We began with grilled sweet corn on the cob, a huge ear pasted all over with precious black-corn fungus.
1503 30th Street, San Diego
The menu of Alchemy has expanded considerably since I first ate there after its opening, and the restaurant has become a South Park neighborhood favorite. Of course, there’s not much else to eat in the area (tacos, pizzas, and breakfasts), but Alchemy’s spin is just right — international tapas, plenty of substantial rabbit food, and a few entrées, including a popular grass-fed burger with parmesan fries and a grass-fed rib-eye for a splurge.
My friend Sam has snacked at the bar here many times with a post-work glass of wine, and he steered me away from his disappointments. He hadn’t much liked the fried green tomatoes, even less the Polse med Lompe, a Norwegian version of a hotdog wrapped in potato flatbread. (I don’t know Norwegian food, but reading the menu description of this dish, I’m not sure I want to. No offense to Norwegians — they’ve got a beautiful country with fjords and stuff!) He’d enjoyed the Lyonnaise salad but for the orgy of frisée lettuce; neither of us much likes its texture, regardless of the goodies bestrewing it.
Unclothed wooden tables are set with a stack of small empty plates and cloth napkins, and a roll of flatware is tucked into a napkin on the side. Service is adept: Margaret, who used to work as the front-of-the-house manager at my former hangout the Better Half, has obviously trained the staff well. (The night we went, she must’ve been off, as she wasn’t there to bust me.)
It was a hot evening and we had our eyes on some Latin American grazes, so I started with an Alchemy Margarita, made virtuously with agave syrup and fresh orange juice. I found it a bit flaccid in flavor and missed the sharp, limey acidity of less-creative old-fashioned margaritas made from scratch, the Mexican way, with tequila, lime juice, Triple Sec, and ice — nothing more. Happily, the wine list that night featured Randall Grahm (the Rhône Ranger); he’s one of my wine heroes, the witty and whip-smart proprietor of Bonny Doon Winery up north. His Vin Gris de Cigare rosé was wide-awake bright (and not too steeply priced), an apt match for tapas.
We began with elote, grilled sweet corn on the cob, a huge ear pasted all over with puréed huitlacoche (precious black-corn fungus) mixed with mayo, cotija cheese, and mild ancho chile. It comes with a huge steak knife. Instead of simply halving it, Sam scraped off all the kernels into a great heap so that we could scoop them up with their accompaniments. ¡Delicioso!
The jerk chicken’s marination on a substantial thigh-leg piece proved uneven. My bite was fiery, Sam’s was bland. It tasted good but didn’t take me back to the Caribbean, as it was missing some of the authentic flavoring ingredients that are hard to find here (perhaps true scotch bonnet Jamaican chiles, versus regular Yucatan-style habaneros; perhaps “sives,” the nearly leek-sized Caribbean chives with a faint garlic flavor; or maybe Spanish thyme, a coleus relative that tastes like oregano). I really don’t know — Caribbean jerks are amazingly complex and varied. The chef might even have used Walker’s Wood Jerk Marinade, same as I do — but it didn’t taste like that. The pieces were tender, and came with sweet (ripe) roasted plantain slabs.
Lengua (tongue) tacos were odd. The shredded, spiced, and sauced meat didn’t have the mouth-feel of tongue, tasting more like pork. Pork’s good meat, but when your tongue’s set for tongue…
As for Yukon Gold potato pierogi (with bacon and sour cream), much as I love all the ingredients, they were huge potato-bomb WMDs. (I couldn’t detect any pasta wrappings — they seemed more a splat of spuds.)
Chef Ricardo Heredia’s “award winning” (one asks, from whom?) Black Garlic Pad Thai was strange, indeed. Black garlic is a wonderful new foodstuff, but Pad Thai is fundamentally shrimp-based (fresh and/or dried). Here, its protein is chicken, and the flavors are bland. That devolves it to American comfort food with a faint Thai accent, a sort of sophisticated mom’s chicken-noodle casserole with peanuts, scallions, sprouts, and egg, all innocent of Thailand’s multiple flavors (sweet/spicy/salty/sour).
Few of the tapas include a serious vegetable accompaniment. For those, you’ll have to go to the sections called Garden Food (soups and salads) or the sides. The latter are probably an array of customer favorites. We ordered piquillos rellenos and stuffed squash blossoms. Piquillo peppers from Spain are a mild variety, lightly smoked and usually canned or bottled, serving as a favorite tapa when draped with anchovies. Here, they’re stuffed with “bbq pulled pork.” The tangy stuffing complements but doesn’t overwhelm the peppers; they’re still the stars, as well they should be. Stuffed squash blossoms always call for delicate treatments, since they’re so physically delicate themselves. Here they’re filled with herbed ricotta and fresh corn, and tasted much as I expected them to.
Having filled up on tapas and sides, we didn’t order any of the four main dishes and couldn’t imagine venturing on dessert. “What surprises me,” said Sam, “is the lack of vivid flavors. Everything seems dimmed-down.”
I’m supposed to love Alchemy. It’s my own neighborhood bistro in the food-scant wilderness of greater Golden Hill (which includes charming “bobo” South Park, as well as an edgier area near the Turf Club). It saddens me that I can’t adore it and praise it to the skies. But Sam’s observation was true: most of the food seemed subdued. It’s good, often better than good, but only one of the dishes we tried (the elote, the easiest dish for a chef) was scintillating. Though it’s definitely a fine addition to my neighborhood, I wish the food were as vivacious as the atmosphere at the bar. ■
★★1/2 (Good to Very Good)
1503 30th Street, South Park, 619-255-0616; alchemysandiego.com
HOURS: Dinner daily, 5:00–11:00 p.m. (bar 4:00 p.m.–midnight or later); Saturday–Sunday brunch, 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
PRICES: Grazes and side dishes $5–$9; soups and salads $6–$16; entrées $13–$25; desserts $6–$8.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Free-range internation cuisine emphasizing local farm products and sustainable proteins, with many tapas, few entrées. Long wine list, often steep but lots by the glass. Numerous craft beers, cocktails made from scratch.
PICK HITS: Elote (grilled corn with huitlacoche and cotija cheese); jerk chicken; stuffed squash blossoms; piquillos rellenos. Possible good bets: Lyonnaise salad, smoked tomato bisque, grass-fed rib-eye or burger with parmesan fries.
NEED TO KNOW: Vegetarian dinners Wednesdays ($25), plus many vegetarian/vegan choices daily. Suckling pig group dinner for 8–10 (order two days ahead), $38 per person. Dinner with Six Strangers (for one or two) at communal table, once a month (next is October 20; call for details), $48 per person including everything. Hip music (country, blues, etc.), but room gets loud when full, usually around 8:00 p.m.