Girls just wanna have fun, and aging-boomer foodie girls especially wanna have fun at the table (as other options become scarcer). Tabule offers that kind of culinary gambol. (Not gamble — I didn’t taste anything awful.) A genuine original, it provides good vibes, professional service, affordable and interesting wines, and happy, oddball surprises in the cooking. The flavor-base is more or less Mexican, but then it rambles — to Japan, Thailand, Persia, anywhere that chef-owner Moe Sadighian’s palate wants to roam.
Sadighian owns several fine-dining restaurants in Tijuana, including the original Tabule, with a similar menu of his recipes. As we know, since 9/11 brought our “beefed up” (paranoid) border security, TJ restaurants have been hurting badly. And from the opposite viewpoint, many middle-class transborder families have moved to this side of la linea as the crime cartels have taken up kidnapping as a big-money sport. Several Tijuana restaurants have faced the music and opened locations on this side of the frontier. Romesco (along with several of TJ’s most popular taquerias) have played it safe by opening in Chula Vista, preferred neighborhood of TJ expats. Tabule is betting on the Gaslamp, with food that would go over big in North Park (land of culinary adventure) but may be risky for an audience of strolling conventioneers, tourists, and club kids downtown. I hope it can manage to charm them as it charmed me.
The surroundings are attractive and comfortable, with a warm color scheme of orange, dark brown, and black and well-spaced tables that give you ample breathing room. Our server was friendly and professional (and also very cute). The menu is long, the appetizer lists daunting: One section showcases mainly Mexican “starters,” followed by numerous variations of ceviche, plus sashimi, soups, salads. Samurai Jim, Michelle, and I expected chef-turned-realtor James to join us and ordered an appetizer for him too, just before he called to say he was at the vet’s with a sick dog. The extra appetizer we ordered for him was the best of them all — what a shame we had to eat his share!
That was Gohan Tabule (Tabule rice), an inventive sort of deconstructed sushi party roll (minus the wrapping) mingling a pile of heavily sweetened sushi rice mixed with shredded crab and cream cheese, topped with avocado slices, slicks of Japanese eel sauce, and devastating puffs of sweet, ripe plantain. Sounds crazy, tasted amazing — every bite different from the previous bite, and none of them something you’re likely to have tasted before. It’s not high culinary art, nothing refined about it — I’d call it brilliant folk art. Or I’d call it scrumptious.
Before the appetizers, we enjoyed crusty baguette slices dipped into two salsas, an incendiary green serrano chile sauce and a thin coral aioli variant. The spicy one came into play with our arrachera tacos, soft, fill-’em-yourself, small corn tortillas along with strips of mesquite-grilled skirt steak, chopped tomatoes, onions, minced cilantro, and chopped avocado. At the Tijuana Tabule, the skirt steak is marinated, but here it isn’t — Sadighian feared that San Diegans wouldn’t like a really Mexican marinade. I think (and hope) he’s wrong about that; besides, this cut of beef is so porous, so ready to drink up flavors, that not to marinate it, or at least give it a spice rub, seems like a wasted opportunity. Cooked plain, it needed salsa to bring it to life. (If you care to go hunting for it, the best-marinated arrachera I’ve tasted locally was at El Callejon in Encinitas, with a haunting spice mixture.)
If we hadn’t already decided on a duck entrée, we might’ve ordered the mesquite-grilled duck meat tacos instead. Or duck burrito. Or lettuce-wrapped pulled duck. I can’t duck the feeling that Tabule is a place I’d like to eat at a lot more often, since I love duck almost any way you serve it. When I spoke with the chef-owner, he mentioned that his own favorite was a dish of Thai baby-back ribs in a spicy mango sauce “with genuine Thai spices.” Maybe not everything will be dead-on great here, but it’s a menu that begs for exploration.
A long list of interesting ceviches includes caracol. “Ever eat sea snails?” I asked Jim. He hadn’t. “Ah, too bad your sensei didn’t order that at Ota — Ota cooks a whole one over burning sugar, it’s really interesting.” Here, the firm-tender meat of this large, beautiful creature (with an opalescent white shell, when it’s at home in the sea) is swathed in tomatoes, red onions, ginger, cilantro, and avocado. No, it doesn’t taste like chicken — more like octopus. It’s pretty good, not quite great. Another dose of the green chile salsa might have helped, but my ears were still smoking from the splash I’d spooned over the skirt steak.
From the selection of salads, the tabbouleh sounded like a natural. It’s usually made from minced parsley and mint, plus bulgur wheat, cukes, tomato, and lemon juice. Here, the menu says it’s made with couscous, but the grain is actually bulgur (the owner just thought couscous would sound more familiar). There’s so little mint in it (again, for fear of offending cautious San Diego palates), I couldn’t taste any at all. It was nice and healthy but to my taste awfully timid.
The most popular entrées, the handsome waiter told us, are the two variations of Chilean sea bass. Given that this noble, slow-growing species has been overfished to the brink of extinction and that impermissible catches are still being hauled in by the ton by outlaw poachers in the wild South Atlantic, I passed. (Michelle told me that Costco sells it cheap, frozen. All I can say to that is, “Ayyy! I hope it’s counterfeit.”) It’s a great fish, I love it, but I don’t want to eat the last dodo or Martha, the last passenger pigeon. (Yes, she had a name.) Gimme a nice haunch of lowland gorilla “bush meat” instead…. When I asked the owner about this issue, he told me that he buys the fish from Leong-Kuba (one of the best of the local fishmongers) and that it’s certified non-poached.