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DINING REVIEW: The Taste Buds feel right at home at the Crest Cafe

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News has a regular dining-out column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Salty and Bitter, two of our staffers who plan to keep their identity the best-kept secret in San Diego.

425 Robinson Ave., San Diego, CA 92103
(619) 295-2510

Open seven days a week, 7 am to midnight, 364 days per year (closed Christmas Day). Breakfast is now served all day. Various daily specials offered to "Early Bird" and "Night Owl" diners, with a "Weekday Promotion" every Mon-Fri. Validated parking available.

A "right at home" feel

The Crest Cafe is smack dab in the heart of Hillcrest and is truly a slice of Americana, served up with a side of Mexican flare and other world influences scattered throughout its menu.

With its old style diner appeal, friendly and informative staff, and a menu bursting with options, you will leave feeling a little like family and already looking forward to your next visit.

The interior has not changed in all the years this popular destination has found its home on Robinson Avenue. While businesses all around it have changed or closed, it is one of the few things in Hillcrest to remain constant for the last 28 years.

A pink and baby blue neon sign serves as the beacon guiding you inside and once there, the short wait for your table is always worth whatever time it takes. Make no mistake, this is a busy and popular place -- and for good reason.

They make the most of the space they have with your choice of two- and four-person tables and wooden "nook" style booths, big enough to squeeze your whole group into or expand further, if needed. The colorful Fiesta Ware dishes offer additional touches of Americana, while the clank and clatter of bussed tables and the chatter of other diners beside you make you feel like a huge family meal is taking place.

Chances are, most everyone in San Diego has tried the Crest Cafe at some time in their lives, but if you haven't been there in a while, you are in for a special treat on your next visit. They have expanded their menu in leaps and bounds and have some of the most unique homestyle dishes you will find anywhere in San Diego.

But don't fret, because despite the expansion, all your favorite long-standing Crest dishes are still mainstays on this amazing menu. What you may find is the need to start a foodie "bucket list," because you will be coming back again and again, just to try something new off of this menu.

The Taste Buds settled into their seats right around 11 one recent weekday morning.

It was open and quiet when we first arrived, but before we were done, the place had converted into Grand Central Station and bustling with activity. Salty surveyed the increasing lunch crowd throughout the Taste Bud's dining experience and noticed a very diverse clientele rotating through the restaurant on that day; gay and straight, singles and couples, young and old, and all ethnicities.

Food is served up with loving care

Many restaurants these days have one person take your order and then task others to "run" the food out to the table. This often causes a disconnect, since there is no auditory or visual connection between the server, the customer and the food, and basically changes the concept of "server."

At Crest Cafe your order is taken, confirmed and delivered by the same person with care -- minimizing mistakes and keeping the flow moving at the right pace.

With a new menu that boasts of six-and-a-half legal-sized laminated pages, we had trouble deciding where to start. Kent, our server, who has been with the restaurant for seven or eight years, was a wealth of information and really knew the menu he was charged with promoting at our table.

Once no longer feeling compelled to eat in the order of regular mealtimes, we finally settled on two different Homemade Soup Specials of the day.

Their new Beef Brisket Chili was unique and chock-full of tender brisket and large chunks of acorn squash, simmering in a smokey tomato base with a kick of cilantro and topped with avocado, jack cheese, red onion and sour cream. Salty thought every bite of this hearty soup just filled up your mouth with pleasure and was simply beyond words. A large bowl of this chili is definitely in order, next time.

The Blue Cheese Potato with Bacon soup was equally good, with perfectly cooked potato pieces that were firm enough to stand up in the soup but tender enough to fall apart in your mouth, and the bacon was surprisingly crisp. Bitter, although a big fan of blue cheese, was a bit concerned that it might overpower the soup or make it a little bitter, but that was not the case at all. The blue cheese added a tangy flavor that was a perfect compliment to the hint of rosemary, that lifted the flavor even more. Bitter only wished there was more soup in the bowl to enjoy!

We made room for our next choice, Cecelia's Chopped Salad ($11.25), by setting the soups aside (but not allowing them to be taken away -- they were that good).

This crispy, refreshing lunchtime meal (named after owner Cecelia Moreno) is one of their signatures on the Fresh Salads menu. Filled with chopped turkey (for a twist on the standard), walnuts, jicama, crumbled gorgonzola, mangoes, apples and lots of tender fresh spinach, this crunchy feast was completed with a lovely basil vinaigrette that tied everything together.

Bitter next chose the Fresh Baked Turkey Enchiladas ($9.95) from the Home Cookin' Menu. The homemade corn tortillas were bursting with flavor all their own and had soaked up the tasty Ranchera sauce very nicely during the baking process. They came with a side of rice and spiced refried beans that were some of the best Salty has ever tasted; not your typical bland style. The rice was a nice complement to them, as well.

There was no doubt how Bitter felt about the dish; the plate was practically licked clean.

A breakfast nook like no other

The Crest is well known for their amazing breakfast dishes. One of Salty's favorites has always been Cafe Eggs and believes no one has ever come close to their Machaca. Today, we decided to stray from our favorites to give a broader review.

We perused the extensive Breakfast Menu, with its 14 choices of omelettes, stopping momentarily on the Sunrise Salmon (fresh grilled salmon, scrambled eggs, chives, red onions and capers), the popular Hangover (jalapenos, avocado, spicy chicken sausage and Jack cheese with chimichurri sauce), the Veggie (avocado, tomatoes, fresh mushrooms and jack cheese) and the Robinson Avenue (bacon, spinach, tomatoes and Swiss cheese).

Other mouth-watering options on the breakfast menu include Chicken Apple Hash, Artichoke and Ham Strata and Angus Beef Hash, but there is plenty more and just too many to identify here.

It was hard to pass up the Macadamia Banana Belgian Waffle or the Pumpkin Gingerbread Pancakes, but after catching our breaths and asking more pertinent questions of Kent, we decided on the Lemon Ricotta Buttermilk Pancakes ($8.95) as our next option.

These breakfast cakes of fluffy goodness started with plenty of lemon zest, rolled into a creamy ricotta cheese and buttermilk batter and were cooked on Crest's famous griddle to perfection, then served up with a pile of strawberries and bananas. Salty savored every bite. Bitter thought that this dish could be ordered for breakfast or dessert.

Those who avoid meat of any kind will be happy to hear that despite the old-fashioned cafe and grill atmosphere, the Crest has a wide range of vegetarian-based options to satisfy even the most discretionary eater.

Crestwiches and burgers

Although we didn't try any of these this time around, between the two of us we could speak from experience about their tasty burgers and sandwiches, both hot and cold.

Bitter has tried nearly every "Crestwich" and burger on the menu and has settled on a number of favorites, including the Turkey Spears, the B.T.C.A., and the Oui Oui burger.

The Turkey Spears sandwich consists of oven baked turkey breast and tender asparagus spears with a blanket of melted cheese. Bitter particularly likes the added touch of fresh asparagus, which makes this turkey sandwich a standout.

The B.T.C.A. is the classic bacon, tomato, cheese and avocado sandwich, but the Crest seems to have a knack for finding the right way to put it all together and make your mouth water.

Bitter's love for blue cheese is satified with the Oui Oui burger, which includes aged blue cheese crumbled under melted Jack cheese. Bitter typically gets turkey burgers and says they are delightfully fresh and juicy.

One of the best parts of the sandwiches and burgers are the fact that they come with a choice of side items, including Crest Cafe's own homemade chips.

Other unique home-spun favorites

Every one of their dinner favorites is unique and have influences from across the globe. From "East Texas Fried Chicken" and "Not Your Grandma's Chicken Pot Pie," "Adobe Pork Chop" and "Flat Iron Chimichurri," to "Italiano Chicken" and "Fresh Tilapia Fish and Chips" -- you will be hard-pressed to not find something that piques your interest, let alone your taste buds.

Each dish is prepared to order and with the utmost care.

Libations for all times of the day

Salty requested coffee and was served an endless cup of piping hot caffiene from Cafe Motto. The organic, fair-trade blends rotate regularly, but the day of our visit it was a rich, Turkish blend. In addition to coffee, teas and the regular soda fountain and fruit juice offerings, the Crest has a full espresso bar and also offers a wide selection of wines and local craft beers.

Bitter claims to be an "ice-tea snob," and thoroughly enjoyed what seemed to be nearly a pitcher of the cafe's endless iced tea. The regular iced tea has just a slight hint of passion fruit and it is just enough to give it a nice flavor without being overwhelmingly sweet. There is also an herbal iced tea available in either chai or blood orange. All the regular soda options are standards here, as well.

You can also start your day with a mimosa, or add a splash or cranberry for a twist on the old favorite. They also have a large selection of local craft beers and a variety of wines by the glass or bottle available. You can even change it up and order a wine flight of any three wines on their list.

Room for dessert?

As if all of this weren't enough, Salty and Bitter decided to try the Peach Cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Bitter, who has quite the sweet tooth, couldn't resist digging right into the sugary concoction and before we knew, it was almost gone. Ask your server to see the dessert plate and choose your selection.

All in all, the Crest Cafe simply does not disappoint, so come back, and come back for good.

Photos above-left, top: Cecelia's Chopped Salad; middle: Lemon Ricotta Buttermilk Pancakes; bottom: Beef Brisket Chili