789 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
The menu calls Quality Social “a bar with food.” It’d be more accurate to say “a serious casual eating place with a bar.” You could call the menu “pub grub,” but that’d be like calling foie gras terrine “chopped liver.” It’s mainly “blue collar” food uplifted to exigent standards of ingredient-quality and craftsmanship. Had I known how serious the food would be, I’d have waited a few months and come back with a party of six to really wring it out. But the management’s faux-cavalier attitude fooled me: I thought a quick scout with a buddy would do it. It won’t, and I’ll be back, and meanwhile, people looking for good food at relaxed prices in a relaxed atmosphere will get the word that they can find some tasty eats here in this most unlikely setting.
The chef, Jared Van Camp, calls it a “next-generation dive bar.” (Sorry, I’ve sampled enough dive bars to say this ain’t one.) It occupies the cavernous 9000-square-foot space at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and F Street, previous home to Exy (the lame self-hating Greek restaurant/disco) and before that a nice Nevada-based steakhouse. No exterior signage identifies it; the signs say only “Food” over an X formed by a crossed knife and fork. Currently, the website is one big “help wanted” ad, but the chef responded to an early Chowhound post with “We have an irreverent list of rules about no name-dropping, no tribal tattoos, no douchebags, no star-f#*&ing, no Ed Hardy, no fist-pumping, no disco, no Affliction, no ironic mustaches, no wtf/lol/omg, no shiny shirts.” The menu also bears crossed circles indicating “No Bottle Service” and “No Disco.” Like, “If you’re looking for Stingaree, head south right this minute!” Given the food and the ’tude, it sounds as if it belongs more in North Park than the Gaslamp.
There are two large rooms. At my visit, the right-hand room was dark, illuminated only by a bar against the back wall. The cozier (but still huge) room to the left has a large wraparound bar in the middle, the main source of lighting. Raised black leatherette booths on a low platform line the north wall. That Sunday evening, the barstools were well populated by couples in their 20s or 30s, a hopeful sign for a Social future in this difficult location. “I can’t believe it — no flat-screen TVs!” said my buddy Sam. “Even little sushi bars have them now!” My joy at this discovery was unbounded. Nothing ruins a date or a good conversation like TV, even muted — all male eyes are mesmerized, more interested in the stupid sports scores than in possibly “scoring.” The sound level’s pretty loud, though, even though the music wasn’t awful. Seemed to be mainly what Sam called “bad British boys making noise” and dipped into several decades (nearly all post-’60s).
We began with a quartet of raw oysters farm-raised in Carlsbad, perfectly shucked but very salty. I liked the complex sweet-tart house cocktail sauce, which was not much like the conventional ketchupy version. Bacon-wrapped dates (not commercial bacon but house-cured pork belly), stuffed with blue cheese and minced walnuts, are a total treat, rivaling the paragons at Whisknladle. Deviled eggs are truly devilish, dyed red with hot smoked paprika. And “boquerones” prove a manly man’s version of the classic Spanish tapa, substituting local sardines for anchovies and curing them in a fiercely acidic mixture so they taste like strong bottled herring.
The house-made charcuterie assortment was the initial attraction for me — because I love pâtés and smoked or cured meats, am awed by the effort it takes to make them, and, especially, because these various meats are the basis of most of the house sandwiches. With a choice of 12, I slanted toward the French selections because (unlike the Italian ones) I know how they’re made and how they should taste. The pork pâté de campagne (country-style) is classic in fat-to-lean texture, wrapped in thin slices of belly-pork and served atop lightly toasted baguettes thinly spread with butter and coarse mustard. It has chunks of cornichon pickles cooked into it (in France, these are served on the side), along with green peppercorns. The soft, fatty chicken-liver mousse resembled the one I ate recently at Blanca, but for a major technical slipup: livers for mousse are ideally sautéed to a dark rosy pink before they’re puréed. Although the interior of the mousse was the proper pink, some of the livers must have been overcooked brown, leaving a faintly bitter, liverish flavor and a gritty texture, calling for a push through an ultra-fine sieve. The potted rillettes were also the texture of mousse (rather than the classic chopped-up meat or poultry). They consisted of shredded mystery-meat (pork? duck?) thoroughly embraced by duck fat.
On the Italian side, I couldn’t resist trying the whipped lardo (“Italian butter,” the menu calls it) spread on toasted baguette croutons — my first chance to fully experience this trendy favorite in quantity enough to learn what it actually tastes like. It tastes utterly delicious — but it’s got to be the fattiest fat in the known world. It fills you up in two bites. And later in the night, you crave more. It tastes like…a distilled essence of pork, sweet and friendly, sly and meaty, like no other meat.
As for Finnochiona (more typically spelled with a single n in the first syllable), it’s a salami flavored with fennel seeds. Served in large, thin rounds, it’s fatty, salty, slightly lacy. To my tastes, it really wants an accompaniment of a rich, assertive cheese such as fontina or provolone — or perhaps one of the California goudas on the cheese list. (It must be terrific in the Italian sub sandwich here.) The charcuterie comes with grilled bread and house-made sweet bread-and-butter pickles. We also ordered a “pot of market pickles,” which included carrots, beets, green tomatoes, each with a different cure. This seems like an apt-enough moment to mention that each table receives an assortment of a half-dozen house-made condiments poured into empty gourmet beer bottles — coarse mustard, barbecue sauce, ketchup, et al. Can’t say I’d know when to use them, since most items seem pretty well condimented in advance.