Scott Marks 3:04 p.m., June 18
Much as I've been fatigued by "yet another gastrobpub," I can't help but be drawn in by the promise of pork and beer. Such restaurants may have become de rigueur in 2012 San Diego, but it's hard to grow weary of such a delicious trend in gastronomy. And so, girding my loins for another foray into craft beer and pork delicacies, I set out for the Hopping Pig.
I think it's a pleasant turn of events for a place like the Pig to inject a little sensibility into the realm of tight t-shirts, hair gel, and bottle service. I guess one more gastropub can't hurt, especially if it's Downtown and just a few doors away from somewhere like the Whiskey Girl. After all, pulled pork > Red Bull and vodka!
In a neighborhood characterized by excess, the Hopping Pig has opted for modesty. Spare interior decorations, which belie smart touches like false walls to diffuse light into the dining room, give off a genuine sense of restraint that's reminiscent of North Park five years ago. Gestures towards overt hipness are few and far between and the comfortable dining area facilitates enjoying a meal, which is a quality that's in sadly short supply these days.
Service was the big slump of the evening as it was on the sloppier side, i.e. incorrect drinks were delivered and I was categorically ignored for a full five minutes when I walked into the restaurant. For what it's worth, I saw the FOH staff being vigorously upbraided by the a managerial type at one point, so perhaps the restaurant is acutely aware of this problem already.
With 32 taps of quality beer and a fashionably up-to-date list of cocktails, there's plenty of drinking to be done. Of particular interest are "oak aged" cocktails. Whether this implies custom aging of spirits or a strange mixing and aging of the entire cocktail is something I didn't have the presence of mind to find out. Regardless, it's certain that 6 weeks in oak produces dramatic results and that cocktail list would be well worth exploring.
Happy hour is a blessing at the Hopping Pig. Every day from 11AM-7PM (seriously) select draft beers and well cocktails are $4.50, pulled pork sliders are $4, and tacos are $3.50. The sliders, usually $9.50, were served on bread that bore an uncanny resemblance to the dinner rolls that always came in my school lunch plate. Soft, slightly sweet, and frankly a bit white trashy, the rolls proved to be the perfect bread for sandwiching lightly sauced pork and crispy coleslaw. I applaud the Pig for rocking the Wonderbread. Replacing the irrelevant pile of spring mix with a few good pickles would have been nice, but that's a rather small complaint.
A plate of fish tacos was good, though virtually indistinguishable from the $0.99 fish tacos I get from any local truck or taqueria. I'd be more likely to go with onion rings ($6) in the future and avoid the shaky ground of upscale pubs serving Mexican food.
Entrees also showcased many forms of pork. "Angry gnocchi" ($13) swam in a Bolognese sauce that seemed to be 50% pork sausage by volume and which carried a very suitable portion of heat. I came within inches of popping what looked like a snap pea into my mouth, but I realized in the nick of time that it was a slice of jalapeno pepper. While I could handle the heat, I think the rude awakening might have been more traumatic. Still, the tender dumplings proved to be a substantial meal with the rich sauce, despite the somewhat timid shaving of Parmesan cheese.
The kitchen took liberties with a dish of bangers and mash ($11.50) by substituting bratwurst for actual bangers. The typical English banger contains cereal, usually oatmeal or bread crumbs, and has a distinct, white pudding-like consistency. The snappy bratwurst that poked out from the mountain of tepid, but perfectly mashed and seasoned, potatoes were very good, despite their Teutonic heritage!
The Hopping Pig did a good job of distinguishing itself in terms of cuisine because the lack of pretension allowed the food to stand on its own merits, which were plenty. If anything distances this gastropub from the others, it's a lack of self-righteousness that I found refreshing and well-deserved.
748 Fifth Avenue
Open daily 11:30AM-2AM