Hutton Marshall | Uptown Editor
Morgan Hurley | Uptown Assistant Editor
Gluttons rejoice, for Taste of Hillcrest has returned to the neighborhood once again. On April 19, over 40 businesses will serve up a treat hoping to turn tasters into regulars. While there are too many quality eateries and drinking holes participating to count, here is a snapshot of a few — many of them fresh faces in the neighborhood — that we recommend checking out that day.
But don’t stop there: Our strongest recommendation is to try as many places as possible — test the limit of your stomach’s capacity for the sake of exploration and adventure — even if you might regret it afterward.
Rockfire Grill just opened in a Hillcrest location that has been pretty much a revolving door when it comes to dining establishments. If new co-owner Raj Syal has anything to do with it, that phenomenon will end right here. Syal travels daily from Orange County to bring Hillcrest a unique combination of Middle Eastern cooking techniques and Western-style food, born from his European and Southeast Asian culinary training. His flatbreads are baked to order in his stone deck oven and are either stuffed, used for pizzas, sandwiches or even burgers. The meats and veggies are skewered and then hung upside down in his 900-degree rockfire grill, where they are smoked, baked and grilled all at once, making them extra flavorful, juicy and tender. Syal, who can’t help but exude his passion for food, calls his offerings “fresh, affordable, simple and satisfying.”
With an interior that mirrors what a ‘50s diner might look like if set in a Japanese comic book series — plush red booth seating surrounded by stark white walls and action figures — East Village Asian Diner has plenty of originality to offer Hillcrest. Opening on University Avenue just this year in the place of Pink Noodle, the diner’s original location opened several years ago in Encinitas, fusing Korean cooking with the off-color creativity of restaurateur and professionally trained chef Daniel Bohlen.
While East Village’s mainstay is its California spin on the traditional Korean “Monk’s Stone Pot,” it will serve another one of its well-liked menu items, “Omma’s beef”: sliced, marinated ribeye liberated by a small army of vegetables.
The location underwent a hefty remodel after Pink Noodle departed, which, among other alterations, allowed East Village the ability to serve a large number of beers on tap. So if you’re in the market for something to quench your thirst after trying Omma’s cooking, take a seat at the bar and enjoy the building’s newfound alcohol-pumping technology.
Quite possibly known best for their $5, $6, $7 & $8 happy hour soirée, this offshoot of North County’s The Craftsman and Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizza is indeed rustic but equally cozy inside. Its menu focuses on “farm to table handmade pasta” among other mouthwatering dishes that will satisfy both carnivores and vegetarians alike. Deep fried Brussels sprouts, short rib sliders, flatbreads and a number of pastas — all handmade in house — are just a few of their happy-hour and late-night options. Their full menu, with crudo, starters, soups and salads, plates, pastas and desserts, are just as enticing. The Blue Ribbon Butterscotch Pudding is a mighty combination of savory and sweet, with a layer of sea salt and caramel enveloping the not-too-rich pudding, and finished with Chantilly cream.
Hillcrest Brewing Company (HBC) isn’t as fresh faced as many of the other businesses listed here. It was opened in the summer of 2012 under the mighty umbrella of Mo’s Universe (Baja Betty’s, Urban Mo’s, Gossip Grill), and it’s done well as the first “out and proud LGBT Brewery” in the world.
But for a city that now calls itself the “craft beer capital of the world,” it’s surprising that HBC remains the only brewery to open its doors here in Hillcrest. In fact, if there was a brewery-off between Hillcrest and North Park tomorrow, this neighborhood would walk away with its tail between its legs.
So cheers to HBC for bringing much-needed original craft beer to the community, and let them be a sign for more to come. For those who have never visited the Brewery/restaurant, there is no local industry more fun to support than beer.
HBC has a spectacular location as well. Built entirely out of reclaimed materials, it has a chandelier handmade with 97 bottles of beer (its maker was supposedly quite drowsy by the time it was finished), and its brewing facility, which churns out 60 gallons a month, is a sight to see as well. And where their nine microbrews are concerned, I recommend the Crotch Rocket, their Irish red ale.
The owner of Bo’s Seafood Market and Grill was named after the original Bo, his maternal grandfather, but the influence of both grandfathers can be felt here.
An abundance of fresh fish, generally from local sources, greets visitors daily from behind a large glass case. You may purchase by the pound or choose from one of Bo’s dine-in menu options, such as fish salads, sandwiches, tacos or grilled plates. No matter what you choose, your selection will be trimmed from the fresh offerings inside the case and then wrapped on the spot or cooked to your liking. Local craft beers on tap are also always on rotation.
His popular New England-style clam chowder was the original Bo’s recipe and is made without the typical bacon, bacon grease or sherry found in most. Purists can ask for bacon crumbles, but this chowder definitely stands on its own.
Having just popped up on the northeast side of Sixth and University avenues at the start of 2014, Oscar’s blends its south-of-the-border spices into some staple seafood dishes in San Diego — most notably, the fish taco.
Originating in Pacific Beach with another location in La Jolla, this new Hillcrest location marks the enterprise’s furthest trek from the ocean, not counting the time spent bustling around the city in its previous incarnation as a food truck.
Now, the Hillcrest Oscar’s has an artsy, drift wood interior lit by dangling Edison bulbs, a semi-open kitchen area and enough hot sauces and salsas to placate even the most masochistic of fire eaters.
While they’ll be brewing up their Fisherman’s Stew for Taste of Hillcrest, stop by any other day of the week between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m., when fish tacos are only 99 cents.
Wine Steals – Urban Hillcrest was the first (opening in 2003) of what is now a three-store operation. It is the most casual of the trio and arguably the most fun. Hillcrest manager Cat Evans recently introduced even more fun, with Trivia Tuesdays and their new “Jamaica Me Crazy” Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., which includes tableside bellini, rum, poinsettia or mango madness punchbowls for up to eight people along with Jamaican-influenced pizzas, salads, wraps and more. They will be introducing “Taste” attendees to Jamaica Me Crazy with samples of their One Love Red Bean Dip with a live reggae band on site.