By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I was probably the last food writer in town to get my butt into The Friendly, a North Park pizzeria with a penchant for burgers, which opened in January. From the get-go, it has attracted nearly every neighborhood resident and food-industry illuminati in San Diego for reasons I didn’t quite get.
Pizza and burgers are the two most common foods on the American landscape. Yet raves about The Friendly’s New York-style pies and “dirty flat top” cheeseburgers flooded social media, as though some culinary wheel had been reinvented.
Well, it actually was in a way — at least when it comes to the burgers.
Nowhere else in San Diego will the persnickety preferences of consumers be less celebrated than when placing a burger order here. Strangely, I find it refreshing and it’s what finally roped me in.
Don’t like aoili? Tough luck. You’re getting it with a hint of garlic. Have something against butter-braised onions on your burger? Then go elsewhere or maybe see a doctor to figure out why you’re so adverse to such a sweet, innocent garnish. And if you’re fussing over calories and fat grams, give it a rest because the compulsory double-patty construct is shamelessly covered with two slices of American cheese. Always.
Owner Brandon Zanavich is the mellow dude behind the stubborn burger policy. A native of Detroit, he grew up eating cheeseburgers much like these and makes no apologies for the modification denials.
“It’s for the sake of efficiency,” Zanavich said, pointing out that when his cooks sling up to 200 burgers on busy nights, they shouldn’t be saddled with substitutions and omissions on the order tickets.
“We keep the operation fast and simple,” he added.
Moments before taking my maiden chomp into the neatly contained handful of cholesterol, a customer seated next to me at the wide lunch counter expressed his steadfast love for the burger. The man essentially gave me the words to describe it with remarkable accuracy.
“It’s crispy and gooey at the same time, and as soon as you take a bite, your head kind of tingles,” he said.
Served on buttered, grilled buns, the patties weigh 2 ounces each. They’re pressed on the grill while cooking to render out some of the fat — though certainly not all of it.
I would have liked a smear of ketchup inside the bun. But I didn’t see any around and was happy enough with the goo and grease to not bother asking. Though if you must, there are a few sauces available for 50 cents apiece to cure your condiment cravings: ranch, chipotle-ranch and blue cheese.
The pizzas reminded me of those from nearby Pizzeria Luigi, where Zanavich happened to work before launching The Friendly. (He also helped operate Beerfish and Carnitas Snack Shack.)
His pies offer thin yet sturdy crusts boasting desirable elasticity. Better yet, the toppings crawl evenly to the edges, sparing you those over-sized chunks of plain ends that usually end up in the trash.
From a multi-tiered display case stocked with various pizzas sold by the slice for $3.50 apiece, I tried the pepperoni, plus another topped with crumbled sausage, and one featuring ricotta and artichokes that was strewn with red sauce.
All three sported judicious layers of mozzarella and varying degrees of the house-made sauce, which I wouldn’t mind seeing used in greater measure on the non “white” pizzas — a standard I derived from eating thousands of them in my native Buffalo, New York.
For whole pies, you can customize the toppings or choose from a variety of signature creations such as “this little piggy” with pepperoni, sausage, bacon and ham; the “Becky” with mushrooms and ricotta; and the “Dr. Green Thumb,” which brings together spinach, garlic, red bell peppers, mushrooms, red onions and artichokes. The specialty pizzas are often available by the slice as well.
In playful contrast to the eatery’s everyday grub are one or two specials offered most days. They’re listed on a chalkboard and can include random preparations of foie gras, morita-chili sloppy Joes, or bacon fat-confit chicken salad served in sandwiches — dishes that allow Zanavich to unleash his inner chef.
The resident of North Park revealed that The Friendly’s steady growth has prompted him to pursue a second venture “hopefully in 2019 and definitely in San Diego.” He envisions a place that focuses primarily on burgers, which he said will carry more options.
Until then, his flock seems perfectly content washing down the deliciously unwavering dirty burgers with decent pizza and assorted canned beers, which are naturally available as well.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.