Eating Out: Mabel's Kitchen returns; Mezcal adds taqueria

The Fresno BeeFebruary 24, 2014 

Mabel's Kitchen is back.

The little lunchtime and bierock spot has reopened in the former Kern Street Coffee at 2134 Kern St.

If you remember, Mabel's was open downtown for about five months last year west of the railroad tracks in Tuolumne Hall. That spot didn't work out, but Mabel's owner Susan Valiant found a better location.

The new restaurant, next to the Downtown Club, has been open about a month. Valiant is luring customers with a friendly face, fresh-made baked goods and a back story that just makes you want to root for her.

Valiant is the woman behind the counter wearing a white baseball cap and glasses. People accidentally call her Mabel — Valiant's 93-year-old grandma, who the place is named after — but she's OK with that.

Let's start with the most delicious part of her story: the food. Mabel's sells all kinds of baked goods, including pull-apart bread, brownies and cookies.

Valiant bakes her own panini bread. She usually has French bread, a French bread with pickled peppers in it and a third bread that changes weekly, such as olive bread or challah.

Each sandwich — options are turkey and roasted tomato, a Cuban sandwich with roast pork, ham and dill pickle and a mushroom and pesto — is cooked in a panini press.

The peppers she pickles for the bread come from the Vineyard Farmers Market at Blackstone and Shaw avenues.

In fact, just about all the fruits and veggies you see in Mabel's come from that farmers market, including the citrus in the blood orange coffee cake and the red walnuts in the maple walnut shortbread.

"I don't think those people realize what an important part they played in my life," Valiant says.

She's had some tough times in the last few years. She fell out of a career as a dental technician after 20 years and after some job instability decided to do what she does best: Bake.

"It's not that I love it," she says. "I'm obsessed."

She sold her baked goods one holiday season at the Vineyard under the name Dolce Cucina. Her massive brownies — like big chocolately mountains you feel compelled to conquer — got people's attention. You can get the brownies at Mabel's.

The market gave her an opportunity to get to know other vendors and she started trading with them. Sometimes she'd trade brownies for cabbage that would go into her bierocks, or for blood oranges she made into jam.

"There's something to be said for being poor, to be creative in other ways and find my resources in other ways," she says.

Along the way she got her baked goods on the shelves of several of the upscale Dean & Deluca grocery stores. The trades helped her create new goodies that later were picked up by the retailer — and sometimes just helped her eat when she didn't have much cash.

When she got the Kern Street space, fruit vendor Vince Iwo loaned her money to buy the table that stores her sandwich ingredients. (She paid him back in cash, not brownies.)

Other people chipped in, too.

A used restaurant-grade sink worth $1,400 was a gift from an out-of-town man Valiant kept in touch with after making brownies for his daughter's wedding.

And her family has been there the entire time. Her grandmother, Mabel DeMorales, the former head cook at Roosevelt High School cafeteria, was the one who taught her to cook.

The bierock filling is Mabel's recipe, with Valiant adding her own twist on the bread. Bierocks are only sold on Tuesdays, or by special order.

The art on the walls was done by her grandfather. And a brother-in-law helped her deal with contractors while getting the new space ready.

She remembers telling him that the restaurant has to succeed.

"This is everything," she says. "I don't have a job. I've created my own job."

So far, it seems to be working. A small group of customers has followed her from the old space to the new one.

Mabel's is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Details are at www.mabelskitchenfresno.com and you can see what she is baking by following her Facebook page.

The restaurant is a little place, just 700 square feet. There are only a few tables, including one giant one that people don't seem to mind sharing.

"Mabel's came about just in time," Valiant says. "I still can't believe this place is mine. I'm blown away."

Mezcal

Also downtown, Mezcal Lounge is now Mezcal Lounge & Taqueria.

The club, at 1310 Van Ness Ave., has long been serving quesadillas, tacos, tortas and burritos in the evenings. Now downtown workers and others can get them for lunch.

The taqueria is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Prices are reasonable, starting at $4.99 for a cheese quesadilla and topping out at $12.95 for a shrimp and octopus cocktail.

The door to the taqueria is to the right of the club's main doors. And if you're used to thinking of Mezcal as that terra cotta building that stands out in a sea of office buildings, think again. It's been repainted a shade of bluish-gray and looks a lot different.

Details: (559) 264-1500 or facebook.com/mezcallounge.

Sbarro

The Sbarro in the food court at Fashion Fair mall was one of 155 locations nationwide that the pizza chain is closing.

The Fresno location closed last week, though other restaurants already have expressed interest in the spot and it should be filled soon, according to mall management.

Baskin Robbins

The Baskin Robbins and Togo's at 7685 N. Blackstone Ave., in the same shopping center as Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, is under new ownership. The franchise also underwent some remodeling and has reopened.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6431, bclough@fresnobee.com or @BethanyClough on Twitter. Read her blog on fresnobeehive.com.

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