Tuesday, April 5, 2011

South Park, North Park

1503 30th St
San Diego, CA 92101

It is not a good sign when only a week after a trip to San Diego I can’t remember the name of a restaurant I ate at on the first night. Lucky for me, notes help with memory lapse. The food at Alchemy was certainly memorable, a sort of best-of-the-best street food from around the world. Piquillo peppers stuffed with braised pork probably kept closest to the traditional roots of the restaurants’ tapas theme. Huaraches, thick black bean stuffed maize cakes topped with beef, nopales and cotija cheese , were one of those Mexican specialties that are like an old friend, one you don’t see every day but are really happy to when you do. Strangely, a simple plate of falafel was my favorite dish of the night. Maybe it is just that good Middle Eastern food is in short supply in San Diego, but I’d put these crisp chickpea fritters with their airy centers up against the best New York has to offer.

Ultimately the ease of forgetting Alchemy has nothing to do with the food but rather the general dullness of the place. Lighting was pleasantly soft. Servers were if anything overly knowledgeable in a Portlandian sort of way, overly describing the origins of each ingredient. And the noise level was low… low because no one else was there. In a medium sized restaurant, only having a few other tables seated during dinner hour left me feeling less with the sense of stumbling on an undiscovered gem, as having propped up a failing institution for one more night. If only the room emitted the same energy as the food, I might be eager for another global tapas trip, and maybe even remember the name this time around.

The Smoking Goat
3408 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104-4118

Have you ever told a child to place his hands firmly beneath his butt and not move them until you say so? I kind of wanted to do that to the chef from The Smoking Goat. Pan seared local grouper with smashed plantains and sweet potatoes? Stop there! No, don’t add the sautéed spinach with so much black pepper it made me wince. And put down the vanilla sauce! Save it for dessert. And those butternut squash ravioli? I so liked where you were going with the homemade pasta sheets and garnish of pan-fried Brussels sprout leaves. As much as I love pancetta and balsamic with Brussels sprouts, the only way I could taste the butternut squash filling through all those heavy garnishes was because a heavy dose of ground cloves to the pureed squash made it impossible not to taste.

And yet, I’d go back here. The place is small. When you are rubbing elbows with neighbors at the bar or bumping chair backs with the next table over, making friends is easy. The vibe is high energy without being frantic. And even though the restaurant pulls the very modern move of only making the menu available through their Facebook page (a problem for a non-social networker such as myself), the place itself is far removed from pretentious. The Smoking Goat is like a teenage brother whose talent is there, he just needs a bit more time to find himself. And when he does, I want to be there.

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