5083 Santa Monica Avenue, Ocean Beach
You'd think it was hard to muck up a restaurant holding down one of the best spaces on the west coast — an oceanfront location so prime, surfers can see into it from the line-up. Yet, here we have Wonderland, taking over the Ocean Beach real estate formerly known as Quigg's, and before that Nick's. Both now closed, and I'm sure they have their reasons.
Wonderland gets its name from OB's almost-mythical seaside amusement park that washed away in high surf a century ago, and its walls share memorable images and bits of trivia about its namesake. But who's going to notice something like that when the entirety of current day Ocean Beach basks, pier to jetty, before the dining room's panoramic second floor windows?
Drinkers, diners and yes, even waitstaff, can get lost in that view, especially when the waves are breaking and you can practically make eye contact with those surfers out front. This is a take-it-easy kind of place, wasted on anyone unprepared to get cozy with the local brews on tap and linger.
Most of the prime seating faces the same direction — towards the beach. You'll have a to sacrifice some view if you want a looking-across-the-table kind of conversation. It's not a place you need to eat, but when you're hungry a pretty intriguing menu won't stop you from trying. There's not any real thrust one direction or the other — Wonderland seems just as comfortable serving Asian-styled dishes as it does Hawaiian and Southwestern, and of course it serves fish tacos.
So, apparently OB has developed its own style of fish taco. It's basically a take on the South Beach recipe that melts cheddar cheese on flour tortilla. Wonderland does it just as well, with fancy flourishes like cilantro cream sauce and diced jalapeño mixed into the pico de gallo. You can, and probably should, opt for a corn tortilla with any taco you order. I can’t seem to say this enough.
The slow-cooked pork in the Chile Verde Stew delivers some savory tomatillo with a nice dash of kick, though it doesn't quite feel like a balanced meal, despite the side of quesadilla. A sesame-crusted ahi wrap tastes pretty great, but could use more tuna to justify all the rice, carrots and cabbage. Wonderland might be a decent dining choice when any members of your party want to eat light, or if everyone just wants to snack on oysters and ceviche. Otherwise, stick with heavier fare, like the short-rib burger or "Woco Moco," which differs from loco moco in that it has kale. I think we can all safely skip the Spam Mac'n'Cheese.
Nevertheless, I wouldn't mind Wonderland sticking around for awhile. If not purely OB, it manages a slightly distilled take on the signature OB vibe, with some mermaid imagery and local history to replace the saltiness still going strong at street level. While you might wish the food were cheaper, or the staff a little less relaxed, it's not going to be enough to make you want to leave. Unless maybe you own the joint.