Nov. 3 2010 10:35 AM

Hidden Kearny Mesa spot hasn't quite reached certified ‘gem' status

The Dumpling Sampler
Photo by Jenny Montgomery
Can we all just agree that smooth jazz is terrible? Particularly while eating? I realize it's an easy target—a cheap laugh at poor Kenny G's expense. But, seriously, it's some awful music. I'm reminded of middle-aged guys in jacuzzis sporting newly pierced ears and sipping on white Zin, and it puts me off my feed. Please, restaurateurs of the world, piping smooth jazz into your restaurant is just plain offensive. Boney James will never contribute to a cool dining experience.

Fortunately, Khan's Cave in Kearny Mesa has a bit more going for it to offset the terrible tunes pouring out of the speakers. The folks at Khan's Cave like to use the term “hidden gem,” and they have the first part of that right; it's stuck in one of the older strip malls in Kearny Mesa—not necessarily in the path of culinary adventurers.

I have to give them props for the creativity and effort they're putting into a place that could easily be forgotten about on the food scene. They've got chef 's tastings and wine tastings and martini specials and, apparently, a special penguin who offers secret deals if you spot him at the restaurant. And although that totally sounds like some sort of drug-dealer code or maybe the next leg of The Amazing Race, it's actually just a penguin sticker that occasionally shows up on the front door when there's some sort of deal happening.

Khan's Cave gets major points for friendly service and enthusiasm. I love that owner / chef Mark Sun is trying to stretch the standard “Chinese” restaurant fare, offering a sort of pan-Asian experience, with noodles, curries, rice bowls and more. The Mongolian Lamb Shank, cooked in herb broth and served with carrots, water chestnuts and potatoes, along with the sweet influence of sugar cane, was an OK attempt—flavorful, but dry.

The Chicken Curry Bowl was supposed to be spicy, but there wasn't any heat whatsoever. I didn't mind, as my taste buds are total pansies, but if you're looking for any burn on your tongue, look elsewhere.

The appetizers were much more satisfying, particularly the Peppery Fried Wings.

They arrive at your table steaming hot, with a crispy skin that's more salty than peppery, with hits of toasty minced garlic. I've never met a dumpling I didn't like, and the Cave's Sampler didn't disappoint. The pork gyoza was flavorful and tender, and the shrimp ha gau, served on a spoon with a little drizzle of chili sauce, was a nice bite of fishy spice.

It's a perfect quiet lunch spot if you're doing business in the area, but it also has a large bar area and outdoor patio and is clearly gunning for the football-watching crowd.

The Monday Night Football menu includes ribs, bratwurst and coleslaw, which doesn't make sense to me considering there's an extensive small-plates menu. Besides the wings, they have items like Crispy Fish Sliders, Lamb Brochettes and the dumplings.

Why not focus on really tasty and unique bar food instead of adding yet more items to an already wide-ranging menu?

Khan's Cave seems poised to become a cool little secret spot, random and tasty and a place to watch sports and maybe nosh something other than nachos. But between tequila tastings and a menu that's all over the place, I'm not sure they've found their niche. They're trying to do so much that they're not really doing anything exceptionally well. A sleeker menu, a kick-ass happy hour and a stealth marketing campaign (maybe this is where you bring the penguins in?), could get Khan's Cave some traction. But it has some work to do before the San Diego hordes breach the walls of Kearny Mesa.

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The Dumpling Sampler


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