3391 30th Street, North Park
Alexander’s is the new North Park spin-off of very old Old Venice in Point Loma, where the latter is popular, if perhaps taken for granted. In the gentrifying North Park area, however, no decent restaurant is ever taken for granted — not yet — particularly those springing up south of University, in reach of the even hungrier denizens of South Park, where the natives welcome each opening like tropical-island cargo cultists hailing a landing plane. The dogleg-corner of Upas and 30th has become a mini–gourmet ghetto, as moderate-priced and interestingly varied eateries have moved in — the Linkery (relocating soon to larger quarters north), Zensei Sushi, and now, across the street, Alexander’s.
The neighborhood direly needed a good neighborhood Italian restaurant (not another pizzeria — there’s already a nice new one in Lefty’s), and Alex Walter, son of the owners of Old Venice, took up the challenge. When Alexander’s opened late last spring, it was instantly embraced by the pasta-starved masses and, most evenings, still remains packed. It’s worth taking time to call in a reservation, even if only an hour or two before you arrive — especially when it’s raining and the spacious back patio becomes too swampy for use.
The dining room is bright, white (with subway tiles on the walls and marble flooring), and raucously noisy, the hard surfaces bouncing the ambient music around until everybody is yelling their conversations. My neighbors Scott, Mike, and I, who all live reasonably close to the restaurant, dropped in one night and were fortuitously seated on the back patio, which has a white fabric ceiling and enough heat stanchions to made a cold night so cozy we could comfortably take off our outerwear. Ah, the thrill of alfresco dining midwinter, under romantic lighting. Could have used a flashlight, though, to read the menu and wine list.
In many ways, Alexander’s is more an old-style San Diego restaurant than a new one. The menu is mainly an abbreviation of Old Venice’s, with tried-and-true dishes — but then, we generally expect more tradition than innovation at Italian restaurants. A single veggie medley (albeit a Mediterranean mixture including mushrooms, rather than the standard Sysco trio) accompanies all entrées, and I wasn’t totally impressed with the quality of ingredients. Yet the kitchen is clearly competent, and most of the food is agreeable enough that “good” really does mean “good.”
The bread service consisted of large, rough, heavily toasted slabs of Italian bread. It may be an attempt at garlic bread, but if so, it’s garlic-deficient. “I wonder if they alternate,” said Mike, “between one day of fresh soft bread, and for the next day, yesterday’s stale bread, toasted.” Arriving with no accompanying butter or bagna, it seems it’s not “eating bread” but “sauce-sopping bread.” Just eat your heart out until your order arrives.
We began with Le Tigre shrimp, a compelling appetizer mixture of tender large shrimps, artichoke hearts, a few capers, and small, surprisingly delicious Roma tomatoes in white wine sauce. The portion is large enough (five hefty shrimp), and the mixture of flavors complex enough, to double as a light entrée.
The less-benign Hawthorne-stuffed mushrooms were filled with a bland, dense mince of snow crab and shrimp, the caps shrouded in coarse melted provolone cheese — much of it overbaked to the texture of rubber bands. The dish fairly screams for the substitution of more delicate, acquiescent (and expensive) fontina cheese.
When we ordered the house “spicy Caesar” salad, the waitress told us that since we were ordering entrées, we were entitled to three individual house salads, gratis — but she’d arrange for us to have mini-Caesars instead of the standard greens. Very kind — but, whoops, not really: We were charged for the Caesar and didn’t get the free house mix (which may well be tastier and comes with a choice of interesting dressings). The Caesar featured dark, soggy rags of the outer leaves of romaine, drenched in tasty, Parmesan-heavy dressing. They tasted as if they’d been soaking since the previous day, and old Gaius Julius might have said, “Et tu, Alex?” at encountering this rendition of his namesake. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go for the more imaginative 30th Street Salad, with pineapple balsamic dressing, or the popular Greek Goddess Salad — or I might just choose a bowl of steamed New Zealand mussels.
As the evening went on and the restaurant filled to the gills, the sweetness of service deteriorated a bit. For instance, when we asked to borrow back one copy of the menu to remind ourselves what the ingredients were in our dishes, the better to enjoy them, the waitress — an Italian beauty with a lovely accent — rather snappily refused. She may not have understood our reasoning, or our English, since she told us to go to the menu on the website. We tried again to explain that we weren’t asking for a takeout menu, just to look at the regular one again, but she was in no mood to listen and flounced off in a state of evident stress. (The website, by the way, although far from fancy, proves rather flaky, awkward, and slow — it seems like a throwback to earlier days of website design, and I don’t merely mean the old-timey graphic style. A serious and patient nerd could probably figure out some workaround to print out the whole menu instead of scraps of it, or to copy-and-paste it into Word. Too rushed to make it my life’s work, I couldn’t do either.)
A shared mid-course of “linguine de Kathleen” was thoroughly rewarding, even “scrumbo” as our Tin Fork would say. Green linguine were swathed in a rich, dark pesto punctuated by pine nuts, more of those delicious little Roma tomatoes, plus sun-dried tomatoes, poufs of feta cheese, and sweet, cooked, whole garlic cloves. Here was proof that Alexander’s is really an Italian restaurant, not another Italian-American clichéd collection like some of this area’s unmourned departed restaurants. Pesto and garlic cloves! The dish has Genoa written all over it, and the addition of feta shows some culinary imagination. In fact, there are a lot of Greek flavors on this menu; I suspect they come from parent restaurant Old Venice, since Venice is on the Adriatic, Greece is on the Adriatic, and it’s natural for food ideas to flow back and forth between them. (I couldn’t reach the owner by deadline to find out whether the family actually is Venetian — or perhaps Greek.)
A lot of the kitchen’s best work probably goes into the pasta list, which offers numerous temptations. I would love to try the “vodka Bolognese” with Italian sausages and mushrooms, or the walnut-Gorgonzola sauce, and a friend told me later that she’d enjoyed the house pizza, finding it reasonably thin-crusted, with a wide and interesting choice of toppings.
The evening’s special of seafood piccata redoubled the sense of authenticity. All the seafood (large mussels, small clams, shrimps, fish) was tender, and the lively lemon sauce was an ideal match for the delicate angel-hair pasta garnish. Scrumbo, again.
A “surf ’n’ turf” variation of filet mignon and garlic shrimps costs a reasonable $26, which should raise suspicion about the quality of the meat. Those suspicions are justified. The shrimp, all two of them, were shriveled and dry, and even with the meat cooked rare, we badly needed the steak knife to saw through the chewy beef. That very day I’d seen a supermarket ad for “Select grade filet mignon, $7.99/lb, Choice grade $8.99/lb in selected locations.” Alexander’s was probably Select (at best), conferring all the benefits of an aerobic workout for the jaw. Eat it daily, in mere weeks your chin would look like Ah-nold’s, and in a few months it would rival Sly Stallone’s.
Back to the good news: Honey-glazed salmon was utterly tender, with an attractive sweet, dark glaze that suited it well — piscine comfort food. Even if its mild flavor and soft texture indicated it was probably farmed Atlantic salmon rather than our more wholesome wild Pacific fish, the treatment made it highly enjoyable.
Desserts are housemade but were in scant supply that evening. The signature dessert, borrowed from Old Venice, consists of large chocolate-chip cookies and vanilla gelato. We asked what else there might be. Though still early, the bread pudding was gone. Our waitress rescued a last piece of tiramisu for us — soft and lush, if short on both rum and coffee. Better yet, the icky commercial-grade chocolate syrup (Hershey’s? Sysco?) was smeared on the plate, not on the dessert, and the waxy, low-rent chocolate chips besmirched only the accompanying whipped cream. Call it a “deconstructed” tiramisu, and rejoice that the finishing touches are separate from the body.
Oddly enough for an Italian restaurant, there’s no espresso here, just coffee. Mike found the “caf” pretty good; I found the decaf so DOA, I loaded some of the dessert whipped cream on top of it to lend it interest.
Given the restaurant’s old-stalwart ancestry, the meal was better than I expected, though a trifle less than I’d hoped for. The eternal question is “Would you go back?” Well, a few days later, I ate at the splendid Antica Trattoria in La Mesa (which I’ll tell you about next week or the week after). If I had my way, Antica would be in North Park (better yet, South Park) and Alexander’s would be in La Mesa. But (going back to Rummy’s deathless quote) you eat at the restaurant you’ve got. Alexander’s is the restaurant I’ve got within sensible reach of home — and yes, I want to eat more pastas, more specials, more salads, certainly a pizza, and maybe even more entrées. The food isn’t ultra-raveworthy, but not only is it “not bad,” it’s positively good, particularly if you become a regular and learn which dishes to order and which ones to avoid. And compared to the two now-departed Italian joints (goodbye and good riddance!) that used to be in this part of town — well, whew!
3391 30th Street (at Upas Street), North Park, 619-281-2539, alexanderson30th.com.
HOURS: Monday–Friday 4:00–10:30 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday until 11:30 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $8.50–$12.25; salads, $5.25–$11.25; pastas, $11.75–$16.50; pizzas, $14–$21.50; entrées, $20–$26.25.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Coastal Italian cuisine emphasizing seafoods and pasta. Affordable international wine list (California, Italy, Argentina), with most choices available by the glass, plus sangria, beers.
PICK HITS: Le Tigre shrimp; linguine de Kathleen; honey-glazed salmon; seafood piccata (special).
NEED TO KNOW: Heated roofed patio behind restaurant is dimly lighted but much quieter than noisy dining room. Unisex restrooms. Reservations advised at all times except very early evening. Takeout orders accepted by phone. One vegan pasta, at least seven vegetarian choices (including pizza).