by Nick Schou
If you’ve ever had breakfast or lunch at the Montecito Coffee Shop – it’s the restaurant next to the San Ysidro Pharmacy at the intersection of East Valley and San Ysidro roads – then you may have been waited on by a petite and unassuming woman who seems to know her way around the establishment. As it happens, Debbie Ousey, the waitress in question, is also the owner of the coffee shop and has been for the past 17 years. Before that, Ousey worked at the restaurant for 19 years as a waitress, so some habits just die hard.
“I’m a waitress, but I’m known to be the cook, too,” Ousey tells me on a recent morning during her shift break. “It’s a small place. A year ago, we had a cook who was very ill and I was the cook until we found a replacement.”
Ousey was born in Canada to British parents but grew up in Santa Barbara. She began working in the restaurant business at a young age: her parents ran a continental style seafood restaurant in town called the Encina. “They did a lot of catering to the community, doctors, the temple, and other big meals, and anyways, we all started working when we were thirteen,” Ousey says. “I started working here at the coffee shop for the previous owner at age twenty.”
Throughout her career as a waitress, Ousey says she always worked more than one job. “I always had more than one job to survive,” she recalls. “And I always wanted a good car, so I came up with side jobs, be it house sitting or dog sitting, working a second waitress job at night or on weekends, catering to private parties to make a little extra money. I even did massage therapy.”
Sometime in the 1940s, the pharmacy and restaurant first opened for business. “Nobody has an exact date, but my understanding was the owner of the pharmacy was at one point the owner of the restaurant as well, until they retired and sold the property to Mero Susnar,” a Serbian-American real estate developer. Susnar held onto the property for two decades before retiring to Florida, at which point, the restaurant became available, and in 2003, Ousey bought it.
According to Ousey, customers likely didn’t notice much change to the menu, at least not at first. “I think the concept worked very well, so I kept it mainly the way it was and over time added some of my input,” she explains. “I’m not a bad cook myself and came from that kind of background, so I wasn’t ignorant of food or how to get around a kitchen.”
The Montecito Coffee Shop has been open without a hitch except for during the aftermath of the 2018 debris flows when it was forced to close for 43 days. “Everybody was closed; we weren’t alone,” Ousey says. “But after we reopened, I was really ready for new chairs. It was time for a facelift.”
Because the coffee shop is so cozy, Ousey says all the food is twice as fresh as what you’d find at larger establishments. “We’re not cheap, but everything is fresh,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of room to store a lot of stuff, so it costs us more money to have everything delivered fresh daily. The tuna salad is made every day, the chicken salad is made every day. If it’s not sold by the third day, it’s out.”
The coffee shop’s menu ranges from oatmeal, scrambles, huevos rancheros, and omelets for breakfast to salads, sandwiches, and burgers for lunch. But regulars, many of whom have been eating there for decades, know the restaurant’s secret weapon is the soup, the stock of which is made from freshly roasted turkeys.
“The stocks for our soup are made fresh every day,” Ousey explains. (On the day I met Ousey at the shop, the soup of the day was turkey broth with arugula, roasted pine nuts, and goat cheese, which made for a delicious and well-textured meal in a cup.)
Ousey isn’t shy about the soup’s merits. “The soups are the best,” she says with a straightforward smile. “I don’t eat soups anywhere else. I don’t even make my own.”
Montecito Coffee Shop is open daily at 7 am until 2:30 pm (8 am to 2 pm on Sundays) and is located at 1498 East Valley Road. 805-969-6250. Montecitocoffeeshop.com. (Although there is currently no dine-in service, take-out is available until the coronavirus pandemic blows over.)