Where the Freeway Ends
Troy Johnson reviews new SD resto Chaplos
Location. Real estate folks won’t stop nattering about it. But if your short ribs taste like spiritual enlightenment, won’t people find a way to find you?
A few years ago I posed that question to an extremely gifted, high-profile chef who was taking over an out-of-the-way location. “It doesn’t matter—look at Keller!” he said. A year later he left that restaurant, partially blaming the location.
Thomas Keller is to cuisine what James Earl Jones is to narration. A media-certified artist-god. For talented chefs not yet deified, location matters. Ideally, you’d find an airy room with an ocean view, great freeway access, and ample parking, where wealthy young locals who can’t cook worth a damn spend their nights hemorrhaging money into the arms of cashiers. Also ideally, you’d get this space for a surprisingly reasonable lease.
New San Diego restaurant Chaplos definitely has freeway access. The southbound 163 comes to a screaming halt at its doorstep on the corner of 10th Avenue and B Street. Unfortunately, this area of downtown is the one you pass through on your way to more desirable areas (East Village, Gaslamp—anywhere, really). Notable retail? Well you can get a lube job. Nearby dining options include Burger King, Bruegger’s Bagels, and the beef jerky section of a Shell station.
But it’s this last fact—coupled with big residential towers like Vantage Pointe, TenFiftyB, and the record-breaking, 939-unit Blue Sky (coming in 2015)—that might just save Chaplos. The downtown population is growing, and locals need places to eat. The Gaslamp is not a great option. That’s where landlords gouge restaurateurs who in turn gouge tourists on leisure binges, fiscally irresponsible singles in heat, and expense accounters who still think it’s 2006.
Locals need spots like Café Chloe, Neighborhood, and Chaplos—casually elegant, sane prices, friendly vibe. If Chaplos’ ornately carved wooden bar feels familiar, that’s because owner Edwin Seymour nabbed it at a liquidation sale for the once-iconic Fat City. That faded bronze mirror? Civil War-era. The rest of Chaplos is downright noir, pure black-and-white except for three miniature jungles of Tiffany-style lamps. Aside from the flat screen above a booth (are you watching ESPN or creepily staring at me while I eat?), it’s a tasteful, restrained restaurant on the bottom floor of an office building.
But on a Wednesday night, we’re one of six tables (there are at least 15, plus a large marble communal table). The hostess is hunched over her phone, texting with bored fury. They have sidewalk valet service, a chalkboard, a permanent marquee, a large “OPEN” sign in lights…
They might need a roadblock.
Reality is people en route to the retail bonanzas of East Village and downtown will not stop for a single attraction. Even if the Nevada–California state line (Primm, Nevada) had a five-star casino, most people would drive to Vegas for the smorgasbord of spectacle. So Chaplos must win over locals, then let their word of mouth make it a destination. And its prices—very affordable—are set to do this.
The good news is that Seymour owns the six-story office building, so Chaplos (named after his father-in-law, a commercial real estate man in Mexico) is part of a larger business operation. And he has a good chef in Norma Martinez, a Tijuana native who cut her teeth at The Westgate under Fabrice Hardel before helming the recently shuttered El Vitral. And now they’ve identified another route to locals’ hearts: booze. They added mixologist Bek Allen—who worked at NYC’s famed Pegu Club before helming the bar for Saltbox.
The staff feels like family, treats you the same. The food ranges from excellent to average to no-really-you-have-to-have-it. All over the board, really, which seemed strange (that’s called a cliffhanger; answer at end).
Martinez has called Chaplos’ menu classic American, which she wrote her culinary thesis on. But Mexican influences dot the menu, from the spicy poblano cornbread (served in a bowl, very good) to a fresh ceviche with bite (tomato-red onion-cilantro-cucumber-avo-chile oil) and her side of chiles toreados—the classic roasted jalapeños and onions, sautéed with either Worcestershire or Maggi or some deeper sauce. It’s like a spicy Mexican mirepoix, served unfancily in a bowl—ugly and delicious.
At lunch I ask for their signature burger, medium. It comes charred and tastes a bit like I’m cleaning your grill with my teeth. Too bad, because otherwise the flavors are good, with roasted tomatoes, fried cippolini onions, and Swiss on an awesomely sturdy, chewy pretzel bread.
Empanadas are perfect crescents of pregnant pastry (grilled corn, spinach, mushroom), manicured like a French garden. Do not eat one without dipping it into the chimichurri, one of the best I’ve had. A beet salad with feta is fine. To be a micromanaging ass: I might not mix the feta with the beets (not only does it turn it red and make the salad monotone; it’s hard to find the tangy cheese to compose a perfect bite).
Our server points us to the asparagus, whose tips are wrapped in blue cheese and prosciutto, a fine, healthier version of a classic meat-cheese nibble (or an unhealthier version of asparagus, depending on how much of a jaded mess you are). Overall, Martinez’ menu leans toward lean, which fits local culture. A flatbread comes with nicely cooked eggplant over blue cheese—but the bread is darn near uncooked dough. The biggest misstep, however, was the housemade spaghetti with pesto. It’s not only bland, but the strands are compacted into a deep bowl so that it becomes one starchy mass—like mochi or Play-Doh.
The dish is so below Martinez’ talent I ask if she’s in the kitchen. “No—she mostly works days,” our server says. It seems Martinez recently made the switch to GM and turned chef de cuisine responsibilities over to Mariana Gallardo, her former sous chef at El Vitral. I’ve no doubt that Gallardo has talent. And the big secret in restaurants is that most chefs often do as much paperwork as cooking. But to not have the most experienced chef in the building overseeing dinner service seems like a mistake.
That said, Gallardo and the kitchen executed the pork ribs excellently. Slow-braised and coated with a terrific sauce using Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, the meat is tender and the skin crackles beneath the sauce. Just fantastic. And you’d need to have a nasty Yelp reputation to uphold to find anything wrong with the apple cobbler.
Martinez is a talent, albeit currently half-tapped. Seymour is a very earnest, likeable presence in the dining room. And now with Allen on board, Chaplos will be a great place for locals to get a drink. Drinks, plus stricter quality control in executing Martinez’ menu, will be key to successfully trailblazing this dark side of downtown’s fickle moon.