7389 Jackson Drive, San Diego, CA 92119 (San Carlos)
Dinner prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $3 to $7; sandwiches and entrees, $8 to $18
By Frank Sabatini Jr.
For restaurant owners that bare their financial troubles on Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible,” the experience is both tearfully humiliating and monetarily rewarding. Just ask Stacey Poon-Kinney of The Trails in San Carlos, which ranks as the only San Diego eatery “rescued” by the reality show and its domineering host, Robert Irvine.
“It was like winning the lottery,” Poon-Kinney recalls when her then-ailing restaurant was selected to receive a $10,000 makeover within two frantic days under the microscope of a full television crew. The application process, she says, involved filling out numerous pages of paperwork that included spelling out her scant profits and weighty losses. “We were at the end of our ropes. I had to put it all out there. It was like going on television naked.”
Since the July filming, the segment has aired several times, resulting in an 80 percent spike in sales fueled in part by the addition of dinner service, which Irvine insisted she introduce as part of the S.O.S. strategy. With two young children at home, Poon-Kinney initially balked at the idea, preferring to adhere only to her breakfast-lunch menus. Though as seen on national television, she struck a tense compromise with Irvine to add dinner—on Wednesdays through Saturdays. A majority of those dishes originate from Irvine and Food Network’s test kitchens.
As things like Gouda nachos and spaghetti with salmon meatballs began shaping the evening menu, the crew transformed the two-room interior to better reflect nearby Mission Trails as well as Poon-Kinney’s strong family ties. So, out went a non-cohesive mishmash of homey memorabilia and in came earthy green walls; tree branches rising from newly built plant boxes and slick subway tiles overlooking a remodeled lunch counter along the center wall. In addition, the designer enlarged several photographs of Poon-Kinney’s family members for an artful, poignant finish.
The end result feels both urban and suburban, which, according to Poon-Kinney, has helped attract a fresh patronage of LGBT and 20-something customers. And having the business splashed on reality TV has sparked “some of the busiest days we ever had,” she admits.
Visiting with a companion equally curious over the resulting dinner menu, we began with the Gouda nachos, opting for an add-on of spiced, seared tofu as a lighter alternative to pulled pork or chicken. While Dutch cheese and tofu seem like quirky components for nachos, the outcome proved somewhat conventional in flavor. Avocado and crumbled queso fresco come into play as well, thus keeping the chips anchored to familiar territory.
Also subtly creative—yet non-alienating—is Food Network’s version of tomato soup, made for The Trails with whispers of ginger and a curry foam topping. Its inclusion on the menu is comprehensive in that it can be paired with a 21st Century grilled cheese, encompassing a trio of curds on brioche. Other sandwiches include a Cobb wrap, a BLT with peppered Boursin and a “tofu-ritto” with black beans and tomato compote.
Items such as Buffalo wings, beef sliders and chicken mac-n-cheese are among the dishes that Poon-Kinney added herself, after the crew did its magic. Her great-grandmother’s recipe for meatloaf was no exception to the makeover; a savory blend of ground beef and sausage was adorned with light onion gravy and mashed potatoes. For the spuds, Irvine got his way in their construction, asserting they should be mashed only with butter, salt and pepper—and no milk. After tasting them, we were sold.
An eight-ounce tuna steak also reflects collaboration between Irvine and Poon-Kinney. The barbecue sauce on top is from the recipe box of Poon-Kinney’s father, who has invested heavily in the restaurant since it opened four years ago. The sauce is buoyantly flavored, non-spicy and works well with the tuna. Surrounding the fish was a moat of black beans, flaunting a perky, lime tang from squiggles of infused crema.
In our taste test between the restaurant’s ultra-silky cheesecake and Food Network’s flourless chocolate torte, we couldn’t name favorites. Both showed off exceptional pastry skills, with neither being too sweet or heavy.
When asked if sometimes crying on camera was worth the experience, Poon-Kinney expresses no regrets. “I knew that Robert would be barky,” she said, “but looking at sales from our initial air-date [of Sept. 21], we have broken records every day and we’ve nearly doubled our staff. My job now is to give people a reason beyond the show to come back.”