By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Amid copious flora, quirky statuary, and a layer cake of architectural styles spanning 63 years across 32 acres of the Town and Country Resort & Convention Center is Charlie’s, a hidden gem to locals on the hunt for solid barbecue. But the clock is slowly ticking before it becomes history.
Situated in a Googie-style building fronted by a redbrick courtyard, hotel guests may not even find the restaurant so easily without meandering to the far eastern end of the property, past vine-covered gazebos and along narrow pathways lined with roses and greenery.
A six-tiered birdbath nearby marks the spot, along with a shiny metal smoker parked out front and a life-size cement statue of a Dalmatian sitting at the door. That’s Charlie.
The restaurant doubles as a sports bar, offering ample indoor-outdoor seating and validated parking. Although it wasn’t until several months ago that Charlie’s became a desirable destination for dining and drinking, after receiving a much-needed interior redo and a culinary rescue by chef Paul McCabe and pastry wizard Jack Fisher. Both hail from the local fine-dining scene.
McCabe previously helmed the kitchens at La Valencia Hotel, Delicias and Kitchen 1540 before taking a two-year gig at the Royal Palms in Scottsdale, Arizona. As food and beverage director for the Town and Country, he will oversee the development of two new, full-service restaurants slated for the resort’s $80 million renovation, which begins later this year under the management of Destination Hotels.
Charlie’s, he said, will remain open to hotel guests and the public through the sweeping transition, although it will ultimately be bulldozed in the last phase of the project “sometime in late 2017.”
Fisher’s resume includes jobs at Jsix and Nine-Ten. In addition to crafting Charlie’s soul-warming rum raisin apple pie sundae, super-moist cocoa nib cake and other elevated desserts, he makes all the sandwich buns in-house.
What you’ll find between his breads are Nathan’s-sourced “monster dogs” covered in beef chili or the ambitious “big Texas burger” featuring two patties buried in brisket, Jack cheese and red onions. We tried it, and it was frightfully wonderful.
The big draws, however, are the meats that originate from the smoker parked out front. They’re plated with various side dishes also worthy of a few blue ribbons.
Chicken wings never tasted so good in this non-crispy form. Juicy to the bones, they’re smoked for hours in a mix of cherry wood and cedar, then flash-fried and dressed in Buffalo, barbecue, honey-Dijon or Carolina sauces.
To those with a brawny tolerance for heat, ask for the off-menu sauces on the side — habanero, scorpion or Carolina reaper, the latter of which will numb your gums if applying more than a miniscule eye drop onto your food. Otherwise, it’s actually high in flavor.
Brisket and ribs are the biggest sellers. The former flaunted excellent bark (the outer edges) that wasn’t overly concentrated in spices, but rather a peppery segue to moist, tender meat charmed by hickory wood.
The ribs were zesty and fairly supple, with the meat requiring a little more chew compared to some in other barbecue joints that over-smoke them to a ridiculously soft texture. There is a limit in my book when it comes to Texas-style barbecuing.
We loved the side dishes. The plates come with a choice of two, with the brisket-stuffed baked potato ranking as a meal in itself, given that it also carries a payload of melted cheese and sour cream.
My companion gravitated to the mac n’ cheese made with a silken blend of Gruyere, American and cheddar cheeses. The baked beans were thick and flavorful, although more novel was the “warm tater salad” combining fried pee wee potatoes with shallots, red bell peppers and garlic aioli – not the kind our mothers made.
That, along with everything else on the menu, isn’t something you would have found here before McCabe arrived. Nearly everything now is made in-house as a primer for what’s on the horizon, when the Town and Country is razed and rebuilt in a modern mid-century style that will bring exciting dining choices to Hotel Circle.
For now, the gastronomic wheels are in motion at Charlie’s.
—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 firstname.lastname@example.org.