Waters Fine Foods & Catering
555 West C St. (Core/Columbia)
Prices: Soups and salads, $3 to $9; sandwiches, wraps and burgers, $7 to $9; deli case specialties, prices vary
Frank Sabatini Jr. | Downtown News
A friend who works at the southern edge of Little Italy considers the café by Waters Fine Foods & Catering a godsend. Prior to opening earlier this year, his lunch options were limited to sinful burritos and burgers from nearby eateries. Now he can eat quinoa salad and pole-caught tuna before returning to the office with a renewed spring in his step.
Located at ground level of a glassy high rise along the C Street trolley tracks, the craze for Waters’ wholesome sandwiches, salads and deli-case specialties is evident with lines out the door during the weekday lunch rush. So with the same friend in tow, we encroached around 1:30 p.m., when tables inside and on the roomy front patio were for the taking.
Owner Mary Kay Waters prides herself on using organic and sustainable ingredients from local purveyors. Breads, sauces and stocks are made from scratch, while the plates, cups and to-go boxes are all biodegradable. Big front windows suck in the daylight, which compliments the interior’s mossy green accents and deli case, which houses sparkling displays of everything from kale and quinoa salads to braised salmon and chicken enchiladas cloaked in fresh tomatillo sauce.
Yet despite the café’s healthy, low-fat credo, items such as buttermilk-battered Jidori chicken and luxurious mac-n-cheese find their way into the deli arrangement and play on our weaknesses, as they did to us.
The super-tender chicken breast was richly encased in crisp, tangy Southern goodness, though curiously greaseless. As for the panko-topped mac-n-cheese combining Jarlsberg, white cheddar and Parmesan, every kitchen in America could stand to learn the tricks for keeping their base cheese sauces this glossy and flavorful. It’s the best construct I’ve encountered in a decade.
Since launching her catering company more than 20 years ago, plus two other cafés in Bay Park and Solana Beach, Waters has assembled a team of chefs that collaborate on the recipes. Their dishes extend also to items on the regular menu and daily specials posted on craft paper. The plate presentations are fairly plain, given that the food is served on disposable paper ware. But the clean, gourmet quality of the food duly compensates.
From the panini category, the caprese was voted among the “top three favorite foods” by visitors at this summer’s Taste of Little Italy. Just when you’ve had your fill of mozzarella and tomatoes appearing on every menu in the universe, along come these two ingredients pressed between rosemary bread and layered with lemon aioli and pesto. The outcome is stimulating and overdue.
In addition to hand-formed Brandt Beef burgers, there is a veggie burger made with du Puy lentils, sweet potatoes and quinoa. But with a serving of herby quinoa already on our table along with a standard Greek salad kicked up with creamy French feta cheese, we opted for the turkey burger.
The white-dark meat patty meets its ideal condiment with the aforementioned lemon aioli. Crispy onions and red leaf lettuce add lively texture while the house-made bun (used for all of the burgers) adds a wisp of bakery freshness to the scheme.
Other options from the regular menu include tuna salad sandwiches made from pole-caught albacore; grilled Portobello on focaccia; BLT and vegetable wraps; handcrafted pizzas; and a variety of quiche that starts diminishing by late afternoon. Homemade desserts such as Valrhona chocolate cookies and superbly tart lemon bars are perched at the counter.
The café also sells boxed meals, should you decide to munch at your desk or residence or on the steps of a nearby office building. And for motorists who might shrug off eating here because of parking challenges, the above-ground lot is free for the first hour with validation. It’s accessible from Columbia and India streets.
Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene extensively for NBC; Pacific San Diego Magazine; San Diego Uptown News; Gay San Diego; Living in Style Magazine and The Gay & Lesbian Times. You can reach him at email@example.com.