The Big Kitchen Café
3003 Grape St.
San Diego, CA 92102
Review by Emma Goldman
“Kindness Matters.” The sign tacked above the doorframe leading into the kitchen caught my eye as my 9 year-old and I took a seat at the horseshoe shaped counter that hunkers down in the center of the main dining room of the Big Kitchen Café, a Greater Golden Hill/South Park institution.
As we waited for one of the bevy of young servers to come get our order, we couldn’t keep from scanning the heavily festooned walls—customers’ family photos, progressive bumper stickers, band flyers, necklaces, cartoons, feathers, pastel teapots, mandalas, salt and pepper shakers in funny shapes, kids’ art, magazine covers touting the restaurant, plaques of appreciation, etc.
There is no other place in San Diego like the Big Kitchen, a community center and diner that has anchored Greater Golden Hill since the early-‘70s. And at its helm, of course, is its warm and irrepressible owner, Judy “the Beauty on Duty” Forman, who is the very soul of kindness. (See Kelly Mayhew and Jim Miller’s interview in the SD Free Press for more on Forman.)
My boy and I were out for a mother-son breakfast in our neighborhood before his little league game at Morley Field. As we settled into our spinning chairs under the benevolent eye of a life-sized, hand painted Jerry Garcia cutout, we chatted about what we wanted to eat. The place of the Big Kitchen—its very nature as a neighborhood establishment—often overshadows considerations of its food, which should never be overlooked. We surveyed the packed menu and took some time making our choices.
Breakfast at the Big Kitchen requires a BIG appetite. The pancakes overflow the plates. Fillings explode out of their omelets. And the coffee cake…well, if you’re thinking you’re going to have just a small snack before the real star of the show comes, guess again. The coffee cake, redolent of brown sugar, cinnamon, and citrus, isn’t merely something to nibble on. In other words, not only does the restaurant aim to give its patrons a neighborly respite, it feeds your belly for the whole day in the process. And lunch is no small potatoes either. But more on that later.
The sweetly attentive wait staff took our orders after allowing us enough time to finally make our decisions and sip our squeezed-to-order orange juice. Since I’ve been trying to eat a tad healthier, I ordered the Veggie and Cheese Omelet. It came with the Big Kitchen’s signature fried potatoes with onions and herbs along with a plate of wheat toast. The egg in the omelet was perfectly cooked—light and fluffy. Crammed into it were big chunks of sautéed mushrooms and zucchini, grilled onions and green peppers, and fresh spinach, to which I had them add roasted garlic. A creamy Monterrey jack cheese completed this hearty offering.
My son, who was given carte blanche for his order, decided on a daring early morning concoction of “Mack n’ Cheese” with a side of bacon. His bowl of cheddar-y elbow macaroni was made for crumbles of the thick-cut bacon slices the Big Kitchen serves up. Though unconventional as breakfast, it satisfied my growing kid’s appetite and fueled him up for his time on the baseball diamond.
All of the Big Kitchen’s breakfasts have been road-tested, as you can see in its comprehensive menu. As Forman discusses in her interview Big Kitchen customers created many of the dishes. As has Judy herself, of course. For example, I order almost all of my breakfasts (especially the scrambles) with roasted garlic because she suggested it to me. It certainly rounds out many of the egg dishes—as does the fiery hot sauce that comes in a squeeze bottle. It has a lot more flavor than your typical taco sauce, but just be careful not to confuse its squeeze bottle with that of the ketchup’s as my dad once did. Yikes!
If you don’t feel like eating eggs or pancakes, or you think it’s too late for breakfast (in my book, it never is), the Big Kitchen also serves lunch.
Every Monday through Friday there are hot plate specials such as lasagna, meatloaf, or turkey dinner—all homemade with fresh ingredients. There are also generous salads and sandwiches. When I go in for lunch, it’s hard not to order the Turkey Sandwich since the Big Kitchen actually roasts fresh turkey breasts for it. This means you can have Thanksgiving leftover turkey sandwiches throughout the year.
There are also burgers with creative toppings (or innards as Jaime’s bacon stuffed one shows), for which most of them you can substitute a vegetarian patty. But a lot of patrons come to the Big Kitchen to have the wide array of veggie options—sautéed or steamed veggies over brown rice with or without tofu, egg, or, of course, roasted garlic.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, the Big Kitchen has clearly kept you well in mind. Glancing over the lunch menu after my son had ordered his Mack n’ Cheese, I was briefly tempted to join him in his unconventional breakfast.
Midway through our chow, Judy stopped by to say hello. Every morning she is a whirlwind of activity, finding her customers any available seats, grabbing cups of coffee, squeezing the elbows of long-time—and new—friends, cracking jokes, and suggesting dishes. You can hear her gravelly “Tres bien!” almost everywhere in the restaurant. If you’re sitting at a booth, she’ll plop down next to you, help you decide what to order, and get your life story in the process.
A meal at the Big Kitchen isn’t just eating, it’s truly communing and at the center of it all is Forman. Her generosity extends beyond her customers to her staff—many are kids she’s helped through rough patches in their lives. Or they’re young adults who need a steady job. Whoopi Goldberg famously waited tables at the Big Kitchen before she made it big. It’s no wonder that Judy went from being a social worker to slinging hash in a neighborhood diner.
When you eat there, the food tastes so good because you are treated well. You, in turn, reach out to your neighbors. My son and I got into a lively conversation about education with a nice fellow sitting across from us. He’d stopped off on his way home to grab some oatmeal and company.
As the website puts it:
“The Big Kitchen Restaurant is a place where the body is nourished along with the soul. The interaction that takes place at the counter and booths has brought about an incredible community. As a community we have shared many profound human experiences; an excellent sense of humor, art, music, theater and friendship all have contributed to this creation. Oh yes, our food is excellent, too.”
And that’s the beauty of Judy the Beauty on Duty’s Big Kitchen Café. It’s a place where kindness—and good, soul-satisfying food—matters.