Had to try a side dish of macaroni and cheese made with stilton blue, cheddar, and gruyère, topped with buttered breadcrumbs. I love mac ’n’ cheese and keep seeking a great restaurant version, always encountering disappointments. The blue cheese raised my hopes, the dish itself dashed them — buttery and mild, with gruyère up front and the stronger cheeses suppressed. The pasta is a thick, hearty type (e.g., penne or ziti) and could handle more bite from strong cheese.
For our grand finale, Sam and I shared a wonderful Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew that blended hunks of salt cod with shrimp, mussels, Carlsbad clams (which, like the Carlsbad oysters, are very salty), piquillo peppers, and minced chistorra sausage, all in a lively, thin tomato-based broth, topped with a slab of bread coated with boldly garlicky aioli. We were both pleased by the lightness of the tomato presence and especially by the tenderness of all the seafood.
“I wish I had enough appetite left to try the charred octopus,” said Sam, “seeing that the kitchen’s good with seafood.” “Or the Belgian mussels in ale,” I added. But we also wanted the local asparagus salad with “45-minute egg,” an indication of slow-poaching sous-vide. And we’d love to try the duck wings in harissa (Moroccan spice paste) with cucumber-mint raita.
The hamburgers are made from semi-free-range, near-local Brandt beef (from Brawley), and “ground daily” is the signal that the meat is probably safe to order pretty rare, indicating no weird, germy ankle-trimmings from Brazil, Bolivia, et al. The “our way” version, dressed with that delicious aioli, includes cheddar, house-made bacon, and a fried egg, plus the usual veggies, As for the hotdogs, they’re made from scratch! Served “our way,” they’re topped Chicago style with pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, and sport peppers.
Among the sandwiches, the BLT is made with pork-belly confit, arugula, fried green tomatoes, and aioli. The reuben has house-made pastrami. The Italian sub has a house-cured salumi mixture plus provolone, et al. Even the grilled cheese sounds like grown-up bliss, with Sonoma Cheese Company cheddar on a brioche with a creamy tomato soup “back.”
There’s also an exciting selection of artisan California cheeses. Only problem: cheeses go best with wines. (Okay, some go with beers or ales.) I’ve read that somewhere in the realms of darkness here, there are wine vaults — but they’re apparently still largely empty. When we asked for a wine list, our waitress dashed to the bar and came back with a handwritten list of four California reds by the glass (including a pink zin), none of which Sam or I had ever heard of. I stuck with weak $10 margaritas, Sam experimented with various artisan beers. I presume that wines are on their way. (I’d also like to suggest that the creative-but-lean cocktail choices expand a bit into tropic trendy-land, e.g., caipirinhas, hurricanes, mojitos, maybe even something silly, like a “Blue Hawaii,” which is easy to make and not all that frou-frou. Being a “dive bar” doesn’t mean your cocktail list has to echo some godforsaken joint in Lubbock, Texas, circa 1975. I’ve already done enough Jack back in real dive bars before it was safe to order Chardonnay west of Chicago or east of California. I want fun drinks now, and I don’t wear no damn shiny shirts since a long, long time ago.)
In sum: difficult location, good place. Wish they’d taken over South Park Grille instead; that’d be more apropos for the menu and the attitude. “Serious casual food” is an oxymoron, but that’s precisely what’s happening here. As I said earlier, this was just a scout — Sam and I both want to come back and dive into the burgers, dogs, and sandwiches — but so far we like it lots.
789 Sixth Avenue (corner of F Street), 619-501-7675, qualitysocial.com.
HOURS: Weekdays 5:00 p.m.–2:00 a.m.; Friday–Saturday 11:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m.; Sundays 11:00 a.m.–midnight.
PRICES: “Bar snacks,” $2–$5; house-made charcuterie, $4 ($15/plate of five); artisanal cheeses, $3–$4 ($15/plate of four); starters and light entrées, $6–$15; hotdogs, burgers, sandwiches, $6–$13; sides, $5–$6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Creative, artisanal “pub grub” with mainly local seafood and vegetables, house-made ingredients. Long list of beers and booze, but pitiful choice of wines at present.
PICK HITS: Stuffed dates; pâté de campagne; Fisherman’s Stew. Good bets: Most of the menu, including local asparagus salad; duck wings; Brandt beef burger “our way” with egg, cheddar, aioli; Chicago-style “our way” house-made hotdog; sandwiches with house-cured meats (e.g., reuben, Italian sub).
NEED TO KNOW: This review is a “scout” rather than a full work-up; many dishes yet untasted. Exterior signs on restaurant say only “Food X.” Hip metrosexual ambience. Loud music (rock of ages, though mainly recent), dim lighting except at bar, no TVs, no bottle service, no disco, no “shiny shirts,” gobsmacked footballers, women named after booze varieties stronger than sherry, or women named Kardashian. Mainly carnivorous, a few lacto-vegetarian selections.