Patio scene- as much outside as in.
Cheery-looking chap’s taking a sip of beer. We’re in the Barrio, up from Northgate Market, in this little restaurant row beside Cesar E. Chavez Parkway. Sign says “Liberty Call,” and shows off big anchors and lots of red, white, and blue. Quite a contrast to Pho Bo and Oi Asian Fusion, the two eateries next door.
1985 National Avenue, Suite 1131, San Diego
Guy’s name is Josh. He’s trying to explain to me how distilling works. We’re looking through glass at a shiny still that’s making whiskey as we speak. Feels like we’re on the set of a steampunk movie. Pipes, portholes, shiny stuff. “You can tell what’s happening by looking through the portholes,” says Josh. He’s sipping one of their six draft beers, La Flama Blanca, a Mexican lager ($6). Turns out he is the actual distiller, the guy who makes all these bourbons and single malts that they’re displaying around the bar. “The portholes do tell you how the liquids are developing, but you have to interpret what’s going on to deliver the right strength and flavor,” he says, “so it is still a very human art.”
Best deal all day? Ten bucks buys this, complete with choice of meat or fish.
This is the second time I’ve dropped in here. Yesterday was just because they were offering $10 lunch specials. It’s a newish joint up from the Barrio Logan trolley station, an airy, high-ceilinged place, with one of those roll-up glass-front garage doors that exposes the whole inside. The interior is butter-yellow, with black furniture, and an anchor inlaid into the back wall. Most everybody’s sitting up to the bar, but I take an inside-outside table and start studying the beers. Get a Juice Press Hazy IPA ($7) from Michael the server, and a Barrio Bowl salad ($10), because I’ve been having too much fried stuff lately. And this looks like the deal. Mixed greens with lentils, quinoa (high fiber, all those amino acids), green onion, radish, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cilantro, citrus, slices of avo, jalapeño, and pinquito beans (sweeter than pinto). Plus, included in the price, a choice of protein: carnitas, grilled chicken, vegetarian jackfruit, short rib beef birria, fish, or, for $3 more, tri-tip. Hmm.
Now I see it, a sandwich board pushes the Monday-to-Friday $10 lunch. You get to choose between a burger, a chicken sandwich, a plate of poutine, a flatbread, and a salad, plus a side including soup, and a soda. Sounds generous to me. But I go for the Barrio Bowl salad with carnitas. And what a glorious mess: beans, peas, seeds, quinoa, lettuce, and big pile of carnitas.
Of course, their thing here is making spirits. Whiskeys, mainly. But also gins, a spiced rum, vodka. In the end, I can’t resist their offer of a flight of any four for $15. Honestly, spirits ain’t my thing. That burnt taste, the acid flair in your mouth. Same with tequila. But how can I turn down San Diego’s latest experiment? I choose from their main line spirits: Constitution Bourbon (bourbon blended with rye), Old Ironsides single malt, Doublewood Very Small Batch bourbon, and hey, PB Chocolati — bourbon with peanut butter and chocolate. And, okay, it’s the only one I truly enjoy, because it’s sweet. Which tells you how much I know about spirits. (Later I see online what I could’ve had if I were really serious: a bottle of “Pappy Van Winkle,” Family Reserve, 23-year-old bourbon whiskey. It costs $4999. Per bottle.)
Josh Christy, Distiller and active duty explosives guy.
Food, on the other hand, is a deal. Next day, I’m back, and checking the $10 lunch offer, this time with a bean-type soup and a plate of poutine. This poutine’s basically stringy short rib birria on top of a pile of fries with white cheese sauce liquefying things. Good kind of food to share and chew the fat with.
Specially with a guy like Josh. It turns out he also makes his own spirits. “I call my company Deaf Shepherd Distilling,” he says.
I have to ask why.
The incredible answer is that this guy is still active duty Navy. Bomb squad. EOD. Has done six deployments, Iraq, Afghanistan. Has neutralized 125 IEDs. And always with his companion Satchel, an Afghan Warrior Shepherd dog. “We’ve been 11 years together, a lot at firebases. We finally came to the end of one deployment. I had one last mission, to blow up a cache of weapons we had discovered. I checked everybody was clear, but somehow Satchel snuck back in.”
“The charge went off. “Then we saw Satchel. She came tearing out of the cache area, disappeared into the tent and under my bed. The explosion blew both her eardrums. She has been partially deaf ever since. But otherwise okay. So I named my distilling company after her: ‘Deaf Shepherd.’”
Is she still in Afghanistan?
Liberty Call’s poutine - not just gravy.
“She is back with me here in San Diego.”
Josh was born in Saudi Arabia. His parents were both teachers over there. “Everybody had their liquor stills,” he says. “It was a very dry country.” Between deployments, he decided to make a profession of distilling. “I came to Bill Rogers, the owner of Liberty Call. He said ‘Bring me a batch you’re proud of.’ I did, and have been their distiller ever since.”
He has hair-raising stories. Seventeen of his 22 buddies at their forward firebase earned Purple Hearts, meaning they were wounded. Three were killed.
I realize I have nervous-chewed through all my poutine fries. For a moment, I think of ordering up their $12 Barrio Burger. (Even better, for $3 you can add bacon and a fried egg.) But then I think no. What I need is a drink. And no wishy-washy beer. More like, say, a good stiff Very Small Batch Bourbon.
“Uh, might I trouble you for another Doublewood?” I ask.
- The Place: Liberty Call Distilling Co., 1985 National Avenue, Suite 1131, Barrio Logan, 619-432-1848
- Hours: 11am-8pm Monday to Friday; 12-8pm Saturday; 12-5pm Sunday
- Prices: Soup of the day, $8; cashew wings, $8; Dos Tacos (various fillings), $8; poutine, with birria short ribs, white cheese sauce, $10; fried cauliflower, $10; duck confit pupusas, $10 for 2; pepperoni flatbread, $10; barrio bowl salad, with quinoa, $10; barrio burger w/fries, $12; fried chicken sandwich with fries, $12; fried rice, $12; two keto cups, $12; mussels and fries, $12
- Buses: 12, 901, 929
- Nearest Bus Stops: Logan and Chavez (12); National and Chavez (901); Main and Chavez (929)
- Trolley: Blue Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: Barrio Logan, Chavez and E. Harbor Drive