6 minute read

Garden Kitchen Restaurant and Patio: Supporting a Small, Local, and Farm-to- Table San Diego Eatery

By Robin Dohrn-Simpson

My neighborhood in central San Diego is a prime area of the city located 15 minutes from anything— the beaches, the football stadium, and the mountains. That is everything except good restaurants.

“Why don’t we have any nice restaurants?” we would constantly ask our neighbors. No one had an answer.

After years of traveling to different areas of town, Coral Fodor Strong thankfully saw this area as a food desert and decided to take a chance. Was it the Jamaican flag flying at the rundown building she was looking at? Was it a sign from her favorite singer Bob Marley to put down restaurant roots? She thought it was and so she did—put down roots in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando.

At that point, Coral was only a home cook, but she was keen to owning her own business. Having no previous experience was not a problem for her. “I had a vision” she says, “and failure wasn’t an option.” She rented a fixer upper building and began to pour love—and elbow grease—into her project.

Her largest initial challenge was how to get business in the door.

“I wanted the business to grow organically, slowly and methodically so I could learn and grow along the way. I chose to never advertise, so there were nights when only one table would come in. Word of mouth was important to me, because I never wanted to be a trendy restaurant, I wanted customers who understood what I was doing with the food movement—customers who would seek out true farm-to-table cuisine, who wanted to eat cleaner food, and who would respect and be interested in food sourcing. I opened the restaurant in May 2015 and by September, I was feeling confident. By January 2016, I knew I’d made it.”

Chef Coral never meant to be the chef, rather the owner and manager, but life had other plans. Her first chef quit after a month, so she had to get in the kitchen and start cooking. On a self-funded budget, she quickly realized she couldn't find affordable talent.

“So, I kept on cooking. Once I started cooking, I realized it was a passion that I couldn’t let go. While I thought I was just a house cook, people kept coming back for more, so I knew I had created a special type of cuisine in my self-taught kitchen,” she says.

Having a unique daily menu is a challenge. “Focusing on being a true farm-to-table restaurant, and only working with the

produce from 10 San Diego farms, I knew I could only design a menu that was constantly changing, reflecting exactly what was growing in our San Diego soil.

Feeding my customers what is growing within 25 miles feels amazing. The relationship from farmer to chef is special; two people doing what they love, growing and cooking food. It was important for my menu to reflect EXACTLY what was being harvested that day or week. The idea that I’m directly dealing with the farm, and possibly helping them grow by financially aiding their dream is extremely fulfilling.”

Is it exhausting? “Yes,” she says. Coral has written and printed new menus every business day for 5½ years and can at times feel challenged with a lack of menu creation. She describes it as trying to find a new outfit to wear every single day. “I make an amazing dish that only produces a small amount, and it sells out. But the challenges are equal to the benefits.”

Philosophically there are two types of restaurant owners, those that do it for money, and those that do it for passion—Coral’s being the latter.

“The restaurant business is one of the hardest businesses you can be in” she says. “I've enjoyed cooking, feeding and entertaining my whole life. To me, there was no other option than to open a restaurant and teach my customers my philosophy — on why I chose a true farm-to-table ethos, with an ever-changing menu.”

We were meant to eat this way. Eating what is growing exclusively around us. It's the hardest work I've ever done, but it's also the most satisfying,” she says.

“Partnering with my husband in a restaurant was the worst/best decision I ever made— in that order. Initially, when only one partner has the vision (me), and the other partner is there to just help and support you (my husband), it can be difficult. He had a full-time job and no idea how a restaurant works. Eventually, he had his own great ideas. With his guidance, love, support, and ideas he helped shape Garden Kitchen in what it is today. We have truly built something very difficult, yet very special together.”

“It’s harder work than you'd ever imagine,” Garden Kitchen patio Coral says. “Customers generally have no idea of all the logistics and planning it takes to execute one perfect meal; employees don't always listen, product doesn't get delivered, and customers can misbehave. There are so many factors in a day that can make or break your business. I'd like to see more compassion with the average diner. Try wrangling 10-40 kittens, every single day, asking them to walk in a straight line to one spot. That’s what it's like running a restaurant.”

I must say that she runs a great one! Chef Coral‘s philosophy is to “Do what you love, and the rest will follow.”

Her success in an extremely tough business and market are certainly motivation to follow your dream. We just hope that some “big guy” business doesn’t come and grab her up and take away our little neighborhood secret- that‘s not so secret anymore.


Coral says, “I grew up on fish tacos because my father was a commercial fisherman. When I was growing up, my dad was able to bring home a small allotment. Now I recommend Catalina Offshore Products in San Diego.”

Fodor Family Fish Tacos

Ingredients (for tacos for two) 1 lb. white fish (4 x 4 oz. pieces, make sure to rinse and pat dry before use) I recommend fresh catch fish, preferably rock cod, halibut or gold spot bass. 4 corn tortillas

Cabbage & Pico de Gallo

1/2 cup shredded red or green cabbage 1 tomato, small chopped 1/2 cucumber, small diced 1/4 red white onion, small diced 2 Tbsp lime or lemon juice 2 Tbsp cilantro, chopped

Chipotle Sauce

6 oz. can chipotle de adobo 2 cups mayonnaise lime juice to taste

Tempura batter

great) 1 tsp cornstarch 1 tsp salt Bubble water (Pellegrino

For Frying

Cast iron skillet or small stock pot 4 cups canola or vegetable oil for frying (medium heat, or about 350°)


Assemble cabbage & pico de gallo ingredients in a bowl, toss gently and season to taste.

Whisk chipotle de adobo and mayonnaise in another bowl, add lemon or lime juice to get an almost runny consistency.

Whisk tempura batter until smooth. Consistency should be somewhat thick enough to coat the fish, but easily run off.

Season fish fillet with salt and pepper on both sides. Drop into tempura batter to coat well. Fry in oil for about 4 minutes, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels to remove excess oil. Salt the fried fish. Assemble on grilled or heated corn tortilla- chipotle sauce, fried fish, cabbage, pico de gallo.

1 cup flour (gluten free works works great)


Fish tacos, Courtesy Pexels