By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The widely rooted concept of a “gastropub” has arrived to Mission Valley, in a tucked-away segment of Camino del Rio South that dead-ends at TGI Fridays.
Situated at the base of a low-rise office building, the Mission Valley Gastropub is the re-branded version of Bali Thai Café under the same ownership. So for customers who grew fond of the café’s Asian-fusion cuisine and small craft beer selection, most of it still remains.
Also, in terms of atmosphere, little has changed. The inviting front patio offers more seating compared to inside, where the cozy central bar adds sparkle to a sleek, colorless design.
In its previous incarnation, the menu featured more Thai dishes. Gone are the colored curries and drunken noodles. They’ve been replaced by a couple trendy versions of avocado toast and a variety of ramen, the latter of which holds zero appeal to me in the summer months.
My companion, however, considered ordering the “Cali” ramen stocked with lemongrass carne asada and fried avocado as our waitress insisted on this muggy evening that consuming the steamy-hot broth triggers the body into cooling itself down. We agreed that theory has never worked for us, and proceeded to order spicy mushroom-avocado toast and a few Indonesian dishes that caught our eye.
The toast involved a sandal-shaped slice of bread sourced from Bread & Cie that was grilled and layered with avocado, mushroom ragout and spicy aioli. It was as rich and delicious as a steak sandwich.
Breaded wok-fried chicken wings that our waitress said were Indonesian-style tasted more like how a roadside diner in Oklahoma would serve them — wonderfully crispy but terribly plain despite a generous sprinkling of shallots and scallions over them. The tamarind and aromatic spices I expected in the recipe were absent.
But the Indonesian chicken satay delivered a memorable flavor rush from sweet soy sauce, lime leaves and bits of high-fat candlenuts strewn throughout the accompanying peanut dressing. Compared to its Thai version, which we also ordered, the chicken seemed as though it was marinated longer, and it came with the added bonus of a savory, caramelized coating that forms when the flames hit the viscous soy sauce.
For the Thai satay, the poultry is kissed instead with coconut milk and various spices. Softer in flavor, it became livelier when dipped into the sweet vinegar dressing served alongside.
From the specialties list, we shared the bihun goreng, a classic Indonesian stir fry of vermicelli noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, green onions and various proteins, all topped with a fried egg that’s usually well-done as it was here.
Strewn throughout the semi-sweet and slightly smoky noodles were under-seasoned shrimp, chicken and toasted tofu. The ingredients are meant to be tasted in their unadulterated form, without the support of chili peppers or zesty sauces used in other Asian fry-ups. My companion, who’s generally fearful of spicy dishes, plowed through the dish with gusto as I doused every bite with chili sauce while longing for bigger flavors.
Next time I’ll spring for the beef rendang, a slow-cooked Malaysian dish not commonly found in San Diego that brings into the scheme ginger, shallots and coconut milk. Or if I visit with a nagging sweet tooth, the orange-glazed chicken topped with fresh mangos seems like a winning bet.
In addition to seven beer taps, the bar offers wine and soju cocktails. Combined with a comfortable, unfussy atmosphere and a menu that combines Asian fare with a few American dishes, the establishment fits the modern, general definition of a gastropub, regardless of what the Brits who give makeovers to ailing pubs in England might argue.
—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.