3025 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
Yukon trading post? That’s what you first think. The warm, timbery, lantern-lit look of the place draws you in. I’m up on El Cajon Boulevard around 30th Street. It’s 9:00 at night, a chill in the air. This isn’t the coziest corner in town — the street’s too wide for that. There are a few franchise eateries, but this place is different. Plank tables outside, and that name above: “Tiger! Tiger!”
Can mean only one thing: Gentrification has hit ECB.
Like, first thing every UCSD English-lit grad will think of is that poem — William Blake, right? Tiger Tiger burning bright / In the forest of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry… / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb, make thee?
(And, thanks, Miss Stuart, for forcing that down our fourth-grade gullets.)
The streets are echo-empty, but here’s a little huddle of humanity. Who can resist?
They have a bouncer at the door checking IDs, so this has to be a serious bar. But when the guy, Derek, comes over to me, he seems more like a welcomer. “Yes, they’re still cooking,” he says when I ask. “Till 10:00. In the wood-fired oven.”
Inside, there are long plank tables and exposed rafters above. I like the tip of the hat to the history of the place — this is an old building — even if exposing beams and brick walls has become a fad. And I like that the people in here are not just cool characters with pork pie hats, but families with kids.
“This used to be Vesuvio,” says Morgan, the guy at the bar. “We’ve been here six months. We’re an offshoot of Blind Lady Ale House.”
Ah. Of course. The tables, the mega-choice in draft beers, the Yukon-meets-Bavarian-alehouse vibe (Okay, the Bavarian part? Mainly, it’s that Morgan, who’s the manager, says they have 33-ounce steins going for $8 before 6:00 p.m. Shades of Oktoberfest!)
“Our beers tend to be more session beers here than at Blind Lady,” Morgan says.
I think he means less extreme, when it comes to how hoppy — bitter — the beers are. Also, how high in alcohol content. Favoring ales that are easier to drink slowly through an evening.
Morgan helps me with the chalkboard and gives me samples. What a list. Names I’ve never heard of, like Beachwood Hop Ninja (“Sneaky hops — deadly kick”) and Petrus Monk’s Café Sour Flanders Red (it tastes sorta like lemonade). I end up with a pretty good Bear Republic Hot Rod Rye.
So, now, food. Not expecting too much, because the sign outside says they only do “Draught Beer & Sandwiches.”
“You need to go see Aaron,” Morgan says. “He’s the guy stoking the fire.”
Aaron LaMonica. The chef.
There’s a chalkboard menu set above the glowing, wood-fired oven. Today’s special is banh mi. Sounds exotic — even though banh mi just means “wheat bread” in Vietnamese. It’s what the French brought with them to Vietnam. So, it’s basically baguette bread with “Chinese-style BBQ pork belly, pickled veg, cilantro, cucumber, chili aioli,” served with a side of slaw. Costs $9. For 50 cents more, you can add chicken liver. For another buckaroo, you get a basted egg. Not cheap, but sounds interesting.
They’ve got a mushroom-lentil sandwich (“panko-crusted vegan patty with house-made pickles, chipotle tahini, cilantro, butter lettuce, on homemade focaccia”) for $7. And a house-made pork bratwurst with braised cabbage and pickled serrano peppers for $9.
But then, hey, oyster po’ boy. “Chicken-fried oysters, cabbage, remoulade, pickled chili, shaved red onion on a baguette with a side of pickles.”
It’s $10, but oysters? Game over.
“They’re from Carlsbad,” Aaron says. “Oysters are a sustainable superfood. We use West Coast oysters, because they’re local. They’re happier in colder water. This is a scratch kitchen. We make our bread, our sausages, and we’re just starting our own beer, ‘Automatic.’ Oysters go so well with beer. ’Specially, say, an Irish stout.”
San Diego food is more beer-oriented, Aaron says, compared to San Francisco.
“They’re about fine wines and food,” he says. “I guess they’re more exclusive; we’re more inclusive. We’re about popular food, and beer to go with that. You might say it’s the French thing versus the German thing.”
I get me my po’ boy sandwich, and it goes down great. Tasty, creamy, tangy with pickled chili and pickles. Those oysters squish through in every bite. And, yes, they marry well with my beer.
“We go for organic as much as we can,” Aaron says. “Lots from Suzie’s Farm in I.B. and Crow’s Pass in Temecula and at Adams Avenue Farmers’ Market. But organic puts the price up. I’m classically trained. This is not like France. In France you have to pay extra not to be organic.”
Wonder if he means that — or is just saying the French are ahead of us on the organic front?
I come across two guys drinking at the bar. They happen to be the owners of this place and Blind Lady. Lee Chase, who could stand in for Johnny Depp, and Jeff Motch, who’s got a kind of Bluebeard the pirate light in his eye. He’s a graphic designer who designed both bars. Lee has a degree in beer. He brewed for Stone during the start-up years, judges beer competitions, and consults with breweries internationally.
Have to ask how it all happened.
Lee Chase says, “We were playing soccer on the same team. We got to talking about how to create communal spaces.”
“That led to Blind Lady,” says Jeff Motch. “I want this town to have a meeting place like this every two or three blocks. So you can walk over from where you live, not drive, have a bite and a drink and a conversation.”
Lee says, “We want to help people appreciate simple things.”
“Be seeing you again?” asks Derek, as I head out.
“Is there a bull moose in the north woods?” I say.
Because, for sure, this Tiger’s burning bright. ■
The Place: Tiger! Tiger! Tavern, 3025 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park, 619-487-0401
Prices: Banh mi (baguette bread with BBQ pork belly, pickled veg, side of slaw, $9; mushroom-lentil sandwich (panko-crusted vegan patty) in focaccia, $7; pork bratwurst, $9; oyster po’ boy (chicken-fried oysters, cabbage, remoulade, in baguette, $10;
Kitchen Hours: 5:00–10:00 p.m., Tuesday–Thursday; 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday–Sunday; closed Monday
Buses: 1, 2, 6, 15
Nearest bus stop: 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard