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I'd heard some buzz, but it wasn't until chef Paul McCabe of KITCHEN 1540 leaned over to me at the California Restaurant Association awards and asked, "So, have you been to Union yet?" that I knew I'd need to fire up the ol' autocoach and motor out to Encinitas to see what Highway 101's latest resto addition is all about. McCabe hadn't been there, but rumors of an early boom for the new biz had trickled south to his kitchen at L'Auberge Del Mar. Earlier today, I lunched there and it appears just about everything I'd heard is correct.

Yes, it's been well received by coastal residents. There was a healthy swell of patrons adding to the jovial ambience at what is one of the most attractive spaces I've come across of the many decked out in today's popular reclaimation-modern motif. Yes, there's a nice selection of craft beer on-tap, much of which (75-85%) is local in nature, but to be fair, mostly everyday varieties that are just as available at a BevMo.

And yes, it's absolutely, positively, pricey. Burgers come in at $12 and up. Sandwiches follow suit. Still, I indulged in one of each, being sure to ask if fries at least came with them at that price point. My waitress, who was more than pleasant and highly efficient (like the rest of the staff...definitely something an eatery, especially one this young, can hang their newbie hats on), explained that they come with Kenebunc chips, but fries are available...for a dollar more (huh...are these not all fried potato items?). I bid farewell to George Washington and splurged for one of the plates. What I got in return were lackluster fries served with a house-made "smoked" ketchup that was in no way smokey and in all ways unappealing due to a watery consistency and a flavor that tasted like granulated sugar and little else.

Take my advice and stick with the chips, which are by far the best thing here. Sprinkled with a liberal amount of house seasoning that's delicious and even a bit spicy, it's a wonder they're the option available at zero mark-up. My burger, which was adorned with caramelized onions and Maytag blue cheese (one of my faves), was humble and tasted like a bland, bad home-made version. The subpar nature of this offering is particularly notable considering Encinitas Ale House, a spot with a better beer list and burgers that are monstrous and ungodly tasty by comparison, is just A HALF A BLOCK AWAY!

My beer, a Ballast Point Tongue Buckler, was $8 - steep, but for a double-digit flavor bomb, you can almost overlook it. But $6 for an under 5% ABV Mucho Aloha Hawaiian-style pale ale? This is highway robbery that can only occur when servicing a clientele that really doesn't know what they're consuming. It really drives home that Union is more trend than substance; another spot looking to jump onboard the homey, crafty gastropub bandwagon just as the owners of the spot did when they established their first venture, Pacific Beach Ale House. Craft beer drinkers don't really give much thought to it and, though Union is far better than Generipub Version 1.0, it's unlikely it'll crack its way into SD's caste of standout craft beer establishments either.

That said, if it's a pretty space and killer tater chips you're looking for, you can't do any better. Grab a Kenebunc-style app, then take a walk to Encinitas Ale House for your entrée.


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