When Pigs Fly in O'Side
Troy Johnson reviews The Flying Pig
Oceanside is one of the curious dining voids in San Diego. You’ve got a high-end Cohn restaurant, a chic Harney Sushi, a decent BBQ, a Peruvian joint and… uh, lots of recently unfrozen Mexican food.
Why the persistent hole in the market? Maybe Oceanside doesn’t want fancy dining concepts. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the city’s void. The median income here is higher than Hillcrest’s and North Park’s. Are there just no foodies? This is a bedroom community for Camp Pendleton. It’s Marine country, filled with enlistees and those who love them (17 percent of population). Enlistees have often gone from school cafeterias and home-cooked meals to the base (where they get meals for free). I’d venture to say food has long been a source of nourishment, not entertainment, for these men and women. (Please send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Maybe danger drives away potential bistro owners. In O-Side there seem to be more police per capita, and no shortage of work for them to do. It’s no Compton, but gangs occasionally do gang-y things here. On my way to this dining review, two youngish guys zip by me in an El Camino. They’re more partying than driving, as if maybe blood isn’t the only thing in their system. They make a wild left turn and—BAM!—get sideswiped by a Toyota (all parties emerged safe).
Of course, Oceanside has its charms. The fact that it’s a harbor of California coastline not teeming with drastically entitled NIMBYs is a massive attraction. It’s the anti-Del Mar, the counter-La Jolla. But it’s not for the timid, and more than a few cultural revolutions have stalled here.
“You have to try the Flying Pig,” a friend in the industry had told me. “They can’t keep up with business.”
“It’ll be 45 minutes,” says a staff member at the Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen to a foursome. It’s a Monday. Forty-five minute wait on a Monday.
The farm-to-table bistro hole? The Pig is currently filling it. And killing it.
The Pig is located next to a seller of un-fine automobiles in a nondescript one-story box—the architectural equivalent of an egg crate. But inside? Inspired funk. The chief design element is rust. Metal pails overflow with succulents by the door. There are metal sculptures of pigs, metal lockers, metal signs with jokey 1950-isms, a Plinko game mounted to a wall. An old bike hangs from the ceiling, like the taxidermy of Mormon missionaries.
One wall is blue. One red. One orange-ish. One off-white. “We don’t like to match,” says a server. I see that. Dig it. It’s like dining in the greatest garage sale. Or Austin. Same thing.
Co-owner Roddy Browning spent four years as a server at Market Del Mar for James Beard-nominated chef Carl Schroeder. He and wife Aaron found Flying Pig’s chef in Mario Moser, who was a line cook under Nine-Ten’s big talent, Jason Knibb. Going from a line cook to head chef is a jump—but the relaxed atmosphere cranks down the pressure gauge. Moreover, the résumés of both prove: the team knows high-end dining, both in the kitchen and in the showroom.
As for the food? I had a very mixed experience. One night it was a very enjoyable meal. The other was technically off on every dish—drastically undercooked sprouts, dry pork belly (that’s hard to accomplish), tough steak.
Do try the polenta fritters—a bone-simple, subtle treat with aw-shucks Southern roots. The Pig serves a generous 10 of them, all deep-fried into that lovely George Hamilton brown-orange. That hush puppy-like fry taste yields to the slight sweetness of spongy cornmeal. Dipped in aioli, it will make your arteries yip and yammer. We also order bread with grill marks and a side of goat cheese mixed with rosemary-and-garlic confit (steeped in oil, super-soft). It’s a good riff on garlic bread, with a zip-tang from the goat and an herb that can stand up to it.
The menus are laminated onto vinyl album covers (Streisand’s Guilty, Mitch Miller’s Sing Along With… release). We get the salad of the day, with fresh green beans, a curl of the vine sticking up like the tree in Tim Burton’s creepy holiday film. There are pickled anchovies, a microplaned slice of preserved lemon, a touch of spicy red peppers, and Champagne vinaigrette. It’s excellent, and shows the hidden skills and aspirations of this kitchen.
There are elements—brown butter, chicken confit hash, smoked paprika, Madeira sauce—that earmark Mario’s time with Knibb. Then there are tokens like fried eggs, fried pickled veggies, hashes, polenta, and grits, that give it an antebellum feel.
They do a daily steak option. The night we have it, the oatmeal stout-and-date reduction with a mascarpone horseradish is delicious, again a fine-dining telltale. But ethics only go so far, because the steak is tough and those sprouts are dangerously close to uncooked. Better is the chicken and dumplings. An airline chicken (a boneless breast with attached drumette) gets sage, brown butter, that confit hash, and excellent sweet potatoes. Skin is crisp and pressed, ready to be loved.
The dish is plated like art. That’s the charm of a place like the Flying Pig. Servers are in jeans and tees. There’s a proud laxness here. And yet food is plated with care, napkins are refolded when you return to your seat, the servers talk about each ingredient in each dish with epic wonderment. The owner chats with regulars, excuses himself to bus tables, no job too un-owner-like. It’s like a tailgate party in an art gallery, thrown by a few fine-dining expats.
We don’t have dessert. The food here is heavy enough. They also have rotating craft beers. I could tell you about them but that’d be silly.
It’s very easy to fall in love with this restaurant. It’s slow food served in an unpretentious manner, by creative, friendly veterans of the high-dining scene. They know to make dinner special. The food lands somewhere between ambition and execution, an area we’ll call pretty good. And everything else—the vibe, the attitude, the friendliness, the questionable pop art, and unquestionable ethics—amplifies your appreciation for the Pig.
Maybe all that’s just a fancy way of saying “soul.”
Note: Seasonal menus change all the time. Your results may vary.