By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Bardo Lounge in Hillcrest is a little bit of everything—a breakfast joint, coffeehouse, lunch counter, dessert spot, booze bar and a place to grab light noshes on weekend evenings. You pluck from it what you will and come away cheerfully sated, and maybe a tad mellower than before you arrived if opting for cannabidiol drops in your coffee or tea.
This used to be an alleyway. It was filled in to become The Kouch, a narrow high-ceiling cafe that initially opened with a nebulous identity before shutting down for a few months. The name played off a tufted leather couch of impressive length that was custom-made by nearby Ramirez Upholstery. It still resides in the front outdoor dining area as a comfy seating option.
After a shift in ownership, The Kouch sprung back to life and morphed into Bardo Lounge, which borrows from the Buddhist word “bardo” to describe a state of existence between death and rebirth. A reflection of the establishment’s own journey, perhaps?
While bouncing back, the menu was fine-tuned, and the interior was refreshed with lighter colors. The shiny, white bar and old-style chandeliers remain in what is a keen use of an odd space.
Only here does a sandwich pay homage to the gayborhood’s prominent demographic by virtue of the first initials of its main ingredients: lettuce, guacamole, bacon, and tomatoes. It’s listed as the “LGBT toast,” which takes on a hearty, healthy flair with toasted multi-grain bread.
As a salute to Hillcrest itself, there’s the namesake open-face dish using the same good multi-grain bread, which beds fresh avocado, diced tomatoes, feta and a sunny-side egg. It’s among the biggest sellers from the breakfast menu.
Bardo Lounge is also home to the spiciest red chilaquiles in town. If you have a masochistic palate, brace yourself for a wildly hellish treat.
Chef Hector Vargas, who last worked at Cafe 21, drapes the corn chips with sauce made from guajillo peppers and chile adobo. He finishes them with a blanket of crema, feta cheese and two sunny-side eggs. Always on the hunt for chilaquiles that are honestly spicy, these sent me over the moon and admittedly had me soothing my mouth with Moroccan mint tea infused with a full eyedropper of the cannabidiol. (Fear not, its effects are non-psychoactive, yet subtly calming.)
From the “light bites” category, the avocado fries were warm and rich, hardly a light appetizer when you consider these unctuous wedges of fruit are dusted in rice flour, flash fried, and served with three creamy dipping sauces—garlic, pesto and chipotle. Tote home what you can’t finish and behold how good they taste straight from the fridge.
Bardo is mostly gay-operated with a staff that includes manager Jack Castillo, a British transplant who resides with his husband in Hillcrest. A consummate professional, he brings a European level of service to the place and is adept at generating repeat customers from both the LGBT and straight communities.
“We like to make sure all of our guests feel at home,” he said with trusty conviction, adding that community feedback is taken seriously; the chilaquiles, for example, materialized after customers began requesting them.
The offerings are now tailored to a diverse patronage, yet you’re not bombarded with every trending dish in the nation. Morning fare extends to a few versions of eggs Benedict and omelets, as well as breakfast burritos, pancakes, acai bowls and several other choices.
They verge into slightly wider territory for lunch, when salads, wraps, burgers and grass-fed ground beef tacos begin emerging. Fish tacos are also available, and you can score a pair of them along with a pint of Modelo beer for $8 any day of the week during regular business hours.
Beans from Oregon-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters figure prominently in a decent variety of coffee drinks. Their toffee-like notes also land in the chef’s Stumptown cake, which flirts with you from a glass pedestal perched on the bar. It features espresso in the crumb and frosting, and Ghirardelli chocolate in the frosting.
There are also eight beer taps, a focused wine list and crafty cocktails made with Svetlana Vodka. Though everything at Bardo is reasonably priced, the beer and wine sell respectively for only $3 and $4 per glass during happy hour, which is held from 4 to 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday.
No matter when you visit, the “lounge” ranks as a Hillcrest gem that is somewhat hidden in plain sight because of its slender dimensions and understated signage.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.