Behind the $15 lunch

North Park's Encontro serves steak from Cardiff

Cardiff Crack Sando, with marinated tri-tip, and a side of potato chips
  • Cardiff Crack Sando, with marinated tri-tip, and a side of potato chips

I’ve gotten used to paying 15 dollars for lunch. I remember days that would seem outlandish, but these days I’m unfazed by $15, when that charge includes tax and tip. That’s usually for a sandwich and a side, whether it’s a burger and fries or fried chicken sandwich with a side salad. But lately, I’m seeing that $15 number appear on menus, meaning the actual cost of lunch veers closer to $18. Consider me fazed.

Encontro North Park

3001 University Avenue, North Park

There are obvious culprits. Rising real estate costs. Rising cost of goods. A raised minimum wage that applies to all employees regardless whether they receive tips. Some restaurants stage a protest of this last one, by adding a service surcharge to each bill, so that customers know just how pissed off the restaurateur is about the rising costs of doing business in California.

On a busy corner in North Park

On a busy corner in North Park

I’m not convinced that’s the best way to impress customers, but I suppose the alternative is the $15 sandwich and potatoes.

That 15 bucks may be enough to chase away customers, which is a shame when it comes to a place like Encontro North Park. When the place opened nearly three years ago, I was impressed by its beer list, less so by its food. I was served basic ingredients, with so-so presentation, and was tempted to write the place off.

But Encontro has a marvelous location, on the southeast corner of the neighborhood hub, University and 30th Street. It’s got outward-facing counter seating so you may choose to sit and watch North Park street life, and again, the beer list was solid. So I’ve gone back a few times, and I’m glad I did. The food has gotten better.

And most of its sandwiches don’t cost $15 — yet. They mostly go for $13 or $14. But the menu’s featured sandwich, the best I’ve tried so far, at least justifies the cost. The Cardiff Crack Sando gets its name from the Burgundy-pepper-marinated tri-tip at Cardiff-by-the-Sea mainstay, Seaside Market. Encontro is the only other place to serve this Cardiff Crack tri-tip.

Dressed with goat cheese, pickled red onions, and oven-roasted tomatoes, there’s loads of flavor squeezed between the two halves of ciabatta roll, but it’s the beef that makes it a winner. It’s served standard with house-made potato chips, and their fresh crispiness made me glad I didn’t upgrade to French fries for an extra buck (or truffle fries for two).

It’s not huge, and a $15 chicken sandwich of this size might have irked me, but factoring in its prime location, it’s tough for me to gripe about this much for a steak sandwich in North Park. I’m sure others will disagree; I remember when $8 lunch was a luxury, and I’m sure there are plenty among us who can recall paying five bucks prior to tip. All the more reason to vote in every election.

That said, I balked at ordering a pint of beer for eight dollars. That's just untenable, Encontro. We beer drinkers have got to draw the line somewhere!

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