1503 30th Street, San Diego
Alchemy doesn’t turn lead into gold, but its kitchen does turn good ingredients into palate-pleasers. Open seven months and well populated since Day One, it was bound to be a hit, given all the starving grown children of South Park. It’s only the third sophisticated restaurant along the whole 30th/Fern Street corridor from Switzer Canyon (dividing North from South Park) down to the concrete banks of the MLK freeway. It’s also, to my palate, the top choice. Given the automatic clientele, the food is delightfully better than it has to be — paraphrasing the old Lovin’ Spoonful hit, “You didn’t have to be so nice, we would have loved you anyway.” You sense a bohemian, multi-culti idealism built into the operation here, not solely a raw profit motive — that’s the South Park spirit!
Co-owners and former school friends Matt Thomas and Ron Troyamo started renovating the building (a few steps south of well-known Hamilton’s Bar) long before the restaurant opened but were foiled by a fire that gutted the property. They resumed and persevered, finally opening last February. The room is bright and golden-toned from all the wood, with local artists’ paintings on the walls and a huge “tree” sculpture dominating the dining room. But with uncarpeted floors, unclothed tables, and ambient music played loud, noise bounces around the hard surfaces. Looks great, sounds raucous, getting worse as the night latens and the room fills. That’s obviously the 30th Street spirit, too (where the sole island of sonic civility is Ritual Tavern, north of University).
Seasoned local chef Ricardo Heredia worked on the menu with a consulting chef from a chic New York restaurant. The food is light, healthy, sophisticated, designed for the fun of sharing among friends or feeding a happy singleton at the bar. Irene, smart server/sommelier from the late Better Half (for anonymity, I ate there on her night off), has been the house manager since opening, which may be why service seems more professional than at other idealistic restaurants on both sides of the canyon.
The menu consists mainly of grazes, ranging from small bites to substantial tapas, with a few full-size entrées and token desserts. “No fries for you this time, young lady,” I warned the Lynnester. “Too many other interesting items to try.” Mark and tall, dark, Scottish Sue completed the group. We began with a couple of tiny plates called “Snacks.” Melitzana Salata with lavash bread was minuscule but lavish in flavor — tender eggplant and puffs of salty cheese (tasted like feta, could be ricotta salata) with a gorgeous little salsa of ripe, fresh tomato chunks in herbed olive oil alongside to spread on torn-off pieces of lavash bread. Only problem: no spoon! Eggplant lovers may want one portion per person; I could have made a meal of this dish. Even so, it was eclipsed by winey-sweet piquillo peppers (a flavorful Spanish variety roasted over wood, available canned) stuffed with tender shreds of heritage Berkshire pork — a real “ta-da!” number.
Larger grazes are called “Smalls.” The plate of oysters and white gazpacho is small indeed, just two little farm-raised oysters from Carlsbad. They were rich and sweet — sweetened further by a scattering of champagne grapes, a fresh, clever combination. They came with a shot glass of strange, pale, salty liquid with more grapes atop — unidentifiable and odd. I suspect last winter’s green gazpacho (tomatillos) was more rewarding, but I’m a sucker for any oysters this impeccably fresh.
It’s also a treat to find un-fried calamari, a species adaptable to numerous creations, of which trendy frying is the least exciting. Calamari de Cadiz features juicy, tender rings and tentacles in a mini-casserole with country ham, white wine, and saffron butter, with lemon pugliese bread for dipping. Our table did a lot of dipping. And dipped even more into the sauce for gambas al ajillo, a classic Spanish tapa of shrimp served in a cast-iron mini-skillet with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, and paprika. For Spanish-food veterans Sue and I, it was a good, ordinary rendition. But Lynne and Mark were novices, to my surprise, and they were thrilled, scooping up so much sauce we needed to order extra bread. (“You must eat tapas in PB at Costa Brava,” I told them. “You’ve been missing a great cuisine. And the owner is charming and major cute, too.”)
Ceviche of minced fresh local sea bass was pleasing but ordinary, despite some elusive pickled mango supposedly hidden in there and (better yet) delicious toasted coriander seeds strewn all around. Long, faintly sweet strips of ripe crisped plantain served alongside weren’t fried like tostones but lightly brushed with oil and baked. A salad of local avocado and corn with Green Goddess dressing looked impressive — a thick disc of corn kernels surrounded by avocado and cucumber slices — but was mildly disappointing, corn-sweet, but needing a zestier dressing with more acidity or piquancy.
After another scorching day, the night was as warm and humid as New Orleans (evoking “sweet magnolia under the moonlight” — if only!) and we needed a lively cold bottle of white to refresh bodies and souls. The wine list comes in a small heavy booklet, like a preteen’s diary or photo collection. After a few affordable bottles at the low end of the list, it turns a little steep, but by a good guess I zeroed in on a perfect choice for weather and food, a well-chilled La Craie Vouvray ($32), a dry Loire-grown Chenin Blanc so fruity and lively it nearly jumped out of the glass. For the second round, nobody wanted anything other than more of the same.
We split two entrées. “Market-fresh” vegetable lasagna came from a list of seasonal summer entrées. Based on delicate, fresh-made thin pasta, it included baby spinach, roasted cremini mushrooms, and grilled eggplant, plus ricotta and fresh mozzarella, basil, and fresh tomato sauce. Grilling the eggplant made it firm-tender, avoiding the oiliness of the sautéed vegetable. Ditto, roasting the mushrooms. With these firm-tender textures, meat was superfluous, even undesirable. “I never thought lasagna could be so light,” said Lynne happily. The essence of balmy late summer, it offered all the indulgence of a classic lasagna, minus the grease.
We were torn between the braised Niman Ranch pork belly and the “crispy-skin Jidori half chicken” for our second entrée. The latter included shiitake dumplings and “Szechuan pepper dust.” That choice suited the heat and also seemed more of a challenge to the kitchen; most local chefs overcook the bird but can’t manage a crispy skin. Well, Alchemy got it right — really crisp and pleasingly salty, and tender inside! The doggie bag hinted at the secret: trying it again at home, it tasted brined within an inch of its life, exuding saline solution. The shiitake dumplings (more like half-wontons) were satisfying, simple, and earthy, the baby bok choy tender and appropriate — but I didn’t taste “Szechuan pepper dust” at all. (Just glad the peppers are legal for import again.)
Desserts are sparse. The sole house-made sweet is cranberry bread pudding (dry on the surface, moist and rich inside, heavy whatever way) topped with sexy buttermilk gelato from Gelato Vera. My espresso was well made, a tad bitter but with a thick head of crema. Coffees are from Café Moto in North Park. The brand-new weekend brunch menu sounds fabulous, including down-home treats like shrimp with cheddar grits. I wish they made brunch for dinner!
I’m cutting my own throat here because Alchemy is in the neighborhood next door to mine, and I don’t want to fight off huge crowds to eat there — but this budget-priced “neighborhood restaurant” is plenty good enough for people of any neighborhood to enjoy. The prices are right, and the food is the way we like to eat now.
Another Cruise to the Barbecue Islands
After the last BBQ roundup, an Encinitas reader enthusiastically suggested a newcomer, Brett’s BBQ, where the motto is “If it’s not smoked, it’s not barbeque.” Right on! A few weeks later, good pal Sam was doing business up in Rancho Bernardo. He ate at the original location and brought me back a big bunch of takeout. Since the larger restaurant is in Encinitas, this isn’t a definitive report; there may or may not be differences in the meat between the two. I have some problems with the tenderness but also found thrills.
It is definitely real, smoked Q, with pink smoke rings in the meat. The basic style seems Texan, although here they use only hickory, no mesquite. (Not all Q’s in Texas use mesquite either.) But of the food from the RB location, only the chicken was tender — I definitely needed teeth for the red meats, which indicates that either the smoker heat is too high (sposed to be “low and slow”) or the cooking times are too long, particularly if the meat is left unattended as it smokes. Both sets of pork ribs (baby back and spare) were a tad dry and tough, and the pulled pork was chewy. (Sam found it slightly greasy; I don’t mind that.) The brisket, alas, was cardboard. In European cuisines, this tough, potentially stringy cut of beef is usually moist-cooked by braising, slow-simmering, or stewing (e.g., pot roast, corned beef and cabbage). Texan BBQ champs solve the problem by marinating the brisket and then tending it all night, regularly brushing it with the drained-off marinade, which now becomes a “mopping sauce” to introduce liquid so that the beef sort of smokes and braises simultaneously. This brisket didn’t taste very mopped.
But they’re doing a lot of things right. We tend to think of “Texas BBQ” sauce as resembling the thick, tomatoey supermarket sauces darkened with Liquid Smoke. That is not authentic. Brett’s BBQ’s sauce really tastes Texan: it’s a thin, tangy, tomato-vinegar mixture, neither sweet nor hot. (Unlike Oakland, KC, and parts of Tennessee, Texas sauces can be spicier than this but are rarely incendiary.) It’s not slathered on, just properly glazed on, with extra sauce served on the side.
The sides I tried were pretty good. Corn pudding was luscious and creamy (and not oversalted!). Potato salad of skin-on red spuds had lots of egg yolk and scallions in the dressing, in the real Southern style of NOLA and the Cajun Triangle — a pleasant surprise. The BBQ baked beans were very sweet, flavorful but, oddly, not smoky enough, despite bits of bacon to add to the smoke-flavor. Hush puppies were dry and leaden; that can happen with takeout.
But best of all — the Texas rope sausage. I’ve been noticing how a lot of local Qs have one knockout dish that’s completely outside the regular BBQ array. At West Coast BBQ, near Grossmont, it’s a gorgeous, genuine Texas beanless chili. (It ought to be a main dish!) At Bull’s BBQ, it’s the great, dark gumbo and brilliant corn muffins. At Lightnin’ Jacks, I liked the light, simple fried catfish (but totally hated the “Cajun” cat).
Here, it’s the barbecued Texas rope sausage sandwich ($7.50) on a roll topped with sautéed onions, peppers, and jack cheese. I’d swear, they must be importing those sausages directly from one of the grand old German smokehouses in Lockhart. As Bob Wills sang, “Take me back to Texas…” They do. These aren’t any ordinary sausages; they taste like Texas sausages from the masters of the art, and in a sandwich with all those succulent veggies and melted cheese atop, well — they’ll take you to Hill Country heaven.
Brett’s BBQ, 1505 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas, 760-436-7427; 4S Ranch, 10550 Craftsman Way #185, Rancho Bernardo, 858-487-7427, brettsbbq.com. Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. daily, both locations. Starters, $5–$8; sandwiches and meat salads, $7.50–$10; smoked plates (with two sides), $7–$22; sides, $1–4 (more for bulk portions).
- 3.5 stars
- (Very Good to Excellent)
1503 30th Street at Beech Street, South Park, 619-255-0616, alchemysandiego.com.
HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 5:00–11:00 p.m., weekends until midnight; weekend brunch 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
PRICES: Snacks and tapas, $3–$10; entrées, $10–$20; desserts and cheese plate, $6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Free-ranging, healthy international grazing plates, seasonal eclectic entrées. Interesting wines, a bit steep (with reserve list of serious French bottlings), lots by the glass, corkage $15. Micro- and Euro-brews, full bar, absinthe service.
PICK HITS: Pork-stuffed piquillo peppers; Melitzana Salata (eggplant tapa); Calamari de Cadiz; oyster “gazpacho”; market-fresh vegetable lasagna; crispy Jidori chicken.
NEED TO KNOW: Noisy with hard-edged decor and loud ambient music; raucous on weekends. No reservations for fewer than six. For shortest waits and quietest times, eat early on weeknights. Street parking easy weeknights, competition on weekends from next-door bar patrons. About ten lacto-vegetarian choices (handful of vegan nibbles).