Crest Café is a family owned and operated restaurant, started by Luis Moreno and inspired by dishes that were created by his mother (affectionately referred to as Grandma Julie by those at the restaurant). She frequently worked in her kitchen, spending countless hours crafting and perfecting traditional dishes from her native Mexico. While she worked, a young Ruben Medina, her grandson, watched and helped with a keen eye as she showed him all the secrets of creating savory and fresh Mexican cuisine. For nearly twenty-two years he watched and learned from this great teacher, and now he is the Executive Chef at Crest Café, continuing the legacy of Grandma Julie and - along with the rest of his family at Crest Café – ensuring that her recipes and techniques live on in this understated Hillcrest café.
I ask the forty-year-old San Diego native about what dishes he remembers most from his days in the kitchen with Grandma Julie. He replies easily with “enchiladas; and really good albondigas soup.” He also tells me about his favorite dish of Grandma Julie’s that wasn’t necessarily prepared casually: “Tamales, they were my favorite. She made pork and beef. We also made sweet tamales, but only once in a while because they took so much time. They were the best.” I ask what kind of tamale sauce she used and he says that she made her own from scratch -- the mark of a truly fine tamale maker. Since then he has put together a few recipe books with Grandma Julie and gives a lot of credit to her for inspiring his passion to cook. “I love to eat and I love all sorts of ingredients and dishes. Some people are picky and don’t like to eat some things, but I love everything.”
Chef Ruben also gives a lot of credit for his culinary career to his Uncle Luis. Ruben’s first restaurant job was at one of Luis’ restaurants, Casa Salsa, where he worked as a dishwasher and prep cook learning the tricks of the trade. He furthered his kitchen education at a local restaurant called Littlefield’s, where he also worked as a dishwasher, prep cook, and busboy. He finally found his way to the Crest Café in 1988, where he continued to work as a dishwasher and prep cook. Under the tutelage of then Chef Billy Cruz, Ruben learned the inner workings of the kitchen and the various managerial duties of an Executive Chef. Before long, Ruben was playing a larger role in the kitchen and eventually rose to the ranks of Executive Chef.
I ask Chef Ruben what his favorite ingredients to work with are at the restaurant and he responds simply: “Desserts: I have a big sweet tooth.” While the majority of the restaurant’s desserts come from local bakeries, the sweets that are made there all have the Ruben Medina touch, including his specialties: Peach Cobbler and Deep Dish Apple Pie. Chef Ruben also recalls fond memories of making flan for La Salsa, a franchise that Luis Moreno worked with. I ask what Chef Ruben’s favorite dessert is to eat: “Cheesecake. I’ve tried making it at the restaurant a couple of times and it hasn’t really worked out, but I love cheesecake. The carrot cake we serve at the café is also really good.” While cheesecake hasn’t quite made it on the menu at the Crest Café, Chef Ruben still likes to experiment with his own cheesecake creation on his days off.
When he mentions cooking on his day off, I become curious: “What do you like to eat on your days off?” I inquire. He describes a small Mexican restaurant where he goes to buy caldo de res (beef and vegetable stew) whenever he can. I ask if he prefers smaller taco shops to the larger, fine dining Mexican restaurants and he agrees, noting that the food at the larger restaurants just isn’t the same. He also mentions that, while he’s the head chef at Crest Café, on his days off he’s also the head chef at home for his wife and two children. He goes on to note that his children like him to cook breakfast on Saturday mornings. His children like him to make dishes similar to the ones he makes at the restaurant. For his daughter, it’s French toast similar to the Crème Brulee French Toast at Crest Café, and his son likes the pancakes from the Midwestern Madness dish: buttermilk pancakes with chunks of bacon mixed in with the batter. His daughter even inherited her father’s sweet tooth; he’s teaching her about baking and desserts and even hopes to bring her into the restaurant to teach her in the near future, ensuring that the restaurant will stay in the family for future generations.
I ask Chef Ruben what the future holds for him, and of his plans to continue his work at Crest Café. He likes how all the dishes and ingredients are homemade from scratch – and that includes sauces, dressings, and freshly cooked meats. He says it’s unique and that it would be difficult to find another place that employs those techniques. He also likes the amount of regular customers the restaurant receives and how comfortable they are when they come in. He likes to eat, loves fresh ingredients, and creating a full meal for a happy customer. He wants to continue to experiment and create good food made from scratch, and he’s able to do that at the Crest Café. “As long as I’m here, it will stay that way.”