RESTAURANT REVIEW : Coffee Shop Won't Steer You Wrong

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You definitely would buy a used car from Dawn Altieri over at the Galpin Ford dealership. Unfortunately, she doesn't sell them.

Altieri, a Maine native with the kindly demeanor of a favorite aunt, works as a waitress at Horseless Carriage, the restaurant on the Galpin lot. She's friendly, personable and honest, and typical of the waitresses here. When she shakes her head and tells you that the chicken is only so-so, you'd better believe it.

Wait a minute--a car dealership with a restaurant? Yep, you read it right. Galpin Ford is a huge sprawl of cars and showrooms along Roscoe Boulevard just east of the San Diego Freeway (to say nothing of Galpin Saturn, Lincoln-Mercury and Hyundai, strategically located next-door). It's so big, in fact, that it probably needs this place to feed all the employees.

The restaurant is a clubby, all-American coffee shop with dark wood paneling, red leather booths, a homey atmosphere--and squeaky clean, like the sport rims on a new Mustang. A number of the clients seem to be hungry car salesmen, but plenty of locals come for this food too, familiar fare that is as comforting as the scent of new vinyl.

The salesmen are easy to spot, by the way. They're the guys with the white shirts sitting on stools at the counter. Don't stare at 'em unless you wanna buy.

Great business concept, though. You can actually walk directly into the Ford showroom via the restaurant's back door. And who wouldn't, with all those beauties inside? In this setup, if you can't decide, say, between that new T-Bird or a good club sandwich, you've got the options right there. Wonderful country, America.

There may be as many good choices in this coffee shop than there are on the entire Galpin lot. Horseless Carriage makes almost everything from scratch, and this is a menu that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner at any hour the restaurant is open.

Morning fare such as fluffy homemade Belgian waffles, buttermilk biscuits with country gravy, Irish oatmeal and chicken liver omelets tempts you at any hour. And side dishes such as good Horseless Carriage home-style fried potatoes (loaded up with sour cream and green onion) are as satisfying at dinner as at breakfast.

The lunch menu turns to salads and sandwiches, typically large portions served with a variety of generous garnishes. The Horseless Carriage triple-decker club with a California touch has a long-winded sales pitch of a name, but turns out to be a limousine of a sandwich. It's lean turkey breast and thinly sliced pastrami on toasted rye, layered with lettuce, tomato, avocado and homemade thousand island dressing, accompanied by a good, finely shredded cole slaw and ho-hum fries. (I believe that the last are made from frozen potatoes, since they are so evenly cut and browned.)

The hot turkey sandwich is a winner too, thanks to a big pile of freshly roasted turkey and a chicken-rich yellow gravy. Horseless Carriage roasts turkey fresh daily, and the meat, a mix of dark and white, is moist and juicy. You can have the restaurant's credible mashed potatoes on top, but the sandwich is also good with its normal companion, a rich corn bread stuffing with a bit too much celery salt.

Dinners are huge and come with a choice of fresh, hearty soups such as lentil and chicken noodle, or a salad, as well as a basket of warm yeast rolls, which are great when you get them right out of the oven. The fried chicken (remember?) is indeed only so-so. It's pretty oily, and deep-fried, with a crackling skin. Old smokie refers to a large slab of tender, flavorful baby back ribs, served with a slightly sweet barbecue sauce . . . surely not to anything sold in the showroom.

Ground beef Acapulco is a giant hamburger, on the rare side, topped with grilled onion, green chili, Spanish sauce and melted cheese. Think of this one as a sort of hamburger fajita. And then there are the old standbys: standing rib roast (prime rib), fish and chips, pork chops and a somewhat disappointing, gristly New York steak. (The prime rib is a healthy cut, and an all-around better buy.)

Among the many desserts are a sticky-sweet, double-crusted mince pie drenched in brandy sauce; a warm, fudgey brownie served with a milk chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream; a few layer cakes (the waitress put me off the chocolate cake, saying it was dry), and the entire rainbow of pies. I had a hankering for lemon meringue, but they were out.

Sure. Who comes to a car dealer looking for lemons, anyway?

Suggested dishes: pork chops and eggs, $6.75; Horseless Carriage triple decker club, $5.95; old smokie, $8.50; hot fudge brownie, $3.50.

Horseless Carriage, 15505 Roscoe Blvd., North Hills, (818) 892-3707. Breakfast, lunch and dinner 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Beer and wine only. Self-parking in lot. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, $15 to $25.

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