In big, plain sight

Posted: January 5th, 2018 | Featured, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

It’s the Noah’s Ark of eating and drinking establishments, stretching more than a half city block to take on scores of consumers fleeing the floods of pedestrians inherent to the very street it resides.

Union Kitchen & Tap in the Gaslamp Quarter greets with nearly every creature comfort known to the bar and restaurant industry. An elongated sidewalk patio furnished with comfy booth seating signals an enormous interior featuring tons of wiggle room and two attractive bars — one of them stocked exclusively with fine whiskeys.

Union Kitchen & Tap ranks among the largest eating and drinking establishments in the Gaslamp Quarter. (Courtesy Alternative Strategies)

Between them is a mishmash of communal tables and upholstered booths set in sundry arrangements. The overall style is retro American-classic, achieved rather convincingly by faux tin-stamped ceiling tiles and a few brick walls, not to mention pillars clad in reclaimed wood and bulb lighting contained in metal cage-like fixtures.

As your eyes roam reflexively over the potpourri of design elements, they eventually hit upon a lovely cask room toward the back, which is used for private parties.

Adding to the atmosphere during our lunch was a playlist of indie and alternative rock tunes transmitted through an easy-on-the-ears sound system. They eventually gave way to a live, acoustic musician whose gifted voice would have kept us firmly planted here had our day been filled with more leisure time.

My dining comrade, a bourbon buff, kicked off the meal with a maple bourbon sour while I stuck to designated-driver ice water. Although I concurred with her that the inclusion of maple syrup was lost in the first drink, we could only taste bourbon and lemon juice.

She requested extra maple in the second drink, which indeed provided the provocative sweetness we initially imagined.

A starter of big eye tuna poke was complemented by sweet soy reduction, candied pistachios and pickled ginger. We couldn’t really detect the latter but the fish tasted bright and fresh and paired graciously to the accompanying paper-thin taro chips.

Big eye tuna poke and taro chips (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Had it not been for the squad of other ingredients comprising the baby kale salad, I would have skipped it in lieu of an everyday Caesar or wedge salad.

Here, my sheer boredom over kale temporarily lifted with the support of pickled cherries, sweet peppadew peppers, toasted quinoa, spiced pepitas and bourbon-mustard vinaigrette.

They gave much-needed rise to the trendy green. Every forkful offered a different rush of flavors, making it one of the snappiest kale salads you’ll find on the local scene.

Baby kale salad (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Union Kitchen & Tap in the Gaslamp (and Encinitas) is owned by locally-based OMG Hospitality Group, which also operates Pacific Beach AleHouse Kitchen & Brewery, Backyard Kitchen & Tap, and the new Waterbar in Pacific Beach.

Union’s Gaslamp executive chef, Colten Lemmer, is a culinary grad of Grossmont College. He also completed an extension program at the Culinary Institute of America and locally worked at Pamplemousse Grill, Sea & Smoke, and Wheat & Water.

His goal at Union since coming on board in April has been “to capture comfort foods from all regions of the country,” hence the pastrami sandwich, the barbecue smoked chicken and various Cajun/Creole dishes you’ll find on the menu as cross-cultural examples.

We proceeded, however, to a few continental faves, such as a roasted mushroom flatbread accented with black truffle cream, garlic chips and fried sage. We loved that it was baked long enough to develop crispy edges around the crust and toasty pockmarks on the mantle of mozarella cheese.

Lemmer uses local yellowtail for fish tacos. He tastefully adorns the grilled fish with lime crema along with obligatory pico de gallo and shredded cabbage. Served with herby black bean cassoulet, they rightfully screamed San Diego.

Yellow tail fish tacos with black bean cassoulet (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

I ordered the Brandt Beef house burger with white cheddar but accidentally ended up with the leaner, meaner “black & bleu” bison burger. It was garnished with smoked bleu cheese, jumbo strips of bacon, pickled red onions and garlic aoili. Wildly savory, it was one of those easily forgivable mix-ups that seemed meant to be.

We concluded our lunch with a thrilling dessert — extra-virgin olive oil cake that took on significant complexity with the support of buttermilk gelato, honeycomb from Temecula, vanilla-orange gel and orange-blossom almond brittle. We left nary a crumb on the plate.

Olive oil cake with buttermilk gelato and orange-citrus components (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Union also serves dinner seven days a week and brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

Live acoustic music is held starting at 6 p.m. on Fridays, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. Guest DJs fuel the vibe from 10 p.m. to close on Saturdays, and karaoke is held from 9:30 p.m. to close on Wednesdays.

— 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

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