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A Tale of Two Gastros

photos by John Rockwell

I love the gastropub concept and the ethos of local craft beer, locally-sourced food and nontraditional or sometimes even extravagant takes on traditional comfort foods. Unfortunately, as is the case with most trends, sometimes that central gastropub concept is lost and all one finds at a place is a list of hamburger choices. Sure, hamburgers can be tasty, but adding a couple of burger variations to the menu at the local neighborhood bar doesn’t make for a gastropub. At least one large restaurant chain has even glommed onto this concept and is working very hard to rebrand itself as a “burgers and craft beer” gastro. With apologies to crimson-colored birds everywhere, I’m not that easily fooled by the corporate trickery.

But good gastros have some similarities with neighborhood bars, synonymous with community gatherings and familiar faces on both sides of the bar. Though the “industrial” indoor look may be overdone, the open-seating and feeling of large industrial spaces is anything but industrial—they make for a very comfortable and informal atmosphere to accomplish the most important of all human endeavors: to eat and drink something good with people you like.

The two gastropubs highlighted here seem to start with the question, “What do people like to eat at home?” and then do something fun with it. The Salted Pig in downtown Riverside has been open for six years, and Urge Gastropub/Mason Ale Works in Oceanside has only been open a couple of years (though the original Urge in Rancho Bernardo has been open for about seven years now), but the menu of both restaurants capture something special with their food and atmosphere.

Salted Pig—Riverside

Next to the ever-popular Augie’s Coffee House (though it opened after ‘the Pig’), The Salted Pig is in an inconspicuous location at the corner of 12th and Main in the court district of downtown Riverside. Through heavy double doors, inside it is dark and gray with high ceilings and beer menus decorating the walls of the main barroom. I have noticed two constants at this Riverside favorite: excellent beer in draft and in bottle (including Russian River and Dogfish Head special releases), and an ever-changing/evolving menu. A changing menu has positives and negatives. While I am very happy that the original burger-centric menu is gone, the downside is that if you develop a personal favorite—there was once a house-made gnocchi on the menu that was just amazing—it might not be there in the next season. The good news is that with rotating taps and menus, a trip to Salted Pig is always an adventure in “What’s new?” Their newest experiment is that after 10 p.m., the restaurant turns into a Ramen house. Trendy, but cool.

When I saw the most recent regular menu change, I was skeptical. Bacon and Eggs? Karaage Chicken and Waffles? Short-Rib and Spaetzle? At a recent visit, we tried these supper entrees and each one was a creative and tasty plate. The “bacon” in the Bacon and Eggs was a long strip of pork belly infused with maple, rolled into something that looked like a large patty, and fried. It is served over cheese grits and the egg—as the trend seems to be—was served on top of the dish as a garnish. The Karaage Chicken and Waffles prepared the chicken tempura-style over waffles and a citrus custard. To add that Asian flair, salted seaweed cracker (sushi wrapper) was the garnish. Even the short-rib was a surprise. Since there seems to be an Asian influence on the menu, I expected short-ribs ala Korean-barbecue, but what I received was a deep cut of beef, braised, and off the bone. The paprika cream and vinegar sauce were excellent complements for the long-cooked, falling-apart meat, and went well with the German noodles.

The appetizer menu changes too. The deep-fried dates, bacon-fat drizzled popcorn, and fried brussels sprouts drowned in Vietnamese Nuoc Mam sauce have been replaced with variations: a spicy garlic caramel popcorn (Kung Pao Cracker Jack), and a buttermilk cream version of Brussels sprouts (Peewee Potato Colcannon). Fried vittles are apple-pecan Hush Puppies. One constant menu item to the Pig (and a few other popular gastropubs) is Bone Marrow. On the current menu, the bone marrow is served with a charred jalapeño relish and toast. The accoutrement changes. If you’re in the Inland Empire in SoCal—what a few of us refer to as a “food desert”—then the Salted Pig rises to the challenge of the best urban eats.

Mason Ale Works/Urge Gastropub—Oceanside

Relatively new to the Oceanside gastro scene (but the owners are not new to the gastro business, having operated regional locations since 2010), Urge Oceanside houses a brewery in its large, standalone building as well as an encyclopedic array of whiskies, which they refer to as the Whiskey Bank. Despite the intimidating whiskey menu (which I will leave to others with a better-educated palette), the gastropub menu has burgers, yes (about eight if you include Wild Boar, Salmon, and Ahi as burger meats), but it also has some comfort-based home-style entrees.

Once notorious for its crime and not so pleasant downtown, in the mid-90s, the city of Oceanside decided to rename its beleaguered “Hill Street” thoroughfare with the more recognizable (and geographically accurate) Pacific Coast Highway. Since then, the downtown has undergone long-term renaissance efforts, and with the current boom of breweries, the longish downtown Oceanside is not only a block or two from the beach, but also home to several good gastros, breweries, and tasting rooms. Urge Gastropub gets the beach vibe right with its large outdoor (dog-friendly) patio, its spacious, open-seating barroom, and sit-down section for more formal booth-style dining.

The entree menu has a healthy dose of the traditional, whether its standard bar fare like Fish & Chips or Mac & Cheese, or its home cooked delights like Pork Chops, Flat Iron Steak, and Meatloaf. I’ll never know why my USMC veteran father always goes for the Fish & Chips, but I’m guessing it’s because my mother doesn’t like the grease and fish and won’t make it for him. The dish is served exactly as one would expect and apparently it passes muster. Almost as important to have on the menu in SoCal is some taco variation, and the street tacos don’t disappoint with scratch guac, cilantro cream, and mango salsa. Yes, mango salsa needs to be ‘a thing’ if it isn’t already. The sweet, yet peppery flavor of the fruit and its firm texture make for an excellent taco garnish, and it blends well with the savory spices of Mexican food. The Urge Meatloaf, is bacon-wrapped and offered with a tomato-onion gravy or a short rib gravy (for an additional $2). This is a sizable and filling plate. For some reason—perhaps my cheese curiosity—I almost always order the Mac & Cheese. At many restaurants, I find it is not taken seriously—it’s either generic or dry. At Urge, it’s perfect. It’s got just enough sauce, and the cheese is countered nicely by the simply balsamic reduction drizzled on top.

Of course, Urge Oceanside wouldn’t be the same without its in-house brewery Mason Ale Works, and the 15 or so house-made beers are exactly what one would expect from the San Diego beer scene—clean and problem-free variations of IPAs and dry-hopped styles, collab brews (many of the brewers in the area brewed with one another or at another location at one point), and a robust list of mostly locally-made guest taps. And if you want craft cocktails or one of the several hundred whiskeys on hand, well, you’ll be happy too.

On a late and busy afternoon, Urge Oceanside’s outdoor patio is an active site of large tables, forks clanking, beer glasses clinking, conversations happening, and dogs being treated like royalty. In 2017, Oceanside has never looked as good as it does now, and the smell of the saltwater on the breeze and good food is always what the doctor ordered for relieving stress.

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