Oceanside team behind Local Tap House unveils Exhale eatery

When owner Gabe Hogan and chef Daniel Pundik opened Local Tap House on South Coast Highway in Oceanside five years ago, their shared goal was simple.

“LTH was built by locals to serve locals,” Pundik said. “It was a place where we could feed the masses breakfast, lunch and dinner and always be there for locals to come whenever they have family in town.”

Now, the LTH duo is taking things up a notch. On Jan. 14, Hogan opened Exhale Restaurant, a more-elevated 200-seat restaurant and bar just across the street at Coast Highway and Michigan Avenue. Pundik’s Exhale menu is inspired by the rustic cuisine of Oaxaca, Mexico, with a modern, Americanized farm-to-table approach.

“We’re Mexican-inspired, but I wouldn’t call it straight Mexican food,” Pundik said. “We’re approaching things in a different way. This would be the kind of food you’d find in a five-star resort in Oaxaca.”

The kitchen centerpiece is an Argentine wood-fired grill, where rib eyes, tomahawk pork chops and whole bronzino are cooked over white oak and mesquite wood. The menu’s signature dish is cooked-to-order tortillas made with heirloom blue corn that’s grown in Oaxaca and shipped to Tortilleria Los Reyes in Vista, where it’s soaked and ground into masa dough. The dough is delivered daily to Exhale where tortillas are shaped, pressed and cooked on a revolving griddle in the restaurant’s glass-walled exhibition kitchen.

“It’s a show. If you can catch a seat in front of the kitchen, there’s always something to see, like the girls making the tortillas all day every day,” said Pundik, who said the restaurant’s name was coined by Hogan and is meant to encourage diners to “relax and let us do the rest.”

Pundik said he was inspired to create the Oaxacan-inspired menu by the cooks he’s been working with since arriving in San Diego County restaurants 15 years ago. Many of the region’s kitchen crew members hail from that food-centric Oaxaca region.

Pundik said Oaxacan cuisine is very different in ingredients and style from the Baja cuisine that’s best known around San Diego.

“We just wanted to dig deeper into Mexican cuisine and do something different,” said Pundik.

Oaxaca, a state near the southern border of Mexico, is best known for its corn, which has been cultivated in the region for more than 7,000 years. A signature Oaxacan dish is the tlayuda, a tortilla-style flatbread layered with beans, vegetables, meats and cheeses. Oaxaca is also known for its mole sauces, particularly the mole negro, a dark-colored, richly flavored sauce made with chili peppers, chocolate, garlic and onions.

Pundik said he worked closely with his kitchen crew, including his Oaxacan-born sous chef, to develop Exhale’s house mole negro and other sauces. Many dishes feature native Mexican herbs rarely found in other local restaurants, including epazote, known as Mexican tea and commonly used in Oaxacan bean dishes, and hoja sante, a peppery herb used in protein dishes and mole verde.

The menu includes starter dishes like ceviche negro, esquites (Mexican street corn) and bacon-wrapped chile rellenos, priced from $6 to $12. Tlayudas, with choice of toppings including coffee-rubbed brisket, Spanish-aged chorizo and chapulines (fried grasshoppers), are $11 to $14. House-made taco plates range from $6 to $16. Entrees such as steaks, shellfish and banana leaf-wrapped swordfish, are $24 to $32 and include side dishes. There are also vegetarian dishes and made-to-order guacamole.

Exhale’s bar has 10 beers on tap but it also has an extensive wine menu, 11 cocktails and a diverse selection of Mexican tequilas and mezcals.

Pundik grew up in southeast Florida and moved to San Diego 16 years ago where he worked his way up in some of the city’s top kitchens. He cooked for 4- and 5-year stints at now-defunct Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe, at the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa and the Crossings at Carlsbad restaurant. He met Hogan about six years ago and was the opening chef for LTH, which has a more American comfort food-style menu and 32 beers on tap.

Because Pundik was trained in French culinary techniques, he said the cooking at Exhale is both rustic in its open-flame style, but refined in its technique. As at LTH, the restaurant’s greens come from Specialty Produce in San Diego as well as TERI Farm, a learning-based working farm for adults with autism.

Pundik said the beauty of how the dishes are presented with the colorful produce and blue tortillas is part of the dining experience at Exhale.

“We’re presenting beautiful dishes with freshness and bright colors,” he said. “We always try to present food that you can eat with your eyes first.”

Exhale Restaurant

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Where: 236 S Coast Highway, Oceanside

Online: exhaleoceanside.com

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com

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