Is there anything more sexy, more tantalizing, more satisfyingly primal than the look and smell of beautifully seasoned food being grilled over an open flame? After all, heating and cooking our food, thereby tenderizing it and making it easier to chew and digest is one of the things that sets humans apart from all of the other food eating species on the planet, isn’t it? It means not having to masticate indefinitely on tough, raw ingredients and allowing our bodies to process what we ingest more rapidly to maximize the available nutrients. This gives us time to do all of those other things that make us so productive as a race…or read these cool food articles. And, bottom line, there’s no more basic way of cooking food than an open flame.
The short story – stay away from anything on the menu that’s not grilled over natural wood and an open flame at Fireside by The Patio in Liberty Station. Spoiler – that won’t be hard to do since pretty much everything you’ll find here is cooked in that fashion and infused with a beautiful, light smokiness that doesn’t present as smoke so much as a richer, more aromatic rendering of the natural flavors of each item.
Orders are fired at the grill station which boasts a pretty dang slick Santa Maria style grill. The two round handles at the top of the grills that look like steering wheels raise and lower the grill racks, allowing for perfect control over the concentration of heat applied. To the left of the Chef de partie in the picture (gotta look closely) is a yakitori grill, presumably burning a traditional binchotan type charcoal.
Then, again, I don’t know if I would presume much here.
Orders are fired here at the grill station and then passed through the window into the kitchen for finishing.
The menu was a bit of a surprise as we were presented with appetizer, entree and small plate options ranging from classics such as chicken, pork chops, ribs and beef, but also yakitori, fish, vegetables and other seafood selections. It’s an eclectic mix of Asian, seafood, farm to table and good ol’ fashioned Americana meat that is not often done in the same place at the same time.
The Shishito peppers had a great char and were coated with a magic savory, lightly smoky, slightly sweet sauce (maybe ponzu-ish in nature) that could have been served in a glass for sipping. The portion didn’t look like much, but it ended up being an infinity plate. We kept digging under the bonito flakes and somehow more peppers kept appearing. There were enough on the plate to last us the entire meal as an accompaniment to the rest of our courses. Of the batch of 20 or so peppers, 3 or 4 of them had enough heat to remind us why they’re called peppers.
I’m not sure if I ever heard of such a thing, but I love mussels, so I had to try the Wood Fired version on the menu. Laced with pork belly chunks and scallions, these things were crazy good. They retained their plump juiciness while absorbing a hint of the smoke from the grill resulting in a surprisingly light and delicate mouth feel, tender and luscious with concentrated flavors, which was a direct contravention of the pre-supposed expectation of a more tightly wound, denser, smoked shellfish dish.
There’s not a yakitori stand in the world I can imagine passing by without ordering something. There’s something about savory grilled meat conveniently skewered in bite sized portions that gets my juices flowing…
Anyways, I don’t usually order or like meatballs. Most of them are overcooked and underseasoned. I loved these. The ground and well seasoned elk had a perfect fat to meat ratio and was coated in a tamarind like, citrusy, but slightly spicy sauce that would have helped tame the gaminess in the meat…if there were any. The meatballs were lean, but juicy, with a firm texture and seasoning to make the experience like eating a sausage minus the casing.
The kimchi and pork belly “roll” was sliced about 1/2″ thick and big enough in diameter to get two small bites out of each piece. The skewers were charred on the grill to marry the spicy, pungent cabbage with the smoked pork belly. Rich, earthy flavors were pulled together nicely by a light and mildly spicy mayo type emulsion and a sprinkle of sweet acid from the lime wedge.
We circled back around for this one and, dang, am I glad we did. Our initial thought was that since we had pork belly yakitori, we didn’t want to do two pork belly dishes. Our server commented that this is one of the best things on the menu, though, and far be it from me not to take the word of the guy feeding me.
Think of your favorite buffalo chicken wings. Then think how good they would have to be for you to eat them at every meal for the rest of your life. That’s these pork belly chunks in a nutshell, sitting ever so primly in a slurry of bleu cheese to offset the rich, hot sauce infused, but not too spicy piquancy of the dish.
Barramundi is a beautiful, light white fish with a medium density to it – pretty much perfect for grilling as it has enough heft to hold up to the heat and flipping, but is light enough to absorb the smoke. This piece was cooked on high heat, seared and charred perfectly on the outside with plentiful juices locked on the inside.
The quinoa was, well, quinoa. Probably cooked with chicken broth for a bit of flavor, it was light enough (some might say bland) to add a little filler to the dish if you’re into that kinda thing, with a delicate enough texture that it didn’t steal any of the spotlight from the star of the show.
It wasn’t until toward the end of the meal that we found out there were grilled roast type items available. They aren’t on the menu, but written on a chalkboard at the side of the grill station, so make sure to take a stroll up there and check it out.
They were out of the brisket, which was my first choice, so we went with the Tri-tip. This was perhaps the only disappointment of the night and I’m not really sure why. It seemed to be cooked to approximately the right temperature and looked like it had a crust of seasoning on it. But the slices of tri-tip were a bit chewy and the juices were watery with the meat lacking the anticipated depth of flavor that a good tri-tip should have and that we had gotten accustomed to throughout the evening.
It could be that what happened here is we ordered backwards and we should have started with this and worked our way up to the more flavorful stuff, although that seems pretty counterintuitive if you know how much flavor potential a good smoked tri-tip has. Fluffy Unicorn saved the day, though, by experimentally dipping a piece in the magic sauce that came with the Shishito peppers. It transformed the rest of the tri-tip into a tasty delight.
The pork shoulder on the other hand was exactly what I expected to come off that sexy grill. Succulent, laden with liquid, luscious inner flavor, combining with a light take on a Carolina type mustard vinegar sauce to create a wonderful, tender, sweet and sour experience that rounded out the evening on a high note.
Here’s the Rundown on Fireside by The Patio:
Located in Liberty Station across the street from the new Liberty Public Market, Fireside by the Patio is a huge space, predominantly composed of front, back and wrap around patio seating, there is some indoor dining in the walk through bar area. It’s casual and cool, with a nice breeze blowing in directly from the harbor. People watching quotient is at a maximum here and it’s a family and pet friendly venue. Parking is plentiful in Liberty station, with three large lots located about a block away.
This is some good food that is, literally, all over the map in flavor profiles. From Asian to Southern to Coastal to Urban, seasonings are on point and the smoke flavor from the grill permeates each item in an accentuating fashion. You don’t realize until you leave that you smell slightly like smoke, but it’s all good because it reminds of you of what you just ate. With appetizers and entrees, figure $30-$50 per person depending on your appetite and style of eating. Sharing is recommended as portions are generous and there are a lot of great options to try.
The whole time we were eating I was thinking to myself, “This is a place I’d come back to.” That’s about the best endorsement I can give, because I don’t normally have time to eat more than once anyplace. Enjoy and, Cheers, my friends!
2855 Perry Rd. Building 8
San Diego, CA 92106