I don't own a smart phone. (I'm not principled, just cheap.) Most of the time, I don't miss having one. But then I find myself lost in Escondido (cue horror-movie music sting), unsuccessfully looking for a specific restaurant, slowly losing my mind and wishing for that tiny pocket computer to make it all better. Ah, but then I wouldn't have been forced to explore alternate options. Then I would have missed out on The Wagon Wheel.
With its weathered exterior and empty parking lot, The Wagon Wheel (427 W. Mission Ave.) didn't initially inspire much confidence. But it's hard to resist a quaint-looking diner that's been feeding people for more than 60 years. They must be doing something right.
Wife-and-husband team Nancy and Sumner Rollings have been running the place since 2001, and one or both of them will probably greet you when you walk inside. The décor is classic American diner, with red vinyl booths and cowboy-kitsch touches. I was reminded of some Euro pals of mine, who once told me how much they wanted to travel to the U.S. to "drive on Route 66 and go to a diner!" Adorbs, I know, but a quintessential American experience. The Wagon Wheel has that vibe.
The menu touts the fried chicken as "the best in town." Gauntlet thrown, I had to try it, and it is pretty damn good.
The large plate of chicken takes awhile coming to your table, as it's all battered and fried to order, of course, but this bird is worth the wait. My newfound love affair with chicken skin continued here as I bit into each scalding-hot bite. The crunchy outer batter is thin and delicately flavored. At first, I thought it lacked seasoning, but the more I ate, the more I appreciated its simplicity. It never got to be too salty or cloying. The chicken inside was absolutely bursting with juice and steam, and my poor fingertips kept getting burned. That didn't slow me down.
The good folks at The Wagon Wheel also boast about their Certified Angus charbroiled burgers, and I look forward to exploring the beefier side of the menu. But my return to The Wagon Wheel will be for reasons of comfort, not culinary experimentation.
The mashed potatoes are milky soft and shaped like an ice-cream scoop, and I ate every bit of them. The garlic bread was pretty pointless, but everything else hit that sweet spot of nostalgic diner tastes.
Save room for the cherry-cheese pie, not because it rivals anything at Extraordinary Desserts, but because its brilliant, red topping of canned cherries and soft filling of sweet, creamy cheese evokes long car rides, nameless roadside eateries and lonely, romantic stretches of open highway.
Nothing is reinvented here, and it's certainly not a foodie mecca, but it's hard to argue with classic diner comfort food, and sometimes, after a long and grumpy day, that's all you really need.
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