.