‘King of the ‘Hill’

By Lauren Ciallella
City Times

Forget up and coming, Hillcrest has carved its niche and still continues to thrive. Serving as a blueprint for surrounding neighborhoods mentioned in the series (North Park, South Park, Golden Hill and Downtown), Hillcrest’s bohemian undercurrent has transcended its early ’80s remodel, retaining a sassy persona while becoming financially prosperous. Embracing neighborhood idiosyncrasies rather than creating a homogenized environment, Hillcrest relied on collective influence to preserve community individuality. A mentor for the dilapidated and downtrodden, this prodigy morphed into a grandiose success brandishing liberal values through a burnished exterior.

n Addicted to Hash – Hash House a-GoGo (3628 Fifth Ave.) will have mouths agape as skillets bearing behemoth portions pass through a neutral dining room, allowing food to be the main attraction. Breakfasts, “Flinstone-ian” in size, would leave even Fred with leftovers. The bacon waffle acts out the most devious of sweet and savory fantasies, satisfying every wicked craving. They hit the nail on the hand-hammered pork loin, crisp with yellow tomato, spinach and bbq cream. Sage fried chicken with maple reduction, eggs, bacon mashed potatoes and biscuit also performs amazing acts of “breakfastry.” Impressive and overwhelming, the Hash House will have you “oohing and aahing” at the new spectator sport where final victory is achieved when the plate lands in front of you.

n To Catch a Thief – Wine Steals (1243 University Ave.) opens its door into a harem of wine and cheeses, stopping somewhere between Sonoma Valley and your living room. Old casks of wine pose as tall tables on the outskirts, while patrons heavy with merlot sink into sofas. Freshly upholstered chairs mismatched with old wooden ones instill unpretentious levity while remaining stylish. Once here, you’ll never want to leave the low lighting and high spirits that seize the space through simplicity, comfort and warmth. Nightly specials are abundant, as are the wine selections that change weekly. Cheese boards boasting several varieties (served with bread, nuts, olives and balsamic) are a meal in itself, but the true gem is oven baked pizza with choices like proscuitto and olive or mushroom and artichoke. Who knew that some of the best pizza in San Diego could be found at the best wine shop in San Diego? Wholesale wines, extra helpful employees and a general feeling of merriment are generously poured to always keep your glass half full.

n Second Time Around – Wear it again Sam ( 3823 Fifth Ave.) and Flashbacks (3847 Fifth Ave) – Vintage stores in San Diego offer some of the most quality goods and well organized settings to transport you back into a 1960s department store. Classic in styles and matchless in individuality, these duds only bring good feelings about wearing someone else’s clothes. Musty aromas of “old attic smell” are nonexistent and the cleanliness of these items makes them authentically yours.

n Scratching an “Ich” – Ichiban (1449 University Ave.), recognized by its wide orange awning and daily specials banner, draws a crowd nightly. This is why: Mon.-Fri. (3-7p.m.) most rolls are half price. The spicy tuna roll is only $2 and a crunchy roll (shrimp tempura inside, eel outside with spicy mayo and crunchies) is only $4. Have a feast for two under the awning for under $20.

n Fishing for a Compliment – Nami (501 University Ave.) is high end compared to Ichiban, but well worth the extra dollars. Most people associate calamari with Italian cuisine, but the Japanese have mastered it. Curry calamari salad with mushrooms, cucumbers and sprouts presents light, tender rings topped with mango lime vinaigrette – “lick your plate” delicious. The sushi is also exceptional with fresh fish, properly prepared rice and several varied options from the commonplace California roll.

n To a T. – T. Deli (1469 University Ave.) is the new kid on the block, but making its pristine impression slowly known. The white walls and well organized jars of loose tea make the entry into this small deli like stepping out of the dryer – so fresh and so clean. Over 100 teas are showcased by the extremely friendly owners who take genuine interest in their customers (join as a “mystery diner” to go undercover and rate the service for a free meal). Green tea with rose petals sips soothing refreshment while homemade, chicken lime soup makes for a rousing winter warm up.

n Park it Here – CafÇ on Park (3831 Park Blvd.) is an old standby with ingredients so fresh you’ll swear someone picked through mom’s fridge for the menu. Answering appetites with big ideas about breakfast (their cornmeal and honey pancake is bigger than your head!) and consistently coming through on lunch with comfort food favorites like bleu burgers with onion rings or chicken pot pie (this structure may need permits), they consistently feed you good cooking “like mom used to make” with a mind of its own. Everything is homemade from their meatloaf to the turkey on the sandwiches and it shows.

n Nunu’s is Good News – Nunu’s (3537 Fifth Ave.) melds an Elks lodge aesthetic with ’70s lounge nostalgia, rich with maroon booths lining the outer wall to fit your whole crew. Drinks are “face-wincingly” strong which only make tunes from the digital jukebox all the easier to dance to. Heavy handed barkeeps and petite perimeters on the patio induce interaction with strangers (or at least make for a good amount of eavesdropping!)

n Run in the Stocking – Bluestocking (3817 Fifth Ave.) offers a wide spectrum of new and used books that aren’t your usual literary finds. A perfect gag gift for new parents is “Baby Make Me Breakfast” or “Baby Make Me a Drink,” guiding your child on how to become useful. Pick up a couple of books for the kids too since prices here are much lower than big name book stores. Shelves and tables offer well laid sections that are easy to maneuver around and neatly organized stacks help while searching for specifics. Poetry readings take place the first Mon. of each month and the first Fri is improve jazz. Worn wooden floors in a spacious “mom and pop” setting bring back feelings of life before Barnes and Noble.

Hillcrest Hints

n A Good Rye is Hard to Find – Hit the City Delicatessen (535 University Ave.) for the “Rachel” (pastrami on rye with sauerkraut and Swiss) and a chocolate malt.

This Little Piggy Went to Market – Every Sunday is the Hillcrest farmer’s market on Normal St and this is the granddaddy of them all. Larger scale in vendors, food and live music set this market apart from surrounding neighborhoods.

Hillcrest “Hindenburgs”

n The Jinx – Lucky Buck’s (1459 University Ave.) advertises gourmet burgers and burritos which must mean that Burger King is royalty. Just because you call it gourmet doesn’t make it so, and pepper jack cheese does not constitute sophisticated taste. No such thing as medium rare here, since the cook mercilessly presses every last drop of juice from the charred patty. Buck’s stale, stripped garage aesthetic gives a dirty feel to the place (or maybe it’s just the loose topping/condiment station). Isolating the masses even further by accepting cash only, Lucky Buck’s burger massacre is nothing but a big “bucking” disappointment.

n I want my money back, money back, money back .ribs – Baby Back Jack’s (1290 E. University Ave.) puts the meaty in mediocre with a plate that looks enjoyable with well endowed rib meat, but disappoints with weak flavor and soggy texture. It seems reasonable at $7.95 for ribs, fries and a side, but that’s no deal when everything is sub par. Although edible, it was unmemorable and the cole slaw (with pineapple), pasta and potato salad were worthless, bland additions to this “humph” meal.

Extra Side

Additions to prior installments

in the series

n North Park – Mission Possible – The Mission (2801 University Ave.) is an old reliable serving both the healthy minded and the healthy appetite. The roast beef hash features plump medallions of steak with a dash of horseradish cream. Zen breakfast with tofu, brown rice and veggies gives a lighter option with flare when eating out. Old stand by’s like pancakes and quesadillas supersede expectations by using complimentary flavor combos while keeping it simple.

n South Park – Extra! Extra! Eat All About It! – The Daily Scoop (3004 Juniper St.) is the neighborhood creamery having you feeling like a kid while catering to adult tastes. Cinnamon or ginger ice cream spice things up with potent, creamy depth and seasonal flavors, like pumpkin chiffon add a new twist on holiday dessert. Cleansing palates with champagne sorbet and other temptations like lemon custard or Kahluha crunch make it necessary to pick up a pint even during winter the months.

n Golden Hill – Greasy Spoon is Golden – Golden Hill CafÇ (2505 C St.) is nestled next to Jaycee’s Market and could easily be missed, but that would be a mistake. Spick and span, this spotless diner is welcoming through staff and setting. Counter seating and booths are reminiscent of old school feng shui, complete with order window where the chef slings your chow. The breakfast combo with French toast or pancakes, bacon or sausage and two eggs is $4.95 – same price for a burger, fries and a drink. Other artery cloggers close to your heart like chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy are hard to find items in health conscious San Diego and give the proper preparation of grease needed after a long night out.

n Downtown – East meets South – The Honey Beehive (1409 C St.) “Salsa sushi” takes place on Wed. at 8 p.m. and spins hip hop while rolling rice. Mexican ingredients like cilantro, chipotle and mango salsa are incorporated with traditional sushi components for a midweek buzz to compliment your “after class” beer.

(Lauren Ciallella is City Times’ arts editor)

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‘King of the ‘Hill’