By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
A prime location in the heart of Hillcrest and an open, inviting facade that practically ropes you in from the sidewalk have given Uptown Tavern a universal appeal for the nearly six years it’s been in business.
Gay-owned and cocktail-focused from the start, a pair of new proprietors took over last year and recently promoted sous chef Mark Molina to executive chef. Denizens of the tavern will notice his new additions such as a fried green tomato salad, shrimp tacos and beer-braised short ribs.
Stealing the show, perhaps, are Molina’s vegetarian sliders using a balanced composite of beets, quinoa, carrots, red onions, beans and panko crumbs. Served three to an order and quite beer-friendly, they’re plump and juicy and taste as rich as beef. Right down to their color and texture, they come brilliantly close to the real deal.
Gone are the big rib eye steaks and over-sized burgers that defy Molina’s lightened-up menu of mostly shareable dishes. Though, if you come knocking for Uptown’s eminent five-spice chicken wings, you’re in luck. They’ve been in the offing since day one and remain a hot seller.
My spouse is a major sangria freak. He’ll drink it in buckets when it meets his standards. And this cabernet-based version very much did with its lively notes of orange, lemon, honey and cinnamon. A few edible flowers floating on top makes you wonder why any place serving sangria would leave out these floral flavor boosters.
We stuck exclusively to new menu items, which included the shrimp tacos drizzled in charred jalapeno crema, pico de gallo and fresh cilantro. Good stuff, although we wished they would have turned it up to make it a little spicier.
Shrimp tacosThe papas bravas compensated with drizzles of spicy aioli, which added a smoky kick to the tenderly cooked potatoes. Molina does well applying a Southwestern spin to this popular Spanish tapa.
Hubby applauded the fried green tomato salad, due in part to the fact he grew up with the breaded, fried tomatoes in the Ozarks. Conversely, this Northeasterner never acquired a taste for them, even elevated with Molina’s pesto aioli and charred onion vinaigrette. It’s the firmness and insipidness of green tomatoes that I’ll never get past.
Tempted by the herb-brined buttermilk chicken breast sandwich or the beef short rib, we opted instead for a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acid in a filet of grilled Canadian salmon boasting a tasty glaze of miso and black garlic.
The salmon was perfectly cooked — slightly firm on the outside and steamy and flaky on the inside. It came on a bed of “spicy slaw” that tasted a lot fruitier from orange and lime zest than it did spicy from pasilla peppers lurking in the recipe. Just as well because the citrus element struck a holy pairing to the fish.
The majority of Molina’s menu points to shareable booze-friendly items that also include truffle fries, avocado tostadas, an avocado-mango salad and a few carryovers from previous chefs such as cheddar-topped Angus sliders and chicken and waffles with whiskey syrup.
Also, new owners Michael Saltsman and business partner Scott Borden recently introduced some enticing weekday specials that include “endless pasta” on Mondays, which allows for unlimited intakes of the day’s pasta dish for only $10.
On Tuesdays, all drinks are half price, even the top-shelf stuff, and Wednesdays are all about “wieners and wine,” when sausage flights are available, and wines are $5 a glass.
In addition, the spacious, modernly illuminated tavern holds a “silent disco” from 10 p.m. to close on the second Saturday of every month, when patrons get their groove on to high-energy music through headphones.
Call or visit the website for more information about ongoing specials and upcoming events.
— 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.