REVIEW: Gulf Coast Grill in University Heights
I may be a native San Diegan, but when it comes to Creole cuisine, I’m about the raginest Cajun enthusiast west of the Mississippi. I visit New Orleans (aka NOLA) with the frequency that most visit Las Vegas. I hold annual Mardi Gras parties stocked with home-made jambalaya, etouffée and wall-to-wall andouille. I’m such a N’Awlins fan, I’ve even spent decades following their sports teams, which, until Drew Brees and the team formerly known as the ‘Aints brought home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, was as frustrating as rooting for San Diego teams.
I’ve made the rounds locally and found only a handful of eateries specializing in the dishes of my adopted second city. Unfortunately, very few hold a candle to spots in and around the French Quarter. But I don’t hold a grudge. After all, no place in New Orleans comes anywhere close to offering Mexican food the likes of which we can get at literally hundreds of venues in San Diego. Still, I’ve remained hopeful that someday I’d come across a place that furnishes some semblance of the authentic Louisiana experience.
That optimism paid off recently when I visited Gulf Coast Grill in University Heights. I’d heard of the restaurant and passed by it dozens of time, but it was one of those long-tenured spots that somehow remained a black blip on my been-there-done-that food writer map. A birthday get-together finally allowed me to X the eatery off and, by the time I’d done so, my elusive quest for a local place that captures some of the soul and flavor of New Orleans had come to an end.
Part of the reason this restaurant succeeds in this respect is the fact that they don’t overdo it with their décor and keep the kitsch to the minimal level employed by non-touristy NOLA eateries. You won’t see cartoonish alligator statues, oversized plastic crawfish or purple, green and gold all over the place. Instead, you’ll find a brightly painted, minimally outfitted dining room and a cozy bar (a must for any Cajun/Creole outpost), both of which are patrolled by a wait staff that is professional, but not overly so, nor interested in becoming your best friend behind rampant chattiness, phony Cajun accents (they won’t gay-ron-tee you a darn thing) and over-the-top Southern hospitality.
The menu is lengthy and comprised primarily of dishes built around many of the same staples of Louisiana cuisine—fish indigenous to the Gulf of Mexico, shrimp, crawfish, oysters, chicken and, of course, pork.
As evidenced by a wasabi-soy-glazed sesame-crusted ahi entrée, the black bean salsa accompanying an appetizer of crab cakes and a Jamaican jerk chicken skewer starter, other regional styles rear their heads, but for the most part, it’s the African, Spanish, French, Southern mish-mash that’s for supper.
A great way to experience a number of Looziana classics all in one shot is the Cajun Combo, which includes a tasty seafood gumbo that, while not as robust as the better versions in the Quarter, still comes across as a solid taste of the Gulf Coast in a bowl; a jambalaya with just the right amount of spice to be palatable to patrons both familiar with and new to NOLA’s love affair with cayenne pepper; and a handful of hushpuppies gussied up with the zip of a house-made remoulade sauce. It’s a respectable trio that has that home-cookedness that’s so important to this style of food.
That said, Creole urban restaurant flare and technique finds its way most beautifully (yet unpretentiously) into dishes like the mixed seafood grill, featuring scallops, prawns and red snapper amidst a thick, creamy, zesty and naturally sweet corn maque choux (a fave dish in my household that’s rarely seen outside of The Pelcian State…and, no, it’s not the same thing as cream corn). Ditto for the fried oyster salad, which featured some of the best fryer-fresh gastropods I’ve had in this abundance at this price point ($11.95 for the salad, which includes a quartet of oysters, and $8.95 for a half dozen by their lonesome). The cornmeal crust provides a crunchy and quite yummy protective coat to keep the oysters nice and plump. And warning, be prepared to fall in love with a most sinful warm bacon and molasses dressing that is so obviously wrong, but so satisfyingly sweet. Food that’s none too healthy, decadent and purposely out of balance—Cajun cuisine be thy name.
Of course, flavor that veers too far to one end of the spectrum, especially the bland endpoint, can be a bad thing, and there are dishes at Gulf Coast Grill that were on the weak side. Tops among them was the chicken fried chicken, which achieved a nice crispy fried texture, but was smothered in a gluey gravy that tasted as if someone had forgotten the salt and pepper altogether. Another underachiever was the smoked pork chop entrée, a duo of chops that are big but bland (and on my sampling overcooked into a dry slab of sadness) and served with peach chutney that’s sickly oversweet, syrupy and sorely out of harmony with both the meat and a side of garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
By the way, if the mention of “seasonal vegetables” has you envisioning sliced carrots, zucchini, squash and cauliflower florets, count yourself clairvoyant. That cop-out of a sider is exactly what’s served with most of the entrees at Gulf Coast Grill and it works in a counteractive way against otherwise pretty dishes like cedar plank salmon and Mississippi mustard catfish that, despite being admittedly a little Emeril’s circa 1998, are nice enough to deserve better.
Grading everything I sampled, the overall pass/fail success rate of the dishes was about 65 percent, but the 35 percent that came in under par failed due to overreaching. While an amalgamation of several cultures, Cajun and Creole food should not venture too far beyond its traditional roots with things like chutneys and salsas. As evidenced by Gulf Coast Grill’s successes, when both cooks and diners stick to dishes that stay true to the basics—jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice—it makes for a very rewarding experience.
- City: San Diego
- Phone: 619-295-2244
- Name: Gulf Coast Grill
- Address: 4130 Park Blvd.