1450 Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park
3416 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
3025 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
It wasn't long ago that I heard the proprietors of Tiger! Tiger! and Blind Lady Ale House had won the contract to open an eatery in the Sculpture Garden Court outside the Museum of Art in Balboa Park. So while strolling El Prado the other day, I was a little surprised to find Panama 66 already open for business.
Apparently, it's still a so-called soft opening, which in this case means limited lunch and weekend brunch hours and a temporary bar setup offering only ten of the anticipated 20-25 locals-only handles.
I'm not sure if the beer aspect of the BLAH group's proposal is what earned them the opportunity to open here, but it would certainly make sense. Like me, many tourists had just come out of the truly enjoyable Beerology exhibit next door at the Museum of Man, exited into the hot summer sun craving liquid gold, and were more than happy to discover Panama 66 could accommodate. Unfortunately, none of us found the historical Incan beer we'd just learned about, fermented from maize chewed up and spit out by virgin high priestesses, but I suppose the likes of Green Flash and Lost Abbey would suffice.
So, I bellied up to the bar and made the first difficult decision of the day: which beer to drink with lunch? Speedway Stout? Sculpin IPA? Not with the temperature pushing into the mid 80's. I settled on the Benchmark Blond, a refreshing summer choice, and then only needed a sandwich.
The kitchen's tucked back in the bowels of the museum somewhere, churning out hot and cold sandwiches. A cold one on a day like this would have made sense, but a number of food items on the locally sourced menu attracted attention. There was the Tiger! Tiger! bratwurst, tried and true, and a panko-crusted mushroom and lentil patty, a curiosity. But I had to go with the roast beef and broccoli rabe with provolone and horseradish cream.
This take on the famous sandwich from Tommy DiNic's in Philly has turned up on food shows here and there and piqued my interest, so I was glad to find it here in town. I was especially glad when it turned out to be good. The bitterness of the rabe and tartness of the horseradish played well off the juiciness of the wood-fired roast beef, but if anything tied this sandwich together it was the excellent house-baked roll. This thing cradled each bite superbly, neither too dry to chew nor too wet to hold its shape.
It's kind of funny to find a great East Coast sandwich in such an otherwise San Diego-oriented place, but no complaints. The truth is, even when they put up some shade, install a permanent bar, and start offering picnic blankets for those wishing to eat in the grass of the Sculpture Garden, Panama 66 will still likely serve more tourists than locals. But on free-museum Tuesdays, I know which El Prado eatery I'll be gravitating to from now on.