406 University Avenue, Hillcrest
It took forever to remodel Pink Noodle and turn it into East Village Asian Diner (406 University Avenue), a second location for the successful, Encinitas restaurant. Reportedly, permitting troubles plagued the buildout, but the construction crew didn’t exactly skimp on the remodel, either. If Pink Noodle was cute-but-average, East Village is downright sexy and brand new. It has a kind of “robots and Legos” thing going on, which sounds bizarre, but actually gives the interior a playful solidity that works perfectly for what it is. Kudos to the architecture and design team. Say goodbye to the upstairs seating, and just about everything else recognizable from Pink Noodle. Maybe the biggest structural difference is the installation of a draft beer system, so that the new restaurant can sell brews by the pint or pitcher, and in bottles as well. Pink Noodle’s faux-Martinis (which were actually pretty tasty) are a thing of the past.
Hillcrest East Village’s menu mimics the North County location’s California-Korean-Japanese style, right down to the signature “monk’s stone bowl,” a friendly pseudonym for bibimbap, the Korean specialty served in a hot stone bowl. It’s wonderful comfort food, but East Village overdoes it with portion size and underdoes the chili sauce. Diners get a big bowl of overkill where a modest amount of concentrated flavor would do the trick.
The restaurant also forges daring territory with a Korean take on the burrito, packing brown rice, kimchi, chopped vegetables, and marinated beef slices into a tortilla, and serving it alongside a salad like the ones that come with food-court-lunch-special bento boxes. Readers may remember the frustrating disgust of Memelas’ Thai-flavored burrito, and the story of East Village’s attempt at burrito fusion ends similarly. While it’s much better than the chicken satay catastrophe (say that a few times fast), the Korean burrito refuses to comply with order and decency, thumbing its nose at Mexican and Korean food while paying due homage to neither.
Maybe there’s just no good way to make a fusion burrito?
It’s a pity that East Village doesn’t offer a dish of cold soba noodles. There’s a strong Japanese influence at the restau, and the house soba sauce is fantastic (as is the sweetened Sriracha “monk’s sauce” for squirting over everything with wanton abandon) and would be better served being slurped up with cold noodles than splashed onto just-OK kimchi pancakes, dumplings, and spring rolls.
With French Concession just five minutes away, East Village is certainly the less-exciting remodeled Asian restaurant in Hillcrest to open before the calendar turned. And it’s no contest between East Village and Snooty Asian (as wild and spotty as Snooty can be), in terms of pure concept. Tough break. Let’s hope they step it up.