Catch some rays

Sunshine City Grill serves up comfort food and blasts from the past

click to enlarge JUST LIKE MOM'S: The meatloaf is one of many comfort foods at Sunshine City Grill. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
JUST LIKE MOM'S: The meatloaf is one of many comfort foods at Sunshine City Grill.

I'm not sure I get Sunshine City Grill. A quick glance at the menu and you might think that it's a throwback to the upscale diner trend of the '80s. There is meatloaf, after all, along with roast chicken, burgers and big slices of chocolate cake. Downscale food for upscale folks? '80s comfort food.

Heck, maybe comfort food doesn't go out of style. Sunshine's big slabs of meatloaf ($10.99) are moist, studded with soft hunks of onion, and, well, meaty in that indeterminate way that a mélange of beef, veal and pork can be. Just like mom's, if your mom was a pretty good cook. It even features a sauce that blends the unmistakable sweet tang of ketchup with toasty roasted peppers. Creamy mashed potatoes on the side? Yep, that's some comforting stuff.

The rest of the menu is loaded with pasta and steak and sandwiches, a mishmash of dishes that might compete with the Outback down the street or the more high-falutin' food on Central Avenue. So where does that put Sunshine City Grill in the restaurant continuum? Is it dumbed-down fine dining? Is it gussied-up chain fare? Let's call it a culinary museum dedicated to the past two decades of American dining.

That means that sesame-coated tuna ($10.99) has finally become déclassé, 'cause it's on this menu. All you chefs serving it with a straight face, consider yourself warned — it's fish kitsch. Here at Sunshine, the fanned slices are reminiscent of the metric ton of tuna I've consumed since the early '90s — red and rare with sesame that is (as it almost always is) chewy and stale. It's not Sunshine's fault. Like an over-exposed pop song, I think this dish needs a few decades rest before we can appreciate it again.

For more '90s grub, you can resort to towering twin crab cakes ($17.99) coated with a crisp cornmeal crust. Actually, these suckers are more reminiscent of the '80s — they manage to look good while tasting insipid. Each bite is a mucky morass of breadcrumbs and miniscule shellfish shreds. There's also a shocking amount of salt running through the cakes, perhaps to liven them up. The result? Crabby salt lick.

What, you think that crab cakes shouldn't be consigned to the culinary history books, or museums like Sunshine? These shellfish hockey pucks are on almost every menu in town, but when was the last time you had a good one? Crab cakes might be forever, but I say that they are done as ubiquitous seaside menu-filler.

Sunshine's décor is innocuous enough to fit just about any point of the past 20 years. It feels like — probably because it is — a space that has undergone several inexpensive renovations through several different restaurant concepts. The result is an innocuous blend of wood, carpet and tile staffed by young and eager servers. Not much of an identity, but it is the right backdrop for Sunshine's museum menu, I guess.

The place's real skills rest in the comfort-food realm. Homemade chips ($5.59) are beautifully browned and uber-crisp without losing that fundamental potato-ness that usually goes missing when poured from a bag. It's another '90s throwback, especially with the innocuous blue cheese sauce ladled on top, but it's a welcome trip through time. Heck, it's the best thing on the menu.

Steaks ($14.99-$19.99) are better than you might think, crusty and cooked to the perfect tint of pink, as ordered. Burgers ($6.99) are big and juicy, and roast chicken ($12.99) has crisp skin and almost-moist meat. You can also get steak and chicken on skewers with a spicy and rich peanut sauce ($5.99). Nothing fancy, just good meat on a stick. Sides of shredded veggies, caramelized and simple, are big winners. Big old roasted potatoes are crisp and salty.

Meat and potatoes. That's what Sunshine does well.

I wish it would translate into the other dishes. Pasta ($17.99) tossed with Sunshine's basil tomato cream sauce — which comes with several dishes — is a mess. With work, I can stretch and break a few strands onto my fork, but it would probably be easier to slice the seized starch with knife and fork. The dish isn't helped by afterthought toppings piled on. Although sliced steak — as expected — is good, a pile of tiny crab shreds are dried out and completely overpowered by the pungently herbaceous sauce.

So, what to do? Just don't expect much virtuosity out of the kitchen. Unless you count a meatloaf sandwich layered on baguette with pickles and cheese, and then pressed — kind of like a flat and crusty meatloaf Cuban ($7.99). Or a po' boy ($8.59) piled with crispy fried shrimp and spicy sauce. It doesn't take a lot of talent to make a sandwich like this, but it does take a deep understanding of human desires.

So does the preternaturally moist chocolate cake ($4.59) and peanut butter pie ($4.59), rich enough to fatten you up for the winter. Sunshine also puts out a big spread for an all-you-can-eat brunch ($9.99) that fills the house on the weekends. All-you-can-eat never goes out of style.

Is there room for a restaurant that specializes in recent historical re-creation? Considering how busy Sunshine gets, even on weeknights, it seems likely. Think of it as an oldies station for food. "We play your favorite smooth food hits from the '80s and '90s!"

If that's your bag, you might want to tune in to Sunshine City Grill.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.