Restaurant Review: The Wooden Spoon
High-end chef Jesse Paul ditches cushy hotels for the tiny, inspiring Wooden Spoon
Spoon Fed: The Wooden Spoon takes over an abandoned taco shop.
There are gaping foodless holes in San Diego. In a county of over 3.2 million, the dining options for hundreds of thousands of people are “I guess so.”
Scripps Ranch is a suburb of 20,000 residents, many of whom would enjoy a duck confit and a quality old fashioned cocktail. That’s nice of them to want. Just drive 25 minutes south to Little Italy or North Park. The inland north county, specifically, is shockingly short on decent bistros and eateries driven by talented chefs.
Escondido, 40 minutes north of downtown San Diego, is a city of 135,000 at the foothills of our prolific agricultural bounty. Eighty percent of the nation’s avocados grow in the nearby hills. Most of San Diego’s farms are up here. And yet, for a long while, Vincent’s (from excellent French chef Vincent Grumel) was the only game in town. Then one of the city’s best, Patrick Ponsaty (ex–El Bizcocho, Loews Coronado) took over Bellamy’s. And now, former Park Hyatt Aviara chef Jesse Paul has opened The Wooden Spoon.
Escondido’s gaping foodless hole is being filled.
As you drive a mile-plus inland from the I-15, past the old Palomar hospital, you enter a part of Escondido that not even the most delusional real estate agent would call “desirable.” It’s a sort of tumbleweeds-and-graffiti stretch of Valley Parkway. It doesn’t feel dangerous. Just unloved and a little abandoned.
And that’s exactly what this restaurant space was—a former Mexican drive-thru, abandoned for three years—before Paul adopted it and turned it into Wooden Spoon. Near the end of my first meal there, Paul spots me and shows me around the 1,200-square-foot spot, with seating for 80 total. As you enter the tiny main “dining room,” you’re standing in front of the “kitchen.” That’s where Paul and his cooks work on a one-piece, stainless steel “fast food appliance station.” It has a plancha (a dry, flat heating surface used in Latin cooking), but no sauté station. Diners can sit at the kitchen bar and watch them transform things. Food transparency is king here; it’s also spatially required. Or, diners can sit on the patio, which seats three times as many people.
Two massive ceramic jugs ferment house-made kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles. Most everything, from the ranch dressing (incredibly delicious, with fresh dill and celery seed) to the ketchup (good, but no Heinz), is made in-house. It’s the kind of all-in, DIY bootstrap operation that could make a man. Or kill one.
Here's the beef! Burger with blue cheese and tomato-onion jam.
A chalkboard above the stoves is for daily specials. He lists local farms that bring him some picked-this-morning produce. That’s the advantage of being on the edge of farm country. The disadvantage is that Paul is far from San Diego’s seafood, and he doesn’t sell enough to make it worth a good purveyor’s time.
Why am I so compelled by this tiny restaurant with six menu options? Maybe it’s because a fast food operation—an emblem of what’s wrong with American food—is now an emblem of what’s right with American food (quality ingredients in the hands of a passionate chef). Or is it that I’m sitting in an uninspiring block of San Diego, being inspired by a salad made of compressed melon with “beer doughnuts,” dehydrated olive oil, and hops syrup?
That’s four-star fare in a one-star parking lot.
I felt the same way when Carnitas Snack Shack opened in North Park. Good chefs are usually surrounded by so much expensive furniture, pomp, and reclaimed wooden circumstance. It’s refreshing, if not entirely comfortable, to eat Paul’s organic chicken-and-rice dinner on one of those concrete fast-food patio tables whose main design ethos is “try to steal this, jerks.” Chives and lemongrass grow in the corners of the patio, where there was probably once a plastic trash can to put your plastic tray.
Over two nights, we eat through his compact menu. Some food is excellent. Some is good. A couple dishes miss the mark. But all of it is terribly more exciting and beats the hell out of recently unfrozen rolled tacos.
Beer doughnuts? yes. with compressed melon and hops syrup, ink bream, served ceviche style.
The beer doughnuts, savory puffs made with beer batter, paired with the compressed melons (whose juice has been concentrated using a sous vide machine) and that delicious hop syrup? Oh, man. Phenomenal, especially with the tang of fresh ricotta. His poutine—thick-cut fries served with cheese curds and house-made gravy—would make a Canadian misty. On a particularly gray day, I might drink that ranch dressing just to feel something.
For appetizers, he’s one of the only chefs I’ve seen serve boiled peanuts—a traditional Southern roadside snack, which he dusts with spices, or serves simply salted. They’re like edamame on steroids. He also serves spiced pork rinds that go well with his collection of craft beers in bottle and can (there’s not enough space right now for kegs or taps).
A grilled cheese sandwich for my daughter—a simple treat, with sharp cheddar, malted brown bread from Sadie Rose, and good butter—is excellent. So is the burger, a gigantic thing with arugula, bacon-onion jam, blue cheese, and tomato aioli. The aioli adds both umami and a sweetness to it that’s not cloying. The duck confit has incredibly crisp skin, just perfect, really, over a farro salad with pickled raisins, olives, and a sherry vinaigrette. Only problem is that it’s far too salty. Confit, which is usually rested for a few days in its own fat and a salt cure, needs to be rinsed to remove the excess salt.
I love Paul’s simple chicken dinner. It’s the sustainable chef’s bird of choice—Mary’s Organic—the leg of which is braised in natural jus, and the breast roasted for a crisp skin. The dark meat is torn and the breast sliced, and both served over a mound of steamed white rice with the chicken jus, grilled corn, and a 63-degree egg (cooked in a water bath for an hour at 63 degrees, yielding a perfectly uniform, quivering egg). It’s essentially a classic TV dinner that’s been highly, highly elevated.
The only entrée that really misses the mark is our bavette steak (a flap-meat cut from the tender region of the animal). We order it medium rare and it arrives well done. The accompanying cipollini onions are pickled with balsamic vinegar, but too strongly, and taste a tad burnt. Paul also has a vegetarian option on his small menu, which changes depending on what’s fresh.
As I sit and eat the very good desserts—a Mexican chocolate panna cotta with house-made horchata, and baked-to-order chocolate cookies with a mini-jug of milk—I try to pin down what I love about the Wooden Spoon. There’s a lot that’s terribly imperfect about it. The part of town. The fact that the sprinklers hit you when you go around to the outdoor bathroom. The patio tables could use some candles. One table has a freebie umbrella from J. Lohr wines. The concrete tables could use cushioning. And that floodlight is so strong that it washes out the visual appeal of all the food and drink (under the light, neither our server nor we can visually see the difference between a glass of sauvignon blanc and a rose).
Yet I really love it. Over two-thirds of our dishes were good, a couple were excellent, and definitely worth their value. There’s something about a top-notch chef opting out of the comfy resort chef gig to start his own kitchen, scraping 50-year-old grease off the ovens, painting over graffiti (Paul says it happens every week), sleeping in his tiny office, dumping his life savings to make something cool. In a pride-challenged outskirt of San Diego, it oozes with pride.
Maybe that story shouldn’t play a part in a restaurant review. But a restaurant isn’t only food and ambiance. It’s also soul, and Wooden Spoon has plenty of it.