Northern Bites

By Seth Combs

(Published in the September 2010 issue)

There was a time, not so long ago, when North Park's fine dining consisted of 99-cents-a-slice pizza places and drive-thru Mexican joints. Nowadays, however, an evening along 30th Street, on what has become known as "restaurant row," reveals that those days are long gone.

"I think San Diego was really missing a place you could go wander the street, go place-to-place and know you were going to get character and quality," says Jay Porter, co-owner of The Linkery, one of the original eateries that put the neighborhood on the dining map.

Following the unprecedented and continuing success of The Linkery, however, Porter and his partners had a lot of different options. Rather than try to recreate that winning formula in a different burg, they ultimately decided to try something fresh, right down the street, transforming an Italian tapas place into a fresh take on Mexican, Mediterranean and American fare.

Thus, El Take it Easy was recently opened near the corner of 30th and University, with a farm-to-table, artisan approach and more of a social, cantina design. Dishes include tortas and tacos, but they're slow-cooked with what Porter calls a "Tijuego" approach, using everything from goat and prawn to rabbit and octopus.

Speaking of goats, another restaurant that just opened down the street is The Smoking Goat. Don't let the name fool you. It's actually a more casual, accessible take on French cuisine from chef/owner Frederick Piehl of Nine-Ten and Avenue 5 fame. Escargot is bypassed; instead, menu highlights include delectable duckfat truffle fries and a halibut that's served with an out-of-this-world fumet sauce.

North Park has also become the epicenter of craft pizzas, boasting some of the best places to get Sicilian, Chicago or New York-style slices. This reputation won't change when Jon Mangini and his compatriots from Basic, the perennial brick-oven pizza joint and bar in the East Village, open their newest venture, URBN, near the corner of University and 31st.

"It's definitely going to be different," says Mangini. "It's going to be more food-focused. More craft pies, cheese and meat boards and salads."

While the pizza will remain New Haven-style (thin crust cooked in a brick oven over coals), Mangini says URBN's varieties will be more experimental than Basic's. Notables will include clam pizzas with white sauce and fennel sausage pizzas with melted onions.

Yet, even with all these new eateries, Jay Porter says that North Park's restaurant scene will continue to grow and that the customers will keep coming.

"Obviously, it can keep getting better, and there's lots of opportunity for new places," he says. "And certain kinds of people who really like independent-minded businesses are going to want to patronize them."

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