777 G Street, East Village
Block by block, the redeveloping East Village (which I nicknamed “E-Ville” when it all started) is indeed becoming a high-rise, high-priced condo neighborhood, complete with virulent NIMBYism surrounding the remnants of its former identity, including the old, the poor, and the substance-ridden. And every up-and-coming neighborhood needs neighborhood restaurants. “Neighborhood” is a new brew pub that features burgers, but it’s too ambitious to be called a burger joint — yet too funky for a NIMBY label to stick. If Café Chloe is fundamentally feminine and upscale-boho, then Neighborhood is its prole-chic masculine counterpart. Entrée prices may shade a buck or two out of “cheap” range, but the clientele and ambience are more pub scene than plutocratic, more bohemian than big bucks. With the restaurant’s late hours, a lot of Gaslamp chefs show up after work to scarf up clean, decent food with no frou-frou and no formality.
Neighborhood’s deliberately perverse claim to fame is that it doesn’t serve ketchup. The hefty half-pound burgers, made with excellent beef and served on artisan rolls from Bread on Market, are available with several interesting garnishes; ditto the fries. While the kitchen is still experimenting with different cuts of beef, when I was there it was a mixture of Prime rib eye, sirloin, and chuck, all deeply flavorful cuts from corn-fed Midwestern beef. (Most burger joints use simply chuck or the leaner, less toothsome round.) Neighborhood gets this mixture from Hans-Trevor Gossman of Hamilton Meats, who used to be executive chef at the late, lamented Royale Brasserie. (Switching to the wholesale meat biz, Hans-Trevor has become the carnivore’s angel, foraging such delicacies as the Texas free-range antelope served at the Better Half.)
The innermost side of the room consists of a bar, barstools, and tall round tables with high barstools, with a non-giant TV playing sports behind the bar. At our visit, two lissome young blondes were hangin’ at the bar, but the rest of that half of the room was populated wholly by males under (or slightly over) 30, mostly in T-shirts and gimme caps. The streetside half of the room consists of about ten regular-height tables (mainly four-tops). Two were occupied by girl groups, one by two couples, the rest by more males around 30, bonding over burgers. Some nights, it’s families instead — what could be more kid-friendly than this menu? Music plays excruciatingly loudly, forcing all conversations into shouting mode — the decibel level approaches that of the late Region. I think I recognized Blondie singing “I’m gonna gitcha, gitcha” at one point, but for all I know it could have been a cover. Even my youngest friends are a few years past the demographic here, and by the end of the evening we were talking about coming back some night wearing our gun-range earmuffs. (I envision bursting into this modern-day saloon like black-clad Barbara Stanwyck and her all-male posse in Sam Fuller’s great Forty Guns — but all wearing earmuffs — and going Richard Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights” one better by unleashing a volley at the sound system.)
By the time you read this, however, the sound may be partly tamed. “We’re sort of using the music to drown out the voices,” says owner Arsalun Tafazoli. Parts of the restaurant are concrete, which bounces sound all over — but Arsalun has hired Paul Basile (the artist/craftsman behind the Guild Restaurant) to add sound baffles to the ceiling in April, which should help. In any case, service is terrific, and the kitchen is fast. A petite, raven-haired beauty took our order and smartly intuited from our choices and general style that we’d be eating “family style.”
Better yet, the menu ventures clear of the standard pub clichés. By any other name, it’s a gastropub! Old-time dive bars offer vats of pickled hard-boiled eggs, free to drinkers. Here instead are $5 appetizers of pink-salted deviled eggs, which include artichoke mousse in their making. They’re very good. Even better is the steak tartare appetizer, the posse’s favorite dish. The raw beef is mixed with capers, onions, and fresh tomatoes, with a partial topping (across about half) of roasted red-pepper remoulade, a rouille-like coral mayo purée. Our dish came from the kitchen predivided into four neat halved-egg mounds, a nice touch to serve a foursome. But what brought us joy was that this was a genuine tartare, not some pusillanimous scaredy-cat compromise. It featured intensely tasty and tender raw beef and zesty garnishes.
“Crispy IPA buds” (whuzzat? Idaho Potato Association?), when translated into their more understandable Spanish or Portuguese name, are croquetas — a tapa of deep-fried, lightly breaded fritters of coarsely mashed potatoes, accompanied by a smooth melted-cheddar dipping sauce with a single roasted jalapeño in the center of the ramekin. The dip is pleasant but perhaps too amiable, smooth and mild, with the barest hint of a nip from the chile. It reminded me of Stouffer’s frozen mac ’n’ cheese (which I like, for a frozen food — but not for a restaurant food). The side dish of jalapeño mac ’n’ cheese is more of the same sauce, folded around pasta. If it could sing it would croon like Bing Crosby. (Take out the jalapeño, it’d be Tony Bennett.)
Ricotta gnudi (pronounced “nudie,” like those old-time soft-core porn flicks featuring topless volleyball players) were a disappointment. Gnudi are ravioli without wrappings — just the filling, ma’am. At their best (e.g., at the Del’s 1500 Ocean) they’re poufs of ricotta and herbs light enough to float away on the breeze like dandelions. Although Neighborhood’s chef, Jesse Cruz, was a sous-chef in 1500 Ocean’s kitchen, his version is heavy, glutinous, and sticky, further weighed down by a sweet glaze that doesn’t match the menu’s designation of a brown-butter sage glaze. With just a slight push further toward sweetness, they could become a dessert of miniature cheesecake volleyballs.
We chose a second round of appetizers and sides to accompany our entrées. A likable roasted red-and-golden-beet salad featured spring mix in a tasty citrus vinaigrette interspersed with the sliced roots. At the edge of the plate was an ethereal goat-cheese mousse, mixed with cream to smooth out all its caprine edges. There are four other elaborate salads (Bibb lettuce wedge, strawberry-spinach, drunken pear, and a delicious-sounding Cobb), and while none are groundbreaking, they are all tempting.
Idaho potato fries are herbed shoestrings with a light garlic-mayo dip. We loved the slim airy fries but could have done without the dip. Jonathan (a posse newcomer), purposely provocative, asked for the taboo ketchup. This proved a brilliant move: The waitress brought a full assortment of about five house dips instead. Fred’s favorite was the rich sun-dried tomato purée. Mine was a coral “Cajun” mayo, slightly spicy. I couldn’t hear which ones Jonathan and Jim liked.
Sweet potato fries are flawless as is, lightly dusted with crumbs of blue cheese. They come with a superfluous pepper malt vinaigrette, which we tasted but abandoned once we’d received the wider array to play with. But really, they didn’t need any dip. Perfect is perfect. Onion rings, on the other hand, were weighed down by a heavy breadcrumb batter. Good rings can fool you into thinking you’re not loading up on fat and calories. These — every bite yelled “Grease!” (By the time you read this, the recipe may have changed.)
The moment I looked at the menu, I was set on the 777 Burger, garnished with organic spinach, plum-tomato confit, and béarnaise sauce. I ordered the meat rare, and so it arrived. The artisan rolls that cradle the burgers are admirable as craftworks but so thick it’s hard to taste the meat inside them. I removed the top of the roll and dug in with knife and fork. The beef and raw spinach were good, but — where was the béarnaise? Send in the béarnaise! Subsequent tasters detected something resembling Swiss cheese. Well, there’s no cheese in béarnaise, so that must have been the sauce. Tasting the leftover half-burger, cold and naked the next day, revealed that wonderfully beefy beef, and I have no beef with that!
The burger that did have Swiss was Jonathan’s mushroom-marsala burger, medium-rare. He, too, flipped the top half of the roll off his meat in search of flavor, but the subtleties of the garnishes were still lost. Maybe it wasn’t the food but the noise, which makes it really hard to hear your food talking to you.
When an entrée of poached mussels wasn’t available that night, Fred, who’s a vegetarian-sympathizer, voted in favor of the fresh roasted vegetable sandwich, with portobello mushroom, red pepper, zucchini, garlic hummus, and mozzarella. Well, it didn’t taste exactly like all of that. The main problem was that the portobello may have been a day past prime — slightly bitter, slightly tough, rather dry. It was better in theory than in the mouth. No evidence of hummus either. (Could have been a thin layer on the uneaten top half of the bun. Maybe the bun ate my béarnaise as well.) Completing our array was Jim’s entrée of stone-smoked, porter-braised beef ribs (named for the brew in which they’re cooked). They were tender but also very fatty. The sauce was too simple and bland to highlight the flavors of the meat, and the ample fat deposits were a bit gross.
The other burger choices that we didn’t try are the signature Neighborhood Burger with caramelized onions, blue Gruyère, and peppered greens, and a spicy Cajun-rubbed burger, which brings to mind the awful image: “Eh, Fontenot! Park that pirogue, c’mere and rub my burger!” Eesh. We also skipped a veggie burger, a kosher hot dog with kraut, and a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato bisque — and there’s your whole main-dish menu.
We didn’t ask what sweets might be available, beyond the delectable Bonny Doone Vin de Glacière on the wine menu. I mean, even the youngest of my posse is staring 40 in the eye. (We grow old, we grow old, shall we wear the bottoms of our Levis rolled?) Should Norah Jones set T.S. Eliot to music, we might listen happily. But we fled. It turns out no desserts were available yet. They’re just coming to the menu now — a few simple, housemade sweets designed to go with local craft beers.
I appreciated the care taken to serve some interesting variations on pub grub, the creative thrust of the cooking, and quality ingredients — and the service, the speed, the good wine list, and the great beer list. But in the end, despite the joys of the steak tartare and sweet potato fries, the 12 dishes we tasted barely made the 2.5 rating. And until the sound baffles are up, I wouldn’t return without wearing those target-shooting earmuffs. On the other hand, as my generation used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” (Now, we’ve reversed that to “under 30.”) So if you’re of an age to love ear-splitting rock and you regard baroque burgers and fancy fries as the crowns of culinary creation — or if you’ve got kids who do — don’t trust me. Neighborhood’s your neighborhood.
ABOUT THE OWNER
Arsalun Tafazoli is the 26-year-old owner of Neighborhood. That sonorous name is Turkish, but his parents, of Persian-Italian ancestry, are British, and Arsalun grew up in San Diego. He majored in political science and economics at UCSD, thinking he’d go into law, until some of his older friends scored fabulous jobs at top law firms and nearly died of boredom and loathing. “I thought, if I’m gonna get myself in so much debt, might as well do something enjoyable.
“I love the bar culture. I had an overseas scholarship in Hong Kong, then going to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, and coming back via Spain — there are so many places that are so intimate and comfortable and conducive to conversations, yet good. It’s so different than down here. In college I supported myself by working in restaurants and bars, but there, it was a completely different culture — so simple, but so comfortable, with food and good people. I wanted to create a space like that where, however you’re dressed, you can feel comfortable and have good food and good conversation.” In Hong Kong, he was a big fan of the famous Aussie bar a block or so behind the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where instead of TV, a singer-pianist unites the crowd into happy, sing-along community.
“Unfortunately, in San Diego you can’t have that kind of experience. I was really eager to create a space like that; that was my dream. But a friend of mine started an auto-repair business, and with very little money down, I joined that. And it became quite successful, and I made enough money to give me the freedom to start exploring and creating the restaurant. I had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I talked to a lot of restaurant owners, but being naive, I [still] pursued it. I’d drive around and look for locations. I loved downtown. The energy was different, there were a lot of cool things going on.” He tried to get appointments with the big developers, but they wouldn’t talk to him. “I went to Borders and bought every book I could about business, so I could write a business plan and put it all together. There was, honestly, a lot of fluff in the plan I wrote. But I was in the gym, and I met a former CFO of Sycuan, who loved the idea, really got into it, and was willing to take a shot on a young kid and gave us some credibility for FDA loans and stuff like that. And a friend of mine growing up took out a line of credit on his house, and we just made it happen.”
I asked why he decided to do upscale pub grub. “The trend in the culinary world,” he said, “is these young chefs really pushing the limits, doing all this crazy fusion and off-the-wall things. It can be good, but it’s never that satisfying. It’s about tastes and getting back to the basics. I’ve had $200 meals and carne asada burritos, and frankly, I’d take the burrito. It’s simplicity that fascinates me, simple things done well. With simple things, like burgers with good ingredients, they can be just as satisfying as $200 meals. Our food costs are really high. Our burgers are $10, but our costs on the plate are $5, which is well beyond the ratio for most restaurants. But that’s what it takes to do really good, simple food.
“As for the noise, we’re kind of remodeling right now to deal with that. Obviously, that part wasn’t finished when we opened. We want to be a more conversational space, like the bars and pubs of Asia and Europe, so we want it to be less noisy and more civilized, so that people can talk. We’re going to start working on that next week.”
*** (Good to Very Good)
777 G Street (corner of Eighth Avenue), East Village, 619-446-0002, neighborhoodburgers.com (site not up yet).
HOURS: Open daily 4:00 p.m.–midnight.
PRICES: Small plates, sides, and salads, $2–$8; entrées, $7–$11.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Offbeat pub grub centering on half-pound burgers with serious sauces and garnishes. Local microbrewery beers, ample choice of interesting international wines including plenty by the glass, most easily affordable.
PICK HITS: Deviled eggs; steak tartare; Idaho fries; sweet potato fries; any salad, any burger.
NEED TO KNOW: Extremely noisy (this may change soon), with rock playing at maximum volume. Happy hour 4:00–7:00 p.m., Monday–Friday, reverse happy hour Wednesday, starting at 10 p.m. Two-for-one drafts, your choice from one selected San Diego microbrewer, Monday–Friday. Sixteen lacto-ovo vegetarian appetizers and sides, seven of them vegan; three lacto-vegetarian entrées (two adaptable for vegans by request). No kiddie menu, but regular menu is kid-friendly.