Himmelberg’s in the East Village is a shining example of how caring humans invest their time and money into preserving the legacies of deceased loved ones.
Formerly Harvest by the Patio, owner Gina Champion-Cain, of the locally based Patio Group, decided earlier this year to shake up the original concept of contemporary, wholesome cuisine by introducing dishes that are a little more fun and retro.
In doing so, she directed her culinary team to develop things like sloppy Joe sliders, corn dog poppers, loaded tater tots, buttermilk fried chicken and Philadelphia cheesesteaks.
Healthy options still exist in the form of veggie wraps and quinoa bowls. But they seem like foreign intruders to the ’70s-era rock-and-roll environment she assembled as a tribute to Joey Himmelberg, a dear friend she lost three years ago to a sudden heart attack.
Himmelberg was a lover of ’70s and ’80s rock music. He cherished social gatherings, running, surfing, good grub and beer. He was also fond of the laid-back bar culture of yesteryear, which Champion-Cain creatively captures with crushed-velvet couches and old coffee tables.
Copious music memorabilia flows from the downstairs anteroom (used for to-go orders) to the upstairs, which feels like the basements and garages baby boomers such as myself hung out in with friends while listening to vinyl albums, and in altered states.
Incorporated into the floor plan is an area for live music, plus a U-shaped bar and a striking blown-up photo of David Bowie occupying a back wall. As a die-hard fan for many years, I melted.
A friend and I settled into a pair of couches in a cozy corner against one of the large paned windows. A couple of stimulating cocktails kicked off our lunch.
“The Purple Haze,” with its ruby red vodka, campari and grapefruit soda, was gulpable. So was the “Rocket Man” mule using ginger beer that is carbonated to order. Instead of the usual copper mug, it was served in a tin can featuring customized labeling that resembled a grocery product from the 1920s.
The all-day food menu is a collaboration by executive chef Josh Schauert and the Patio Group’s vice president of food and beverage, Hilary Rossi. Some of their dishes are playful, such as chicken-n-waffle sliders accented with 100% maple syrup spiked with cayenne pepper and red chili flakes. The buttermilk-battered chicken breast tasted of Southern goodness. And the savory waffles, flavored with sage and cheddar cheese, hide a fair amount of fresh corn inside.
The sliders, as well a set of sloppy Joe sliders reeking of that nostalgic flavor of sweet-tomato ground beef, became our favorite dishes.
We took a healthy pause with the “Maverick bowl,” a sprightly, deconstructed salad of quinoa, red kidney beans, multi-colored cherry tomatoes, avocado and roasted corn — all sitting atop crispy romaine lettuce. Toasted cumin dressing tied everything together in what three people can easily share.
Rossi is a native of Philadelphia who makes dynamite cheesesteaks at four San Diego County locations of Surf Rider Pizza Co., which also falls under the Patio Group. She uses lean rib-eye shaved in-house, and tucks it into Amoroso rolls imported from her hometown. The cheesesteaks are available here as well.
But we decided to take a gamble on the cheesesteak egg rolls instead. As my friend accurately pointed out, they tasted like some commercial creation by Chun King, due mostly to their thick, generic-type casings. The innards were that of a classic Philly cheesesteak, which only exacerbated our craving for an actual hoagie roll.
That wish was granted, however, when we chomped into the meatball sub, which also uses the airy, slightly chewy rolls from Amoroso’s Baking Company.
The meatballs were exceptionally soft — even softer than the ones my late grandmother served after simmering them all day in tomato sauce. They were also a little tangy and missing that elusive Italian flavor we expected, due perhaps to a lack of oregano, garlic or parsley. Mantled beneath melted mozzarella and fresh basil, it wasn’t a bad sub. But it wasn’t the Paesano version I grew up eating in Buffalo, New York.
Other food choices include beer-battered cod with tater tots, pepperoni-sausage (or plain cheese) flatbreads, strawberry salad, grilled cheese with tomato soup, and the double-patty “Himmelburger” with American cheese, onions, pickle and special sauce on a sesame seed bun.
The burger (or a fried chicken sandwich) served with tater tots is specially priced at $10 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.
For dessert, we cured our hankering for chocolate cake with a four-layer version accompanied by vanilla bean ice cream. There’s also seasonal cheesecake and root beer or Coke floats. But with a full bar slinging draft beer and clever cocktails, I’ll likely skip the confections next time around and lounge over booze in this mini rock-and-roll hall of fame.
Note: Live music is featured Thursday through Saturday evenings.
— 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.