Frank Sabatini Jr. | Downtown News
Chaplos Restaurant & Bar
925 B St. (East Village on cusp of Core/Columbia & Cortez Hill)
Prices: Lunch, $7 to $13; dinner, $13 – $22; brunch $27, $12 for children 12 years & under.
In a space where no other kitchens have come before it, the new Chaplos Restaurant & Bar combines nuances of a 1920s supper club with a progression of American cuisine that culminates in vintage dishes with 21st Century flair.
The restaurant sits at ground level of a six-story office building on the west end of B Street, close to Highway 163.
There’s nothing much else around it, except for a couple of freshly built condominium structures across the street.
A large silver spoon hanging in the front window confirms you’ve come to the right place.
Owners Edwin and Irene Seymour of Coronado have adorned their open layout with Tiffany lights and an expansive wooden bar, all salvaged from the former Fat City on Pacific Highway. Despite the antique elements and a cushioned wall reminiscent of some bygone Hollywood lounge, Chaplos can feel equally modern if you allow it to.
Overseeing the menu is Chef Norma Martinez, a Tijuana native who graduated from the Instituto Culinario de Mexico before studying in Belgium and France. When returning to Mexico, she worked for Javier Plascencia, a restaurateur credited with sparking the Baja-Mediterranean culinary movement on both sides of the border. Here, her dishes incorporate the comforts of Europe and Mexico without veering too far off U.S. soil.
As expected, her seasonal ceviche made with mahi on this particular evening revealed a balanced use of citrus to accurately “cook” the fish without drowning it. Avocado, cucumbers and cilantro were prominent while whispers of chili oil offered a surprise aftertaste.
In another appetizer, Martinez cleverly mingles grilled eggplant with Bosc pears on a springy flatbread crust showered with arugula. The organics are tied together with the sweetness of blue cheese and saltiness of prosciutto. Additionally, we started with a plate of crispy shrimp and calamari rings that were lightly floured with paprika and chili powder. The shrimp were in short supply, although the accompanying chipotle aioli spiked with Tabasco was dreamy and abundant.
Our favorite starter, however, was season-fresh asparagus wrapped in abnormally thick slices of proscuitto, which Martinez explained is how the Spanish prepare it. The saltiness of the meat is quelled perfectly by the flame grill.
Chaplos’ cocktail list is headed by Bek Allen, a community-minded mixologist who showcases signature drinks from places like Brooklyn Girl in Mission Hills, Jayne’s Gastropub in Normal Heights and Prep Kitchen in Little Italy. For her own creation, called The Gaslamp Quarter, she compliments the sweet, woody notes of Knob Creek Bourbon with Amaretto, Benedictine and a giant ice cube. Sipping it to Frank Sinatra music playing in the background seemed a natural fit.
Craft beers and wine taps rigged to certain varietals play up to modern times. The selections for either are succinct and well-chosen when you consider flagship offerings by Alesmith, Stone Brewery and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
Dinner entrees are tightly focused as well, although Martinez plans on getting more experimental after customers become better acquainted with her introduction menu. She cooks only with “all-natural meats” and locally sourced produce.
I was immediately taken by her apple-ale pork ribs. The barbecue sauce slathering the supple meat appeared conventional, but it tasted fruity and hoppy instead of smoky and tangy. The plate also featured pleasant apple coleslaw, which reappeared with the addition of avocados alongside my companion’s hanger steak. The entrée costs $11 less than the bone-in rib eye, but it cuts and tastes pretty much the same when cooked medium-rare.
From a list of ala carte sides, the “chiles toreados” is a common Mexican enhancement to red meat. A single bite into these whole, roasted jalapenos cooked with onions and Worcestershire sauce had us gripping our water glasses with masochistic delight. They’re extremely salty and blistering hot.
Our dinner concluded with piping-hot apple cobbler contrasted by firm vanilla ice cream on top. Given its wet, spongy texture, it reminded me of buttery, blue ribbon bread pudding.
If you’re not the evening lounge-lizard type, Chaplos also serves lunch and recently introduced a build-your-own Sunday brunch featuring a ceviche station and boozy milkshakes that could potentially throw your inner child off balance.
Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene extensively for NBC; Pacific San Diego Magazine; San Diego Uptown News; Gay San Diego; Living in Style Magazine and The Gay & Lesbian Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.