James Michael Dorsey 7:40 p.m., Nov. 25
First Look: Magnolia Tap & Kitchen
Southern comfort installed in former Bare Back space downtown
Chris Reid knew he wanted his own bar and restaurant. He considered a number of potential locations, but when the spot downtown near the corner of Sixth Avenue and E Street opened up, that was that. It would be his…and now it is for his Magnolia Tap & Kitchen (624 E Street, Downtown). Many know this as the former home of Bare Back Grill, an DJ booth-equipped Aussie-themed burger joint that unceremoniously moved out several weeks ago.
Reid knew it by that name, too, but when it comes to the space’s identity, he sees it for what it was way before Bare Back. We’re talking 1887, when the building was first erected. At that time, San Diego looked a lot different, and Wyatt Earp owned a trio of local saloons and gambling parlors. There’s actually a decent chance he owned the saloon operating out of the building that’s now home to Reid’s business which, not coincidentally, was also named Magnolia.
The new Magnolia is designed to pay homage to its circa-1880s predecessor, but in a contemporary way. The place has been remodeled to look much classier than it did in its kiwi grill days. The interior is stocked with a bookcase sporting a library of books, a shelved divider in the middle of the room decked out with period-appropriate antiques (apple peelers, a horsey tricycle) excavated from Little Italy shops, salvaged stain glass windows, and black-and-white photographs including one of Magnolia 1.0. Add in a sleek bar, brand new black cushioned banquettes, and antique-y looking growlers from local brewing companies being utilized as water pitchers, and you have something aesthetically complete and quite inviting.
In addition to local history, Reid and his crew are staying true to local producers. The bar has a dozen taps pouring right now, and only one of the draft beers isn’t from San Diego or Temecula. A nicely composed wine list consists mainly of Golden State numbers. On the cocktail front, the local aspect comes from things they’re doing in-house—infusing liqueurs like their apple- and cinnamon-tinged Bourbon. They also have a number of small oak casks they’ll be filling with spirits and cocktails; a trick brought over from Cucina Urbana by Magnolia's bar manager, Aaron Cribbes.
So you can drink there. But can you eat? Answer—absolutely! But don’t expect locavorian fare. Chef Michael Edwards’ menu consists solely of Southern comfort food. To be fair, he infuses components of our local bounty—habaneros, avocado, beer (Stone Smoked Porter is used to brine French fries and braise meats)—but this is some stick-to-your-ribs goodness steeped in traditions spanning from Texas to NOLA to the Peach State. My penchant for burgers is well documented, but they’re available everywhere (even Magnolia). It’s awesome to see a business filling a need and trying to bring something different to downtown.
I had a chance to sample a few items over the weekend and there were times when I was reminded of summers spent in Georgia and Alabama-adjacent parts of Florida. Edwards braises a mean short rib and sandwiches it along with crisp refreshing cole slaw between two golden pieces of Texas toast. That slow-cooking prowess extends to tender, juicy pork served up as a carnitas sandwich adorned with a tangy barbecue sauce. The only complaint I have about that condiment is that I wish there was more.
Sweet cornbread is spiced up in a big way with fresh habanero peppers. And I mean hot! You’ve gotta want to feel the capsicum gnawing away at the back of your throat for a good minute or so. Similarly atomic heat can be found in the sauce served with chicken wings dry-rubbed with chili powder, dried mustard, ginger, garlic, and coriander. But don’t let that stop you from ordering them if you’re less tolerant of spice. Because of that rub, the wings don’t require any condiments. That said, you’d be a fool to pass up a dipping sauce made with Maytag blue cheese. Speaking of cheese, a mac ‘n’ cheese soufflé has no discernible soufflé characteristics, but is lighter than most macs and made tastier thanks to a salty cheddar crust and fried onion strings.
Right now, Magnolia’s menu is a bit abbreviated. There are starters, salads (served on 1920s Falcon Enamelware), sandwiches, and desserts, but entrees have yet to make it on. Expect dishes like a ribeye, meatloaf, and an incredible-sounding barbecue duck pot pie (made from the same buttery, flaky crust as an insanely delicious, true-to-the-South pecan pie that’s worth a trip back on its own) in a couple of weeks.
But no need to wait around. With affordable prices, virtually no crowd (doubtful it’ll stay that way for long), and plenty of tasty dishes, there’s sufficient reason to get in on the ground floor of this reborn ancient venue.
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