Pass the Salt 

Joe Mama's Grill offers good coffee—but the food and service fail to impress

The Killer Mama burger with fries at Joe Mama's Grill.

Emily Jones

The Killer Mama burger with fries at Joe Mama's Grill.

The very first Star Trek episode to air was called "The Man Trap." A team from the Enterprise (Kirk, Bones and someone named Darnell) lands on planet M-113, where a married couple of archeologists live. Things get complicated right away, because the wife, Nancy, and Bones had a fling in their youth—but we later learn that each of the crew members sees Nancy as a different woman.

Long story short, the woman is a shape-shifting "salt vampire" who will do anything to satisfy her need for salt. I don't recall how the crew vanquishes the salt vampire, but needless to say, they continue boldly going where no man has gone before.

It seems that a salt vampire is residing at Joe Mama's Grill on Oracle Road. It's the only explanation for the food there, which we found to be lacking in salt. Salt has a somewhat negative reputation these days, but it is the most essential ingredient in food prep; it can bring out the flavor of the other ingredients in both savory and sweet dishes. Too much salt or too little salt, and a dish is ruined.

Since Joe Mama's is a fast-casual spot, you order at a counter—a long, gleaming counter. The decor hasn't changed much since the building's previous incarnation; it's sparse and has a sort of "chain" feel to it.

A large menu is on one wall. It included some intriguing options: omelettes and other breakfast items, burgers, sandwiches, salads and house-made baked goods (which are displayed near the ordering counter—all the better to tempt you).

There's an assortment of house burgers, but we opted for a "custom burger" ($6.99) with blue-cheese crumbles (an additional 99 cents) lettuce, avocado (49 cents) and Thousand Island dressing. There's a plethora of other burger-topping options; the menu says the meat is grass-fed beef.

Burgers are supposed to be juicy and oozing with beefy flavor—but this burger just wasn't. Even all of those great toppings didn't help. Stuffed into a dry bun and served at room temperature, this burger was a disappointment.

The Southwest eggs Benedict ($6.99) arrived at the table a bit later. This dish—one of my all-time favorites—comes with jalapeño cornbread, chorizo and a pesto hollandaise, along with the poached eggs. With all of that going on, this dish should've popped with flavor, but like the burger, it was bland—even the chorizo. The only thing you could really taste was the pesto (an odd choice for a "Southwest" dish). The fruit kabob that accompanied it was the only bright spot.

We hoped for better food on visit No. 2, but alas, it wasn't to be. We ordered the French toast kabobs ($5.99), the Nob Hill omelette ($8.49), a cinnamon roll ($1.49), a side of bacon (two pieces for $1.49) and two coffees ($1.99 each). With tax and tip, that adds up to more than $25 for breakfast.

We got our coffee at the condiment bar, and sat down and waited ... and waited.

First to the table was the omelette; then we waited some more before the other plates arrived—and both entrées were served lukewarm. Timing is everything in this business. However, the place wasn't busy, and there were a sufficient number of people cooking in the open kitchen and serving. They were all friendly, but this shouldn't have happened.

The French toast kabobs were big, puffy chunks of French toast on a stick. Syrup and yogurt were served on the side—but there was no butter. Texturally, this was a clever take, but again, the dish was missing the basic flavors that make French toast such a treat.

The Nob Hill omelette was filled with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, organic baby spinach and artichoke hearts. We ordered it with rosemary potatoes (other choices include hash browns or a fruit kabob) and a biscuit (other choices are toast or tortillas). The only flavor in the omelette came from the cheese (and only about half of the dish had cheese in it). The buttermilk biscuit was flaky and light, but it needed salt. Even the cinnamon roll fell short, thanks to too much icing, which dominated any cinnamon spiciness.

As a plus, the server did offer samples to everyone of a house treat called muffcakes (50 cents)—gem-sized muffins in the flavor of the day (tropical fruit with lime-cream-cheese filling). It was a nice touch.

A "modern diner" is a great idea for a restaurant. But in order to be successful, there has to be a plan in place that incorporates timing, service, pricing and the concept that salt, when used properly, is a chef's best friend.


More by Rita Connelly

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