Sept. 6 2013 06:42 PM

Biscuits, gravy, latkes and more-we'll also talk pie

Sal & Ceci’s stuffed French toast
Photo by Jenny Montgomery

I felt a little giddy when the French toast arrived. Had I finally found my go-to breakfast spot? Oh, there are the more upscale breakfast locales, with prettier views and free-range marmalade and whatnot, and those are fine for brunch with Mom and Dad. And, sure, there's no shortage of greasy spoons around town, some even with passionate followings. More often than not, those charming dives generally span the spectrum from lousy to mediocre. It makes me grouchy. But the faded exterior of Sal & Ceci's Pantry & Pie Shoppe (945 S. Santa Fe Ave., Vista) intrigued me. Was there any magic in this little corner of Vista?

Sal & Ceci's has that time-warp vibe that made me feel like I was 9 years old, going out to eat with my grandparents, scooching inch by inch along a booth seat, legs sticking to the vinyl. There's nothing kitschy about the nostalgic feeling here.

It's an all-day menu, but I was there for a big morning meal. I normally steer clear of things like stuffed French toast; it tends to be cloying and mushy. But I couldn't resist S&C's ham-and-cheese-stuffed version, its salty-and-sweet siren's song tempting me away from scrambles and omelettes. This is essentially a down-and-dirty Monte Cristo, with gooey cheese, salty ham and eggy bread with a chaser of dusty, sweet powdered sugar. There's nothing gourmet about this, but Sal & Ceci's has blown diner-mediocrity out of the water.

It was so hard to choose from all of the available rib-sticking options. Do I go with corned-beef hash? Should I try the chicken-fried steak? And do my shorts have an elastic waistband? We opted for the gravy-covered chicken-fried chicken steak and couldn't get enough of the creamy, salty, 'Murican-as-a-giant-flag-lapel-pin sausage gravy. Even the chicken was amazing: pounded thin and juicy and tender with every bite.

Leave room for the crispy, fried potato pancakes. Crunchy and glistening brown on the outside, with soft, shredded potato confetti on the inside and dollops of apple sauce and sour cream crowning each end of the plate, I'll take these latkes over undercooked house potatoes any day. The biscuits are soft and fluffy and delicious. But take note, biscuit snobs: They run cakey, not flaky.

I loved this place. This is the diner I've been looking for. Tender eggs, proper seasoning and hot, fresh generous portions banish breakfast blahs. But I do have a bone to pick with the pies. It's a pie shop. (Excuse me, "shoppe.") And although I enjoyed the bursting, indigo slice of blueberry pie and the sugar-crusted slice of peach, I'm fairly confident I was eating canned filling. I suppose for many people that's the norm, but my pie standards are higher. The crust was great, and the flavor was fine (even yummy), but the clingy texture of canned fruit is a strike.

Sal & Ceci's has throwback charm that's not intentional. There's no website. I doubt they've ever redecorated. But the staff is exceptionally warm, the food is mostly terrific and this breakfast grouch left with a  smile.

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