Rarely has my enthusiasm for a restaurant started with just a humble cup of tea. I wasn't planning on having a hot drink, in Escondido no less, on a day when the mercury planted itself firmly in the mid-90s. But there I was, hacking and sniffling with a summer cold after a few days of damp beach camping. The relaxed and professional staff at The Wooden Spoon (805 East Valley Parkway) kindly tucked me into a window seat and made me pine just a bit less for my couch and some NyQuil.
I was there for the food, but my achy lungs were immediately cheered by the attention paid to the tea service, a hassle for most restaurant servers to put together. It included a modern and elegant teapot, my own little dish of honey and a brown speckled cup that fit my hands. The care that goes into these small, precious details is usually a clue that a restaurant cares about the guest experience. There's joy in these details, and they evoke a feeling of being hosted in someone's home. It's what you'd hope to feel in a restaurant where the intention is to redefine comfort food.
After floating on a dreamy haze of hot tea, I quickly came back to earth by barreling through a dish of pork rinds. There's no irony or quirk to this dish. It's a big bowl filled with puffy, deafeningly crunchy pork skin, fried until pale gold and doused in a wonderful amount of salt and tangy malt vinegar.
A good 10 to 15 minutes into my meal the cooling pork rinds were still popping like the noisiest bowl of Rice Krispies, salty and chattering and demanding to be eaten.
Do say “yes please” to the compressed melon salad. What's not to love about fresh melon made extra juicy and glistening through some sort of magical voodoo where the juice is extracted and then put back into the fruit? And then they add beer doughnuts that are hot, chewy and savory. Drag them through a delicate ricotta cream, hop syrup or the very subtle olive oil powder.
Now let's talk chicken. There were fancier, more advanced sounding entrees on the menu, but the incredibly simple-sounding Mary's Chicken intrigued me. A braised leg, some steamed rice and grilled corn is a perfect example of how comfort food isn't about yet another version of mac 'n' cheese or about how much bacon can be stuffed into another food. This dish was one of the best I've had in years anywhere in San Diego County. Crispy-skinned white parts and a pile of deconstructed dark parts swam together in a rich, chestnut gravy that tasted sublimely of nothing more than chicken fond. Sweet, charred corn added color and crunch, and everything soaked into a simple base of perfectly steamed white rice. Topped with a quivering, barely cooked egg, the simplicity and richness of this meal was divine. Thankfully there was a low din of chatter and sizzle masking my groans of delight.
Tradition lured me at dessert time. Three piping-hot chocolate chip cookies were baked to order and delivered with a personal bottle of cold, organic milk. Keep your fancy tortes and elaborate confections. There is no better dessert than milk and cookies.
Countless restaurants declare their reinvention of, or twists on, comfort food. The Wooden Spoon does more than redefine and reinvent the idea of comfort food. It delivers on what that food is to all of us: memory, quality, intention and love.