Two Seven Eight is Ground Zero for San Diego's Craft Spirits Movement
Troy Johnson works his way through the local craft spirits scene, one sip at a time
Two Seven Eight in Hillcrest.
3687 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Fried cauliflower florets
Fried chicken sandwich
Gin, vodka, whiskey, etc.
Hillcrest is a special place for most longtime San Diegans who get excited, to a socially awkward degree, about good restaurants. During the late ’90s and early aughts, when the city’s mostly average restaurants were sleepwalking seared ahi to diners who expected nothing more than average, Hillcrest was a wild, diverse culinary mecca. The neighborhood had Kemo Sabe, chef Deborah Scott’s first venture, with big, frilly chocolate origami and baked brie and skirt steaks aflame. The Busalacchi family was in their groove, rolling out from-scratch pasta in a converted Craftsman home that felt like dining on the set of A Christmas Story. There was quality Afghan food, sushi, Thai, Vietnamese, late-night diner grub, you name it. Hillcrest was Disneyland for the pre-Yelp restaurant hunter.
Not surprising. Hillcrest was, and still is, a largely gay community. At the risk of broad-stroking an entire demographic, I’ve decided that gay culture is America’s apex appreciator of fine food and drink. (I’ve also decided it’s less offensive to broad-stroke an entire demographic when paying them a compliment.) When searching for the best restaurants in my travels, I Google “[city I’m in], gay district.” Works every time.
After some rough patches when it became too popular and landlords got a case of the greed, according to friends who own businesses there, Hillcrest lost best-eats status to North Park and Little Italy. But now the neighborhood is slowly reemerging, and restaurants like Two Seven Eight are a part of it.
A few months ago, a very well-respected chef friend texted to say, “Have you checked out Two Seven Eight yet? You need to.” You don’t ignore this chef’s advice, so I didn’t.
Fried chicken sandwich with fries
Two Seven Eight has big shoes to fill. It replaced a local icon, The Tractor Room. In 2006, when lines at breakfast joint Hash House a Go Go became communist-long, the owners opened Tractor across the street to pacify the hangry mob. Tractor served largely the same food, but really made their name with bourbon-based craft cocktails; they deserve credit for helping spearhead San Diego’s current craft cocktail movement. When Tractor closed last July, locals wept into their Pappy Van Winkle.
But Two Seven Eight is admirably carrying their torch of quality booze. In fact, they’re blazing ahead. So, like Tractor, the bar is the main attraction—most notably, their collection of over 75 San Diego craft spirits. It’s the largest collection of local spirits I’ve ever seen. Their website boasts that it’s the biggest in the country, but I have neither the time nor liver fortitude to verify. Some restaurants will splash their menu with a local gin or vodka while focusing mostly on selling national brands, which have bigger budgets to filter to bars in exchange for loyalty. But Two Seven Eight stocks what appears to be every bottle of designer hooch that’s ever come out of a San Diego still. Cutwater and Malahat vodkas. Gins from Calwise and You & Yours. Kill Devil Ugly Moonshine. Henebery and Perfect Soul whiskeys.
That is, unequivocally, awesome. And that alone is a reason to visit.
Two Seven Eight’s wall of spirits
A cocktail called That Lavender Blonde is excellent, made with Liberty Call gin, lemon thyme, lavender honey, and bubbly. It’s crisp and floral without tasting like a bridesmaid’s bouquet.
One night over meatballs at the bar, the ’tender excitedly expounds on their grand idea, offering sips of his favorite local gin and aged bourbon. A week later, I see him do the same for another guest. Two Seven Eight has fully committed to spreading the local craft spirits gospel, one gratis sip at a time.
That lights up the elegant, understated wooden bar with the thrill of discovery. Harkens back to the late ’90s to mid-aughts, when places like O’Brien’s and Hamilton’s and Neighborhood decided to go full craft beer while the rest of the city was drinking Michelob Ultra. Their risk paid off when craft beer exploded. If drinkers buy into local spirits even half as much as they did local craft beer, Two Seven Eight will be ground zero of the movement.
Whereas Tractor Room was red, rustic, dark, and Brawny Man–ish, Two Seven Eight is white, East Coast homey, well lit, and gender neutral. Garden gnomes hide in corners. Cozy, cushioned banquettes line the long south wall. They even have throw pillows (a rarity in restaurants, since most restaurateurs quit that jazz once they have to replace 30 stained throw pillows). Throw pillows remind guests of their couch, or the couch of their more sophisticated acquaintances. Two Seven Eight diners linger on them, leisurely. The spacious patio, overlooking Fifth Avenue, is all the reason in the world to serve brunch, which they do.
As for the food, it’s neighborly. The cauliflower appetizer is excellent, battered and fried to a golden crisp, with the cauliflower cooked to the perfect texture. Dip that into the addictive chipotle aioli, made with a spicy harissa base, and the always-underappreciated crucifer sings. So does the chicken sandwich. They use thighs (dark meat is always tastier thanks to the slightly higher fat content), fried and topped with a sweet chili sauce, house-made pickles, Bibb lettuce, and Kewpie mayonnaise (the best mayo in the world—thanks, Japan). The salty fried chicken mixes with the sweet glaze, nicely cut with pickle acid. The ceviche has just enough acid, made with local line-caught fish, Mexican white shrimp, cucumber, tomato, lime juice, and cilantro. The tomato sauce on their spaghetti is bright with just the right amount of sweetness, while the meatball has integrity and isn’t dry in the slightest.
Those are my highlights, what I’d recommend to friends who don’t owe me money. With the rest of my orders, I struggle. The lemon-herb-marinated half-roasted chicken has crisp skin, but doesn’t get enough moisture or acid from the accompanying white beans and slow-roasted tomatoes. The shishito toast is a great idea—charred shishito peppers, house-made ricotta, yuzu honey, and a soft-boiled egg over Prager Brothers sourdough bread. But the ricotta is under-salted. The dish banks on the ricotta for the salt, and also needs an acid of some sort—lemon, onion, vinegar, sumac, something.
Miscalculations in seasoning—either too little or too much—are a recurring problem on all three visits. I love salt. Might name a future child Salt. Applied correctly, it amplifies the flavors of a dish. Salt turns up the volume, transforms a mono bite into a surround-sound bite. I prefer my food have too much rather than too little. And yet the slow-roasted carnitas in the street tacos, though juicy and generous, surpass even my high threshold. The short rib, though tender over perfectly al dente pappardelle, makes me pucker. The beet salad—which should be a delicate affair, with just a tiny sprinkling of sea salt for accent—is booby-trapped with huge sodium land mines.
I wonder if it might be a personal issue. Maybe I have a yet-undiscovered medical condition. So I bring the leftovers to friends without saying a word. Both wince a little. Too salty.
So, yeah, someone in the kitchen needs to reevaluate their relationship with the spice that changed the world.
The cooking is otherwise solid. The dishes are tender, juicy, al dente, crispy, and all the other best food adjectives.
I hate being critical of a neighborhood restaurant like Two Seven Eight, because I like to believe I’m a human with a heart. They’ve made the room feel like a second home. The staff is friendly, familial, and prompt. The bathroom walls and chalkboards are loaded with messages supporting and advocating for their community. The patio is phenomenal, and they have the best local craft spirits program in the city.
I hope they find a happy seasoning medium. Regardless, I’ll be back to work my way through the local craft spirits scene, one sip at a time.