3794 30th Street, North Park
The Linkery "We don't take reservations, we're just a neighborhood bistro," said the voice on the telephone. "But if you tell us how many there are in your party, we'll make sure we have a table for you." We were headed for dinner at the Linkery, North Park's newest eatery. A culinary near-wasteland just a year ago, the southern part of this neighborhood has begun sprouting restaurants faster than my lawn grows dandelions. "Five and a half," I said, and the guy on the phone immediately got the joke. (In addition to my partner and me, our group included our delightful next-door neighbors, Laurie and Francisco, and their eight-year-old son Frankie, who would devote the entire evening to vividly re-enacting The Revenge of the Sith. )
The Linkery is a hip café that features made-from-scratch artisan cuisine just a tofu-cube short of organic. Costly certified-organic foods mean higher menu prices, so the chefs here use local, sustainably raised products whenever possible. According to what's fresh and seasonal from that day's market, you're likely to encounter variations in some dishes from the printed menu.
Befitting the restaurant's name, each day the chefs make three unique types of links, all fresh (uncured) and nitrate-free. The array typically includes two meat sausages and one chicken, plus chorizo on weekends, with spice levels running from mild to hot. Some are traditional ethnic recipes (e.g., weisswurst, linguiça), others are original creations. You can sample them four different ways, ranging from a single link added to another dish ($4) to a picnic plate ($13) with two links and two cheeses of choice, plus mustard, tomatillo salsa, and hearty peasant-style bread (from Bread on Market).
Check out the chalkboard to your left as you enter -- it lists the day's sausages, the three farmstead cheeses, and the entrée special. The main dining room, around the corner from the entry, is trim and modern with a stone-tiled floor, pine-patterned plastic paneling, and terra cotta-colored walls hung with oil paintings. Conversations echo against the hard surfaces. There are blond-wood tables of various sizes and heights, with the tallest up against the front windows -- the better to show off the buff young patrons who prefer those altitudes. The ambient music is cool and eclectic -- Elvis, Fess Longhair, Lady Day, Dino, and gringo Tex-Mex conjuntos sing in turn.
A roaring gas grill turns out dishes as flavorful and unfussy as at a fine cook's back-yard barbecue. The appetizers center on seasonal veggies, grilled and dressed. Blistered green beans were so delicious in their ginger-soy sauce that Frankie the Kid fell on them like one of those starving children of China our moms always cited to make us clean our plates. I particularly enjoyed the asparagus spears in a delicate rosemary-chili oil.
An exuberant "Herb Salad" featured rocket (arugula), spinach, mint, cilantro, and tangerine sections, topped with pine nuts, Cotija cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette. Piquant, sweet, nutty, and creamy, this complex of flavors is worthy of an entrée -- it also wasn't lost on Frankie the Kid, who interrupted his movie re-enactment for several (blissfully silent) minutes to gobble it down.
The all-around favorite entrée was a thick "natural" pork chop (not precious Niman, but from a swine raised without hormones or antibiotics). It arrived charred, yet pinky-brown inside, topped with a grilled "apple salsa" of chewy-crisp, smoky chunks of caramelized fruit. Alongside were thin slices of yam and leaves of grilled Belgian endive stuffed with blue cheese. (Boy, did I love that.) Its rival was an airline cut of chicken (a half-breast with attached wing drumette). "Wow!" my partner said at first bite. "Is this a free-range chicken?" he asked the waitress. "No, it has no pedigree at all," she answered. "It's just plain chicken, but the chefs here know how to cook it." The bird came off the grill moist and tender, its crackling-crisp skin glazed with apricot. Its companions were arugula with a fierce, flavorful honey-mustard dressing, and a mound of coarsely mashed celeriac (celery root), which needed more peeling and would have benefited from a dab of butter and/or cream to fulfill its potential as an alternative to mashed potatoes. (Incidentally, vegetarians can substitute grilled tofu or portobellos for the flesh.)
In "Surf and Turf, Linkery Style," the surf consists of tender shrimps swathed in a tingly chili-lime-cilantro foam that dances on the tongue. The turf is a charbroiled flatiron steak (a relatively tender cut of the shoulder chuck) from Omaha Meats -- the famous butcher whose higher-end steaks have lost so many food-mag comparison tests due to their blandness. The flatiron tastes pretty flat, too, especially for a hunk o' chuck. The menu says that the meat comes topped with pineapple butter with a side of corn-mint purée, which might have helped. That evening, it was served with avocado slices and arugula.
"Link and Choucroute" proved a minimalist gesture in the direction of Alsatian choucroute garni, which usually includes cured meats and sausages arranged on wine-cooked sauerkraut. Here, the sauerkraut is cooked in Alsatian wine and garnished with sausage bites and bacon bits, plus one whole link of your choice. A nice touch is a topping of melted Gouda cheese, but close your eyes and you're still not in Strasbourg.
Before committing to a dinner, I'd scouted the restaurant at a couple of sausage-tasting lunches, and so for this dinner, we ordered the day's trio as side dishes. Oddly, up until a week ago, sausage seemed to be the kitchen's weakest link. Two out of three of the critters were typically dry or bland, with the third a lipsmacker -- the only way to tell which was which was by tasting them all. The original inventions and the Latin-origin links fared better than the traditional German wursts. (Happily, at a later visit, the links scored 100 percent. The restaurant is still evolving, and that includes its sausage-making technique. See "Pick Hits" above for some successes.)
The beverage list at the Linkery is a joy. For the little and big Frankies of the world, there's Mexican Coca-Cola, made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. The flavor will take boomers back to babyhood -- it has a cleaner sweetness, and perhaps a higher proportion of cola syrup. The low end of the wine list is a casual drinker's "Little Jar o' Wine" for $3.50, a six-ounce pour of boxed Cabernet. The serious wine list is great fun, offering some 40 bottles from all over, including local San Diego and Baja vineyards, with more reds than whites, as befits a sausage emporium. Bottles run $20 to $150, with plenty of under-$30 choices; glasses are $6 to $12. Beer drinkers will find 13 brews from seven nations, plus a partridge in a pear cider (hold the bird).