3794 30th Street, North Park
(No longer in business.)
Stately, plump Bruce Aidells came from the smoker bearing a bowl in which a sausage and a French roll lay crossed. That was some 30 years ago, and Aidells's original creations were the start of the "artisan sausage" movement in America.
The Linkery is our own homegrown version of Aidells. Their links bespeak no chain restaurant -- they're made daily at this quirky, passionate, ecology-minded eatery. The Linkery won such roaring success in the quiet southern reaches of North Park (and even in the major foodie magazines) that after three years it's now moved to larger, nicer quarters in the commercial heart of the neighborhood, a block south of University. The menu has expanded, too. What hasn't changed is the green, slow-food ethos: Nearly everything (including most bread and even the mustard and ketchup) is made from scratch on the premises, from the best possible ingredients provided from local farms, pastures, and waters, whenever possible.
The new headquarters are considerably more spacious and attractive, and while loud, it isn't painfully noisy like the old place (now occupied by Sea Rocket). The best tables on a summer night are along the north side of the building, an indoor-outdoor area open to North Park Way. My posse of five (Sam and harem) arrived when all those tables were taken, so we were seated in an interior room, painted red and rather darkly lighted, with unpadded wooden banquettes, wooden chairs, naked floors and tables -- sort of the slow-food ethos in restaurant design, sincere and no-frills.
"I'm Travis, I'll be your server tonight," said a longish-haired young man. The Lynnester, by trade a human-resources pro, quizzed him. He'd been working at the Linkery for only one month. "Most of us are new," he said, "hired for the big expansion when the restaurant moved here." Did he like it? "Oh, yeah. I get free food, free drink, and I can wear whatever I want to work. Not a lot of employers let you do that."
We soon began to suspect that he might be new to waiting as well. Not long after he took our order, a crew of cheerful "runners" brought our appetizers and our entrées from the kitchen -- all at once, hot and cold together, not only cluttering the table but pretty much forcing us to eat entrées first, before they cooled off, and nibble later at the appetizers. Lucky we hadn't ordered dessert yet! Much as I love the "no tipping/automatic 18 percent" policy (which means no mathematical contortions at bill time), it also means that a server who screws up badly will never have to ask himself why his tip is low. When Travis later returned to our table, he still had no clue he'd done anything wrong, and we didn't yell at him. (A restaurant manager knew and comped our desserts.)
(So, young Travis, if no one else will train you, I will: Right now, approximately a quarter of a million San Diegans are reading that you blew it. For about the last 300 years, we in the Western world -- except for those individuals raised by wolves -- have been eating our meals in courses, except when we go out to Korean restaurants. You can tell which course is which by the headings on the menu: The category called "Market Starters" means dishes to start with. "Mains" means main courses, to follow. Got it now?)
The house-cured meat-plate appetizer includes prosciutto-like air-dried ham, bresaola (air-dried beef), and coppa, all made of naturally raised meats from California family ranches, and all very good. They come with a little round of addictive house-made fruit paste that combines local organic dates with pistachios and pecans. The international artisan cheese plate offers a blue (Point Reyes), a sheep's-milk Tomme, and a goat Gouda, plus grilled bread and more fruit pâté. With a glass of wine, it would make a fine alternative to dessert. We also tried smoked kingclip, which is a Mexican fish I've never heard of (it tasted rather lean), served with a salad of organic wild greens with something spicy-hot in the dressing. It deserved more attention than any of us could give it under the circumstances.
Casual entrées (link plates, tacos, burgers, and franks) occupy most of the left side of the daily menu, while more serious entrées are on the right. Since the menu changes daily, you may not find the same dishes as we ate, but the serious entrées afforded most of our favorites.
Recently, owner Jay Porter was able to find a local source for live free-range kid, but he then ran into trouble trying to get it butchered nearby -- the closest licensed facilities are in L.A. It's off the menu for the moment; instead, there's a fine version of cochinita pibil, a Mayan dish from the Yucatán of shredded pork marinated in citrus juices and roasted in a wrap of banana leaves. Lynne was blown away. "The flavor is fantastic!" she said. Over the years I've sampled this dish numerous times, and it's always been less than I hoped for. (Usually it's too dry, even in its home town of Mérida.) But while I wasn't as thrilled as the Lynnester, I must say, this is the best try yet. It's certainly the moistest, most edible version I've encountered. It comes with tasty tomatoes, pearl barley dressed with a tomato gravy (first time I've ever really liked barley), and a lively salad of organic greenery from local La Milpa Farm.
Grass-fed, totally pasture-raised rib-eye (no methane-inspiring corn mash went into that heifer!) is the most expensive dish ($21.50) and at five ounces is what I'd call a right-sized portion of steak. Cooked rare over a flaming gas grill, it's got beautiful light charring, and the tender meat abounds in full beef flavor -- it's great steakhouse beef at half the size, half the price, double the savor. Close your eyes, you could be in Argentina -- except that here, they know what "rare" means. Current accompaniments are fingerling potatoes, grilled cipollini onions, and wonderful grilled peaches.