By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In the late 1980s, with my friends Jim and Kelly, we held regular “JFK lunches” at what was known back then as The Hungry Hunter. Working less than a mile away at the San Diego Tribune in Mission Valley, we coined the midday outings on the first letters of our names after becoming instant fans of the salads made tableside, the bacon-loaded potato skins, and various sandwiches that I’d skip over in lieu of a charbroiled burger.
As young newsroom staffers on beginner’s pay, and when much of San Diego was gastronomically lifeless, we had found a fancy, doable alternative to the paper’s cafeteria food and the limited eateries at the nearby Fashion Valley mall.
Not until recently have I been back to discover the restaurant came under different ownership several years ago, and was renamed Hunter Steakhouse. And though the frilly country-kitsch interior design has been replaced with a more streamlined look, I was delighted to find that a lot hadn’t changed.
The layout remains the same; there are two ground-level dining areas, a lodge-like third dining room upstairs, and a subterranean bar lounge.
Entrees still include a partial loaf of dark bread served with honey butter, plus a salad constructed tableside by your server from a Lazy Susan filled with veggies, beans and seeds. Potato skins still appear on the appetizer menu. And if you make it to dessert, choices such as turtle cake and New York cheesecake remain in the offing, allowing you to visually choose from a display tray. Now who does that anymore?
Hunter Steakhouse isn’t as quirky and iconic as its Hotel Circle predecessor, Albie’s Beef Inn, which recently closed after a 53-year run. But if you’re in the area craving prime rib, pork chops, lamb or baby back ribs, it’s the next best thing.
Returning for dinner instead of lunch, and with a companion who wasn’t part of my original squad, we began with crab-stuffed mushrooms as well as hot and spicy shrimp. The latter was probably added to the menu in the last few years for keeping seasoned diners awake while Aunt Mildred revels in the plain ole shrimp cocktail. I suspect the chipotle mac n’cheese and seared ahi with wasabi cream sauce are newcomers as well.
The mushrooms were your everyday button caps filled with crab that was overly camouflaged in breading. We didn’t mind, although I could have withstood with a thinner mantle of jack cheese on top of them.
The plump shrimp, however, maintained their oceanic sweetness despite being plated in a zesty red sauce that could effectively turn chicken wings into Buffalo-style. Even with Cajun spices added in, the similarity to wing sauce was unmistakable, although we mopped it up joyfully with the accompanying slices of garlic bread.
Our salads followed. I opted for a kitchen-made Caesar while my companion became dazzled by the tableside production, if only for the novelty of picking and choosing his fixings from the wheel of options. His dressing of choice was chunky blue cheese, the kind you rarely find anymore at other restaurants — thick and not cut excessively by milk or mayo.
The main event ushered in a three-quarter pound slab of prime rib for him, and a 1-plus pound serving of Alaskan crab legs for me. I was in heaven; him not so much.
Ordered medium-rare, the beef wasn’t as butter-knife tender as expected. But the flavor was on point, especially when dipping pieces of the meat into the semi-salty jus or the sinus-blasting creamed horseradish sauce. On the side, the au gratin potatoes he chose were good and goopy; contributing to a rich meal that he claimed took the bagginess out of his shirt in the end.
My crab legs were perfectly steamed, and served with their shells conveniently split lengthwise, hence preventing the carnage I cause when they’re not. A ramekin of drawn butter was presented on a little pedestal with a tea candle underneath to keep it warm.
As for the loaded baked potato and sautéed veggies sitting alongside (mostly zucchini), I poked into them a couple of times unfazed, as I never pay attention to whatever else is on my plate when big, sweet crab legs are involved. These were as marvelous as any you’d find in a highfalutin seafood restaurant, and at $28 for a pound and a quarter, they’re slightly cheaper.
Hunter Steakhouse is like a solid friend who you can go years without seeing, and then pick up right where you left off as though you never lost contact. It will be especially familiar and reassuring the next time around, when I reconnect to the place at lunchtime for those skins and a burger.
—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.