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Monday, June 13, 2011

Could Union Kitchen & Tap Be the Ultimate Encinitas Restaurant?

THE VIBE:  Local hangout, loud and vibrant, great open view to Highway 101, lots of beers
THE PRICE:  Moderate

In Napa there's a place I love called Rutherford Grill.  OK, so it's not exactly the best food in town (come on, who can compete with Thomas Keller?) but there's no place better than a seat at the bar to do some people watching and dine on some good grub. 

But I live in Encinitas and this town looks like the mafia owns it with by the sheer number of Italian restaurants.  My least favorite of the Italian mob was When In Rome, a stuffy and old fashioned restaurant that was about as inviting as a horses head in your bed.  It's resurfaced recently as Union Kitchen & Tap, a casual place that focuses on beer and solid, unpretentious food.  With the front of the restaurant open to the street, it's oh so inviting and oh so Encinitas.  But would the once dead restaurant rise to the location, or join the restaurant catacombs filled with themed restaurants and mediocre food?

Let's start with the exterior.  They were smart to totally redo the front, making it urban and cool. The front windows are open to the street and prime seating.  And here's a tip - the main area is open seating and has the best tables so scan the room when you enter and grab some chairs if you see something open.  When this was When in Rome, this was the deadest part of downtown but now look at the foot traffic. 
Wow, this isn't Rome anymore!  See, this is the open seating area.  On the chalkboard is a listing of their beers along with the alcohol content, which is a good thing to know with some beers now in the 9% range. So the vibe is friendly and the setting lively.  In fact, romantic dining this isn't.  It is loud and vibrant, so get ready to turn up the volume to be heard over the music and crowd.  If you can't handle the noise, stay home.
Friendly bartenders, which is essential if they want to keep the local crowd.  I love going into a local joint and having the bartender say hello like he knows me and I think this place could wind up like that if they keep up the effort.  Look at all those beers on tap!  The only complaint I have is when I was watching the big screen TV in front of me and commented on how great the golf match was going and then the bartender (not the guy in the pic) promptly turned the channel to baseball!  What???  But it's a new place and the staff is still breaking in so just this time I'll give this guy a mulligan.
Lunch is around $12, dinner around $19, a burger with housemade chips is $13.  Chips??? Wait, we'll get to that.  I ordered a couple of beers.  The first one was a wheat beer and pretty tasty, the second was Orange Wit which tasted like cat pee.  I clean the litter box so I know what I'm talking about, but maybe you'll like it.  To go with the beer I ordered a "Mushroom Onion Burger" with roasted shrooms, caramelized onions and Maytag Blue Cheese.  Look, here comes the food!
What's wrong with this picture?  Why, that's the weirdest looking burger I've ever seen.  That's because it's a PORTABELLO MUSHROOM burger, a vegetarian delight to be sure and PETA approved, but not what I ordered.  But to show you how much class these guys have, after apologizing they said for me to keep it and try it while they fired up a meaty substitute.
So even though I find the idea of a vegetarian burger to be sacreligious (though I have no problem with the surfing Madonna art down the street), I bit into it and it was, well, good.  Not meaty good, but if you're the sort who believes that cows should rule the Earth and plastic is better than leather but paper better than plastic, this is your burger.
Then the real burger showed up and I promptly tossed the porto burger in the trash and dived into this tasty delight.  The tang of the cheese, the quality of the meat, I wolfed it down in about 3 minutes.  Delicious, worth the $13 (and you know how much I hate overpriced burgers).  I would get this again.


Yes, I do have a complaint.  Chips are not fries.  A burger should come with fries.  A hot dog can come with chips, a sandwich can come with chips, but a burger MUST come with fries.  That's the law, or at least it should be.  Because even though the homemade chips were good, they were not hot and oily and sizzling on the tongue (The Brigantine's bar does fresh chips, oh my gosh they're good!) but rather precooked and tossed on the plate as an afterthought.  I don't care if I have to pay more, I want fries and if you order a burger, make sure you swap them out or you will have PBD (Post Burger Depression) like I did after seeing the person next to me get a bucket of fresh and hot fries.

So here's the verdict.  The place can get packed so be forewarned, and the staff could use a bit more time to break in.  But when was the last time you went to a restaurant and told your friends all about it and wondered if going back the next day was too soon?  It reminded me of Rutherford Grill in Napa, a place where locals and tourists sit side by side at the bar and discuss the weather and other important things as they dine on unpretentious food and enjoy a cold beer. Union Kitchen & Tap has all the potential to become that sort of spot and I'm keeping an eye on them.  Save me a place at the bar.

WALLY KNOWS BEST! is coming soon! Local Music to Save the Seals.
Going to Napa or Sonoma?  Don't leave home without Wally.


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