3023 Juniper Street, South Park
There’s been only one major void in the South Park restaurant scene within the last few years: Asian cuisine. Sure, Juan Chou was serving sushi at 3019 Juniper until this past March, but the closing should speak volumes about its lack of popularity. Nine Dragons Inc. recognized the need and soft-opened Fire Horse, Pan-Asian Bar & Bistro the last week in July.
I typically like to give new joints time to settle in, but figured the owners of a long-standing Chinese restaurant in Bonita would be able to work their magic in South Park, no problem. Unfortunately, I immediately began to question my confidence when I rounded the corner of Fern and Juniper and the Fire Horse façade came into view. A temporary banner had been placed over the expired tenant’s name, but I was very confused to find the Juan Chou masked logo still staring down at me. There wasn’t any evidence of new paint, major renovations, or a pending facelift either, which appeared to be the case on the inside as well. It seemed that the new owners moved in, set up shop, and opened the doors before distinguishing themselves from the prior occupant.
As expected for a soft opening, the menu was limited but provided eight appetizers ($3-9), soup and salad ($9-11), rice and noodle dishes ($9-13), and over 35 sushi rolls ($6-15). True to the Pan-Asian claim, Japanese was represented with yakisoba, udon, and of course sushi, while Korean made an appearance with bibimbap (a signature dish consisting of white rice, sautéed vegetables, an egg, and often, sliced meat). Fire Horse retained the Juan Chou sushi chef, so it’s no surprise this portion of the temporary menu was most developed. I’ve also heard chatter that Chinese cuisine will be included on the final menu, and I’m crossing my fingers vegetarian options will abound.
A drink menu was nowhere to be found, but the server was prepared to rattle off at least eight taps of local microbrews, domestics, and imports. The unexplained outlier was Pacifico, which made me wonder if Fire Horse assumed Juan Chou’s beer order in addition to their aesthetic. A handful of sakes were also available, and because I knew sushi and a short walk home were in my future, I ordered a Sapporo and a bottle of chilled Sho Chiku Bai Nigori. I was quite pleased with my refreshing selection, especially considering it was warmer inside the restaurant than it was outdoors — not exactly what I’m looking for on a toasty summer day in San Diego.
I settled on the vegetarian spring rolls to start, and found the appetizer stuffed with cabbage and carrot satisfying. But then again, when have I ever been disappointed by spring rolls? I honestly don’t care if they were mass-produced and stored in the freezer, or if they were hand-made with fresh ingredients that day. Either way, they’re too simple, fried, and dip-able to dislike.
I sampled the bibimbap sans bulgogi (grilled, marinated beef). I would have liked to substitute the beef for a vegetarian protein, but at least the egg provided some substance and richness to the meal. The entrée was available dolsot-style (in a hot stone dish), which I chose because it slightly fries the underside of the rice, giving it a welcome crispiness that adds texture to the sautéed vegetables. But the dish was ultimately lacking flavor, so I doused the entire plate in soy sauce and Sriracha. I’m willing to take the hit for the dish’s shortcomings though, because I’m sure omitting the marinated bulgogi didn’t do it any favors.
The sushi was last to arrive, and unfortunately, provided the biggest disappointment of all. I selected the Alaska Roll for its marinated salmon, and the Spanish Roll — although I’m not sure what’s so Spanish about it — for its bright, fresh toppings of cilantro and jalapeño. Trouble is, the salmon appeared to be “marinated” in spicy mayonnaise but was otherwise bland, and the cilantro and jalapeño were nowhere to be found. The only interesting aspect of the rolls was the plating, which included designs made of ponzu (a dark brown, citrus-based sauce), vibrant banana leaves, and origami-like lemon wedges.
After wrapping up the meal and finishing my drink, I wondered how the lackluster experience totaled $73 for four alcoholic beverages, an appetizer, two rolls, and an entrée — and that’s before the tip. I guess I should have followed my intuition in avoiding a soft opening, but am willing to give the final menu another chance… in 6 months. By then, I’m hopeful Fire Horse will have found its gait.