2895 University Avenue, North Park
Around the middle of the meal at West Coast Tavern, I realized that I’m really getting into the gastropub craze. They’re multiplying in nearly every neighborhood, offering an easy way to eat out with friends (or solo) in a recession. The food is typically inexpensive but often creative and playful. You can wear whatever you like, as long as it’s street-legal, and order as little or much as your appetite and budget allow. These eateries let the diner do the driving.
At West Coast, we lucked out and even got to choose our table. The restaurant replaces Hawthorne’s at the front of the North Park Theatre but is apparently aimed at a younger, more casual crowd than typical playgoers or light-opera patrons. We’d reserved for a Thursday and been assigned an interior table — but it was next to a group that including a running, yelling, out-of-control wild child. (“Valium now!” I muttered. “Not for me, for him.”) And while the interior is dark and handsome in sports-pub fashion, we hated the blasting music, which sounded like…oh, no…disco! (Please don’t tell me there’s a disco revival! My hair, barely staying alive, won’t stand another bout of those tight, swingy Jewish cornrows I used to wear.) And we didn’t want to watch TVs tuned to sports, even muted. It took only a word to the server and — presto change-o — we scored a prime patio table with a cozy fire pit in the center, sheltered by an overhanging roof. (Tables without fire pits have heat stanchions.) Later, the DJ must have come on, switching to a more poetic, quietly agonized music genre (is that emo?) — it still played loudly.
Sam, Jerry, and I agreed about which dishes sounded best, and our server was accustomed to group-grazing, no explanations needed. We began with the very generous portion of five-spiced Jidori chicken wings. The Chinese five-spice blend was obscured by a sweet, tangy, sticky glaze, but still, it was a sweet beginning. Also sweet but more soul-satisfying was a quartet of hot bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chopped nuts, tasting like spectacular, highly unkosher rugelach, minus the pastry. They came with a charming creamy dipping sauce based on mild goat cheese, with perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice and bits of other tiny, mysterious food entities. I loved every part of this combination.
A crab napoleon offered a trio of crisp wonton skins stacked with chilled Dungeness crab shreds, dressed in a mango vinaigrette, scattered with a few chopped green beans. Although two months too soon for prime Dungeness season, it was cute and fragile and vanished before any of us could pin down where we’d eaten a similar dish (happy hour at Mr. A’s, perhaps?). An ultra-healthy baby-spinach salad with strawberries (loaded with folates and many longer nutritional words) also seemed elusively familiar. Sam nailed it: it’s the signature salad of nearby Café 21, a terrific little Azerbaijani restaurant that does a better, more ebullient version. Here, the quartered strawberries, local but past prime season, were sour.
Then the larger dishes started to arrive. A plain mac ’n’ cheese is available, but you can also venture on the “chef’s daily creation.” Again, we were in luck: the du jour was blue-cheese based, with chicken and plenty of frizzled onions. This was not only a sophisticated change from the standard melted yellow and orange cheeses, but lighter, creamier, more interesting, especially with the exuberant textural contrast of the crunchy-crisp onions. It’s a new rendition a world apart from your mom’s (and Stouffer’s) and all the better for that.
Tavern Chicken ’n’ Waffle revisits the Southern favorite with partial success. The problem is that, Jidori or no, the chicken is all skinless, boneless breast tenders. (What happens to the good parts, like the thighs?) “This chicken is bland and dry — it has no taste,” said Jerry. What buys it off is that the unevenly cooked waffle, which includes bacon, is soaked with warm maple syrup. It makes everything on the dish and in the world seem all right.
Za’atar-spiced white shrimp are crusted with sesame, thyme, perhaps sumac, and something spicy. Dryness was the problem again — the shrimp were overcooked. Alongside was a pleasant citrus-touched mound of cold couscous garnished with a horde of cut chives, chopped parsley, minced hot red pepper, and hulled pumpkin seeds, along with a charred lemon. Alas, lemon juice won’t restore moisture to overcooked shrimp.
We didn’t try any of the four flatbreads but couldn’t resist the sliders. These are $8 for two sliders per order, but $4 more gets you one extra, and you can mix and match. The lamb slider with feta and caramelized onion jam, with garlic aioli bedecking the brioche bun, was the one that called out to us. Answering the siren song rewarded us with meat patties done to a nice pink inside, juicy but greaseless, with just-right garnishes. (The onion jam rocks.) For our extra slider, I chose the Niman Ranch pulled pork with “Abe’s famous BBQ sauce” and slaw on an aioli-garnished bun. The BBQ sauce pervading the meat was very spicy but lacking the sweet touch of the mid-South. A skimpy portion of slaw is on the bottom bun (and what good is that?).
The reasonable prices of the wine list made it easy to order by the glass, so we could each try our own first choice. Globetrotting Sam’s about to head off to Argentina, so we both started with the Aguijón de Abeja Torrontés white — big, sunny, a fine match for the food flavors, even the meats. Jerry began with an Argentine Malbec. It’s certainly better than Malbecs used to be (when I was there in the Jurassic era, even in Mendoza wine country, Argentines usually drank them with a spritz of seltzer) but still a tad tannic and macho. Sam’s second glass, Cab 337, was more mellow. “They’ve done a good job assembling this wine list,” said Sam, a habitué of wine bars, as is Jerry. “These are mainly about $10 retail, but they’re interesting to explore.”