For a brief period of my childhood, I wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. With her stars-and-stripes leotard and can-do American spunk, I mimicked her prancing, perfect-10 floor routine around my backyard. But then, that same heady year of 1984, I was introduced to a brilliant piece of cinematic history: the made-for-TV movie Nadia, chronicling the life of Nadia Comaneci. A child of the ’80s, I rooted for Nadia to escape her oppressive Commie life in Romania, and cheered with glee at that wacky Belya Karolyi and his anger-management issues.
I had no idea that a quarter-century later, I’d have a new Romanian obsession: meatballs. Specifically, I can’t get enough of the chifteles at Shades, the Ocean Beach neighborhood stalwart. Every restaurant should hope to
create something special and unique on its menu—something you can’t find anywhere else and that keeps people coming back. Though Shades has a tasty and family-friendly menu of restaurant staples—and I’ll get to the rest of the eats in a moment—these sweet balls of meat knock me out every time. They arrive soaked in an addictive sauce that’s a spicy, slightly exotic hybrid of sweet chili sauce and barbecue flavors. Chilies, brown sugar and black-pepper notes smother each knob of moist and tender beef. Soak up the remaining the sauce with the accompanying breadsticks so you don’t miss a drop.
But, yes, Shades has other things on the menu, and they’re tasty options indeed. The atmosphere is functional and nothing terribly exciting, but as beach food goes, you’ll find plenty of satisfying options. By the way, what is it about beachside restaurants? It often feels like your only choices are the extremes: The Marine Room or some terrible Seaport Village thing. Shades fills the space in between, with beautiful ocean views, the best people-watching in town and a tasty meal in a relaxed environment. Sure, it has the slightly messy vibe of a beach town as indifferently grungy as O.B., but what it lacks in style and trendiness, it makes up for with healthy and flavorful food.
Not only are the meatballs alone worth a trip, but the lobster bisque is one of the best in town, particularly for the value price of eight bucks. It’s rich and buttery with the right blend of salty lobster flavor with just a hint of sophisticated sherry.
The “Blankets,” or flatbread pizzas, are particularly yummy. I like the Virtue with grilled chicken, roasted yellow peppers and a butternut sauce, and the quirky Abbott, covered in salsa verde and rich, shredded roast pork.
I’ve been told one can’t eat meatballs every day of the year, so as the weather heats up, check out Shades’ cool salads. Though it’s a starter, I’m partial to the Cucumber Lime Couscous, a cool and refreshing blend of grains with lime juice, zucchini, green onions, cilantro, roasted red peppers and cucumbers.
Shades also has a well-stocked selection of sandwiches, burgers and paninis. In my effort to cram more vegetables into my diet, I investigated the Wisdom Veggie Panini and was not disappointed. It comes loaded with all sorts of goodness like meaty Portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers, greens and, to give it a little oomph, a pesto cream sauce and a healthy smear of goat cheese.
Shades does hopping business for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Make it a point to work your way through its collection of breakfast Benedicts, particularly the SoCal fave, Calamari Benedict.
It’s not gourmet gastronomy, and there’s nothing overly stylish about the environment, but the location is fun, the food is consistent and the meatballs alone are a perfect 10.
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