Comfortably nestled in your safe haven of the evening, you’re smiling to yourself, basking in your new status as conqueror of the unknown. Remembering the Forbes article awhile back calling North Park one of America’s best hipster neighborhoods, it was high time to check one off the bucket list and Uber in to hipster central. Baby steps, though. As would any smart tourist in a mysterious and far away land, you plan to stay with the crowds on well-lighted streets until you get your bearings. Encontro North Park fits the bill, mainly for its prime location at University and 30th, and, for the bonus of walls of windows opening onto the street – in case the need for quick access toward some grand, new, unexpected encounter arises. After dinner, maybe you’ll feel adventurous…maybe. A walk down the wild side might be in order…
If you came for the atmosphere more than the food, that’s understandable. North Park has, since the inception of the modern hipster, tilted toward the less adventurous, but certainly culturally counter side of the foodie spectrum, more about cool hangouts than good restaurants, craft beer than wine and cheap eats than truly inspired food. It’s the hipster condition, heated debates over social media and food group threads about the best $2 tacos, spicy tuna rolls, banh mi sandwiches, pho (say it ain’t so) and other formerly arcane dishes that can be had for a $5 bill or less dominating the food appreciation conversation.
There’s also the chance you actually came for the food – perhaps you heard about the recent acquisition of Executive Chef Jason Hotchkiss, formerly of the Patio Group, Whisknladle Hospitality, and The Cohn Restaurant Group, all San Diego mainstays, who came on board at Encontro North Park about 4 weeks ago and has been busy cleaning up the menu and preparations. It’s a “turning the freighter” undertaking, re-training cooks, re-inventing menu items, re-sourcing food products, pretty much re-focusing an establishment that has not made much of a splash in its 10 months of existence from a food perspective.
In either case, the ordering process at Encontro North Park is in keeping with the neighborhood, a quirky system explained by the greeters as they hand you a stack of beer, wine and food menus. Find a seat, peruse the menus, return either to the front counter or go to the bar, pay for and place your order and return to your table where your food will be brought to you…a hybrid form of counter service just north of fast food, but a bit south, perhaps, of making you want to brave the line to order seconds. Want more to eat or drink? You’ll need to rinse and repeat.
Then the food begins to arrive and a few bites in you understand there’s something special going on in the kitchen at Encontro North Park. Maybe you will get in line again… It’s not the average hipster style pub food you were expecting. No, decidedly not. This is good. And different. There are contrasting textures, spice imbued sauces and careful, thoughtful technique being utilized. It’s the little things you notice, like ultra crispy tapas style potatoes bravas with an almost Asian style, slightly spicy glaze accompanied by a pickled fresno aioli. The dish eats more like a deep fried meat dish than a potato. There are savory, mingled flavors being carried to your central nervous system by free flowing juices that gush with every bite. The involuntary twitching you’re experiencing…it could be your adrenal glands kicking into overdrive, perhaps triggered by precisely targeted elbows and eye-poking over the last morsel.
As you tuck into the “portobello fries,” crispy in a corn starch laced tempura type of way, and a house made sausage sampler that you notice is definitively free of tinny, overly salty preservatives and chemically induced flavor enhancers, replaced instead by fresh and wonderfully proportioned herbs and spices, you realize this isn’t your standard fried and grilled pub fare to be inhaled with big screens flashing on all walls and noisy hubbub surrounding you on all sides. In fact, glancing around, it dawns on you for the first time that there are no TV’s at Encontro North Park. You would expect them.
But, they’re not missed. There’s plenty to see as your food marches toward you from the open flame grill. The grill station is front and center in Encontro North Park’s main dining room, set up izakaya style, complete with sushi bar style seating, allowing for much more fulfilling watching enjoyment, ’cause there are few things more mesmerizing than watching meat char to Maillardian perfection, sizzling and spitting the entire way. Of course, to your other side, you could have grabbed a seat only a house-made milkshake straw or two away against one of the window lined walls, opening out onto the busy and energetic corner where the sights and sounds of the mid-evening North Park scene waft in ever so gently on the evening breeze.
A blanket of contentedness settles on you. You’re nestled cozily under just the right amount of light where you can read your menu and your date’s face without having to get too up close or personal…unless you want to. And, to your surprise, you find, so contrary to the trend of noisy crowded dining establishment of today’s era, that the sound level is muted, perhaps because of the low level of street sounds floating through the open windows or just because everyone else is there for the same reason as you – to relax, enjoy some good company and grind some tasty chow. All the boxes are being checked off, including a few you didn’t know were on the list – people watching, atmosphere, conversation and better than average, by a long shot, food.
As you continue to explore the menu, you encounter flavors and textures like the buttery, freshly grilled, yet still crisp little gems, served warm with a Greek dressing that eats like an herbally enhanced Caesar. Your very worst fear dissipates – that Encontro North Park might be just another of those establishments that fit into the non-specific restaurant genre that should be banned from existence…the “gastropub”.
Thankfully, even by its extremely casual standards, Encontro North Park at least has some – as noted by the lack of TV’s, targeted, thoughtful menu and truly friendly vibe. You begin to feel that they don’t have as big an interest in being all things to all people as much as they’re trying to lure in diners for all the right reasons, to share enjoyable food with enjoyable people. Encontro North Park is still serving their base of locals, but also expanding it, threatening to become a community hub, cornering the market in every sense and becoming the place where you’ll always find a friendly face or two who have more of an interest in the food and you than, well…anything else at the moment.
Here’s the Rundown on Encontro North Park:
Location/Ambience – Located almost under the North Park sign at 30th and University, Encontro has the three main things any business needs for success – location, location and location. There’s plentiful parking 1/2 block away on 30th at the North Park parking structure and plenty of little independent paid parking lots within an easy block or two walking distance. It’s a cozy space, but not tight or crowded. Lighting is perfect, enough to read your menu without a flashlight, but dim to leave a little mystery in your visit. The sidewalk opening windows and outdoor patio seating make you feel like you’re right in the thick of things.
Food/Service – Chef Jason is currently working through menu revamps and introducing elevated preparations of easily recognizable ingredients. As a serious fisherman with an eye toward sustainable, local, line-caught seafood, he is looking forward to adding fresh seafood selections in the future. Local beer on tap and a nice selection of wines round out the experience. Bar service was helpful and informative when trying to narrow down selections to our taste preferences.
Service is currently counter style, but there are plans in the near future to convert to full table service. This should ease any angst, confusion and queueing issues that some might encounter with the current system and allow for a better experience, although, with the food being served here, the experience was plenty fine.
Cost – The revamp of Encontro is a concept that is in the right place at the right time. Aside from a handful of dinner entrees that top out with a ribeye at $22, the majority of the menu is a $10 bill or less. It’s a perfect fit for a community that is ready to take their food experience to the next level, but not at any cost…yet. I’ll most definitely be keeping my eye on this place and let you know what other cool stuff is happening. Enjoy and Cheers, my friends!
3001 UNIVERSITY AVENUE
SAN DIEGO, CA 92104