Celena's Grill and Sandwich Shop

Talk about out of the way! If I hadn't been bored and hungry while waiting for my car to be serviced at the Subaru dealership in Medford, I would never have come across Celena's Grill — and what a shame that would have been.

Inhabiting the corner of a modest strip mall between several automotive plazas and down the street from Cascade Christian High School, this little lunch spot is visible only by its simple gray sign. And the interior is no less unassuming. Five booths line one wall, and an array of small tables with iron chairs with vinyl cushions populate the small diner. Photos of bygone celebrities such as Dean Martin, Elvis and the cast of "Happy Days" keep everyone company.

The whole place is overseen by Celena, who peers out a window above the counter on the far wall.

"You've never been here before, sweetie?" asked the dark-haired woman, sizing me up as I skimmed the menu mounted above the window. I shook my head.

"Well, I'm famous for my teriyaki chicken. You want a little taste? You can get it any way you want — bento like that guy over there, but he's got it with mac instead of rice. Or in a wrap, or on a salad. Here's your sample, hon."

A little overwhelmed by such maternal friendliness, I accepted the sample. Mmmmm. Sweet, caramelized chewiness coating small chunks of charbroiled chicken. Perfectly cooked rice, moistened with mouth-wateringly juicy sauce. This I could support.

Trying to stay true to a low-carb outlook, I asked for a teriyaki chicken salad ($6.50 for small, $8 for large). A foil rectangle appeared before me, filled with shredded iceberg lettuce, sautéed onion, sliced peppericino, peeled and halved cucumber slices and half-moons of tomato, all topped with a mound of charbroiled teriyaki chicken pieces and a hefty portion of shredded cheddar cheese.

A side of conventional dressing — Thousand Island, Italian or ranch — accompanies the salad, but I was curious about the squeeze bottles of syrupy brown liquid and creamy red sauce that sat on each table. The first I surmised as teriyaki; the second as homemade "sweet chili sauce" (available by the bottle for $5 at the counter). A few squirts of chili sauce later and I was in some sort of Asian-street-food-meets-Southern-Oregon barbecue heaven.

Turns out Celena's success with teriyaki chicken isn't exactly a flash in the pan. She's been charbroiling about 400 pounds of fowl every week for 10 years and even offers catering and chicken by the pound ($9).

About the work, Celena remains as arched as her eyebrows: "I can't complain," she states simply. "It pays the bills."

And the regulars who line up for lunch are happy to help Celena out. They opt for chicken by the droves, but also choose the grilled-to-order beef bento over rice and corn ($7.75 for small; $8.75 for large), hot pastrami submarine sandwiches ($5.50 for half; $7.50 for whole) and burgers and fries (popular with neighboring high school students). A full selection of subs, including the Grinder with turkey, ham, roast beef, three cheeses and all the trimmings ($5.50 for half; $7.50 for whole), wraps, cold sandwiches, salads and combo meals are available.

Two intriguing items are the quesadilla with charbroiled chicken, cheese, sour cream and sweet chili sauce and the "mac" that so many diners seemed to be enjoying.

Turns out "mac" is Celena-speak for macaroni salad, made fresh daily. This elbow macaroni delight gets its creaminess from just the right amount of mayo, its flavor from specks of coarse ground black pepper and its subtle crunch from minutely chopped red pepper. A side on my way out ($1.50 for small; $2.50 for large) made me a believer, one who instinctively understood the unconventional rightness of pairing "mac" with corn and teriyaki chicken.

Beverages at Celena's Grill come from a self-serve soda fountain to the side of the counter. Desserts consist of candy bars, packaged ice cream treats and over-sized cookies.

The entire selection at this out-of-the-way sandwich shop tastes better thanks to the motto, which greets diners at the front door and is printed on every menu: "Celena puts love into everything she makes!"

That and a little sweet chili sauce, and you'll never visit another drive-through again.

— Jennifer Strange

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