By FRANK SABATINI JR.
I could have only dreamed of self-serve ice-cream machines, arcade games and play areas stocked with toys at the restaurants my parents dragged me to as a child. Unless the meal was spaghetti with meatballs or burgers and french fries resembling those at McDonald’s, dining out bored this fidgety soul to death.
Del’s Hideout is the Cohn Restaurant Group’s latest venture that happens to cater well to kids. It’s set in a 5,400-square-foot industrial structure that previously housed The Junk House sports bar. Though not quite as rollicking and colorful as Cohn’s Corvette Diner, tykes nonetheless feel right at home here because of the above-mentioned amenities.
A friend and I arrived for lunch during a large preschool graduation party that seemed in stark contrast to Del’s central bar and the liquor cages that sit behind it. Sports games were airing on multiple flat-screens. Thankfully their sound was muted.
While adults potentially sip on mules and Manhattans over smoked brisket and other Southern-style fare, their kids can graze on grilled cheese sandwiches and apple slices in between rounds of Pac-Man and Ninja Turtles. Del’s Hideout aspires to be a lot of things for a lot of people, and the concept at this early stage so far appears to be working.
Customers queue up to the front counter, often in lines that snake outside to the front parking lot. An impressive beer list hangs over the cash register, showing off more than 35 choices of craft brews. After placing your order and seizing a table (or bar stool), your food and drinks are delivered.
The playful adult amenity is a GPS-driven system also referred to as “butler bells.” It’s basically a wireless device with buttons that you press for summoning a server whenever you want to order additional food and drinks. The call buttons come in handy provided you can keep little Junior’s fingers off of them. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing them used in more restaurants, as it spares you from flagging down servers with awkward stares and hand gestures.
Our original order from the counter was a Mother Earth Cali Creamin’ on nitro (handed to us on the spot), a pimento cheese board, and Baja chicken salad. The food arrived to our table in less than 10 minutes. We relied afterwards on the nifty call buttons to encroach on bigger, meatier selections.
The spreadable pimento cheese was a tasty blast to the past, a party appetizer lifted straight out of a Betty Crocker cookbook from the ’70s. The generous scoop of cheese came with crackers, raw veggies and a couple of fried green tomatoes — all in all an agreeable come-on to beer as well as to any food-oriented kids in your clan.
The salad was a colorful mound of fresh romaine, roasted corn, black beans, finely shredded jack-cheddar cheese and bright-red tortilla strips. The medley supported plump, crispy chicken tenders offering Southern-fried goodness. I suspect buttermilk is in the batter.
Among the dishes that followed was a well-conceived yellowtail fish sandwich with roasted tomatoes, red onions, chimichurri sauce and arugula on a fresh Kaiser roll. But it was salty in spots. So was a juicy rotisserie half-chicken and a sidekick of collard greens. Disclaimer: I’m a lightweight when it comes to sodium while my friend who isn’t, wasn’t as fazed.
The plate’s second side dish, creamed corn, was pleasant and richer than most — better than what I’ve had in certain high-end steakhouses.
Pork ribs smoked onsite were very good. The meat fell away from the bones cleanly, and the dry rub was understated, so as to not interfere with the partly tangy, partly sweet barbecue sauce set on the tables.
Our sides for the ribs were bacon-laced potato salad and coleslaw. Neither were overly riddled with mayo dressing (yay!) and both were as pleasing as any you’d encounter at all-American picnics.
The Southern culinary bent is evident throughout the menu with things like deviled eggs (sold in the half-dozen), various mac ‘n’ cheese options, baked beans and smoked brisket, which our on-call server confidently touted as the “best in town.”
The only dessert in the house is complimentary dairy-free soft-serve ice cream that you dispense into mini cones from a walk-up machine. We got our fix right after the rugrats cleared the place, lapping up the vanilla peaks with our own kid-like gusto in the precious quietude that suddenly prevailed.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.