Eat Local: Johnston’s Saltbox in San Carlos

Nothing brings out San Carlos residents like a new restaurant on Laurel Street! Johnston’s Saltbox, at the southern end of Laurel (cross-street: St. Francis), has been quite the draw since opening in early April. The team of Sean Johnston and Jennifer McAteer Johnston — he handles the front of the house, while she handles the kitchen — have created a casual neighborhood spot that focuses on fresh, seasonal dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.

The restaurant’s design is contemporary and warm — natural wood, dark countertops, lots of glass — with almost equal amounts of indoor and outdoor (patio) seating. During warmer weather, folding glass doors open up to bring the outside in, giving the restaurant an open, airy feel. If you live in San Carlos, this could be your new “local” —  it has that kind of homey, neighborhood hang-out vibe. Coolest thing about Johnston’s Saltbox? It has a rooftop kitchen garden! How’s that for locally sourced, garden-to-table ingredients?!

The menu is small and approachable: no fancy, unpronounceable ingredients or long-winded explanations, just good comfort food with a modern California twist. In terms of value-for-money, Johnston’s Saltbox is spot-on: portion sizes are healthy, and the dishes are well executed. The lunch menu focuses on salads and sandwiches, including a tartine (French-style open-faced sandwich) that changes daily. The dinner menu offers a couple of simple appetizers, daily soup, salad with rooftop garden ingredients, and about a half-dozen entrée options. Brunch, which I have yet to try, offers a mix of breakfast dishes and sandwiches.

Here’s the roundup of my recent dinner at Johnston’s Saltbox. As usual, I’ll hit the highlights of what I loved about this restaurant, starting with their you-can’t-eat-just-one, housemade potato chips.

Housemade Potato Chips and Dip
When there’s housemade potato chips and dip on the menu, you just say “yes.” These chips were fresh, thick-cut, yet crispy — and totally addictive. The onion dip was a nice touch that reminded me of the Lipton’s dip that I ate tons of when I was a kid — only better!

Thick-cut housemade potato chips with onion dip
Thick-cut housemade potato chips with onion dip

Asparagus Tempura
Next up was the asparagus tempura. This asparagus tempura beats the crap out of any tempura I’ve had at a Japanese restaurant. The coating was light and crispy, and the asparagus spears where fried just enough to be al dente, but not greasy.

Asparagus tempura with dipping sauce and arugula salad
Asparagus tempura with dipping sauce and arugula salad

Pan-Seared Halibut
Halibut season was just getting its groove on, so it was nice to see a seasonal, west coast fish on the menu. The fish was moist with a crispy exterior, and the nice assortment of vegetables made up for all the potato chips I ate (at least that’s what I’m telling myself)!

Pan-seared halibut with greens, potatoes, seasonal flowers
Pan-seared halibut with arugula, shaved fennel, potatoes, seasonal flowers

Pork Chop
The pork chop was substantial and beautifully cooked. I loved the classic take on the sides: greens, mashies, and a delicious compote that stood in for the classic apple sauce.

Man-sized pork chop with greens, mashed potatoes, and apple compote
Man-sized pork chop with greens, mashed potatoes, and apple-cherry compote

Lemon Tart and Strawberry Compote
The restaurant had two dessert options, and while it was a tough choice, this seasonal lemon tart and strawberry compote just seemed like an appropriate ending to the meal. The high notes for me were the combination of flavors and textures: creamy, tart, with a crispy crust, and very spring-like!

Lemon tart with strawberry compote
Lemon tart with strawberry compote

Service from beginning to end was outstanding. Despite a packed house, our server was on top of things, making sure our drinks were replenished and managing the timing of our courses. Everyone from hostess to server to busser was friendly and accommodating. The seating inside is a bit tight, but my dining companion and I ended up having some nice conversations with the folks on either side of our table, which just added to the casual, neighborhood feel. Overall, it was a nice mid-week night out! I’m looking forward to spending more time at Johnston’s Saltbox — maybe next time it will be warm enough enjoy a glass of wine (and those potato chips!) on the patio.

Have you been to Johnston’s Saltbox yet? What did you eat?

What: Johnston’s Saltbox
Where: 1696 Laurel Street, San Carlos, CA 94070
Phone: 650-592-7258
Hours: Tue-Fri 11:30am-2pm (lunch); Tue-Sat: 5:30-9pm (dinner); Sat-Sun: 10am-2:30pm (brunch)
Price: $$
Bar: Wine, beer
Tip: Johnston’s Saltbox doesn’t take reservations, so you’ll have to put your name on the list and wait for a table. Fortunately, you can grab a glass of wine or beer at the bar or on the patio while you wait. Also, given the table sizes, they can’t accommodate parties larger than 6.

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