2930 University Avenue, North Park
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
North Park got a new ramen and yakitori gastropub this fall — I mean, another one. The Safe House opened in mid-October, taking over the long-vacant site of what used to be a beauty supply shop. Like the new Underbelly location, Safe House offers Japanese food and craft beer on tap. The similarities pretty much end there.
Whereas Underbelly had design input building out a slick, brand-new space with distinctive modern features, Safe House painted the walls and opened up some ceilings to reveal high, open rafters. Underbelly features fire tables and a be-seen-here patio. The Safe House has a couple of Nintendo 64 consoles. I'm betting the guys behind Safe House secretly hate Underbelly.
Actually, the N64 won me over. I dropped in for a late weekend brunch and happily played Mario Kart while sipping a Modus Hoperandi IPA from Ska Brewing. I also tried a decent tasting Coedo Kyara India Pale Lager from Japanese brewer Kyodo Shoji Coedo. Overall, Safe House puts its 30 taps to good use.
The brunch special stays pretty Japanese –—for 7 dollars you get a bowl of rice, a soft boiled egg, grilled kurobata sausage, pickled vegetables and miso soup. A variety of add-ons include vegetable curry, steamed bun egg sandwiches, shrimp tempura, and a 10-buck bottomless mimosa. I opted for a mini bowl of tonkatsu ramen, chicken karaage and pork belly steam bun.
I paused my Mario Kart race when the steamed bun arrived and we were off to a pretty good start. The bun was a little sweet, but the pork belly was a little salty, so together with a bit of cucumber I'd call it tasty enough. The Nintendo controller was pretty sensitive, so I had a little trouble pulling off my power slides.
My chopstick control was tested as well — it's not easy eating ramen out of a tiny bowl. The broth came off a little salty as well, though the noodles were on point and the char siu satisfying. The grilled kurobata seemed a little oily, but the savory char worked pretty well matched with the soft-boiled egg and rice. I'm not sure whether traditionalists would eat it this way, but — separate them into individual dishes all you want — if you serve me runny yolk, breakfast meat, and a starch, they will wind up on the same plate.
The fried chicken karaage didn't thrill me. I love fried chicken, but can't stand sweet fried chicken. I've come to expect a little sweetness from karaage, but these small boneless nuggets needed a little less sugar, and a little less time in the fryer. Not terrible, but not winning on its own. Maybe with a little curry…
The pickled veggies were kind of terrible. Too acidic, too tangy. I don't imagine they get a lot of play outside the brunch menu – they certainly wouldn't be a selling point.
But its my distinct impression that beer's the better selling point here. Underbelly's a restaurant that serves a few good beers. This place is a tap house that serves up some Japanese pub food — the kind of place best put to use to meet some friends, down some beers, play some vintage video games and snack when you get hungry, if you're in North Park and crave cheap Japanese food and don't want to be a part of the hipster scenery on Upas.