San Diego’s craft beer scene has come full circle before Arsalun Tafazoli’s eyes.
When Tafazoli opened Neighborhood Ale House in 2006, he didn’t want it to be another bar in Downtown where shiny-shirts came to get hammered. Instead, the 25-year-old San Diego native wanted a place where beer would be appreciated for having substance.
“When we were starting out, young brewers would come in and tell stories about how they mortgaged their houses—put everything on the line to get their product out there,” says Tafazoli. “There was so much passion behind it. It was incredible to me that it didn’t have the same credibility as wine.”
Tafazoli made moves. His staff of mostly women were pros on the ins and outs of beer styles and food pairings. He regularly hosted meet-the-brewer nights―with out of towners like the venerable Dogfish Head and Allagash. Lee Chase (Blind Lady Ale House, Automatic Brewing Co., Tiger! Tiger!) was hired as Neighborhood’s first beverage manager.
“If Lee’s behind the bar pouring you a beer—to this day—he’ll get you behind it. It’s amazing to watch,” says Tafazoli of Chase, a mad beer scientist of sorts who worked as head brewer at Stone for nearly 10 years until 2006. “That got really hip; people would come in to taste more stuff. We’d get letters saying ‘I didn’t know what good beer was before.’ We really built a community one person at a time.”
Around the time of the housing market crash, there was a boom of creativity among brewers, says Tafazoli. And newly-broke winos took note. This is when Neighborhood took off, and gave rise to a new order of local establishments.
“San Diego is littered with gastro pubs now,” Tafazoli says. “Nowadays, the word “craft,” the term “farm to table”—it’s all been commodified. It’s a trend that people exploit. You see these banners hanging in front of places everywhere say “craft beer.” It’s more than getting a tap system installed; that’s just one component in the context of this bigger picture. You have to make sure the whole story makes sense or else it doesn’t work.”
Having grown from 33 breweries in 2007 to 88 at time of print, some of the craft beer scene’s original players are wary of its sustainability.
“It used to be that there was this young guy starting a brewery, and you’d want to support it. And now every day it’s someone else. It’s great for the proliferation of the culture, but I think some people are getting into the business for the wrong reasons.”
Tafazoli’s approach to success has launched what is today one of San Diego’s most ambitious and talked about hospitality brands, Consortium Holdings (CH). In 2008 he joined forces with Nate Stanton (El Dorado), when both of their businesses were gaining momentum in the up and coming East Village. Since, the two have undeniably elevated drinking and dining culture in San Diego with eight successful concepts and counting.
It doesn’t hurt to have a dream team behind their backs, with two-star Michelin Chef, Jason McLeod, helming kitchen operations for all the projects, and highly reputed bartenders like Erick Castro (Polite Provisions) and Anthony Schmidt (formerly of Noble Experiment, now headed to new project Rare Form). Then there’s local designer Paul Basile, whose past projects include Bankers Hill Restaurant + Bar and Acme Southern Kitchen.
Just last year, CH won national praise for two of its projects. The speakeasy Noble Experiment (designed by Mauricio Couturier) made Esquire Magazine’s top 100 bars list and Polite Provisions won Imbibe Magazine’s Cocktail Bar of the Year. The James Beard Foundation also loved Erick Castro’s Mayan Concubine cocktail at Polite, naming it one of their favorites of 2013, from a spot that opened the same year, no less.
“We want our spaces to promote our core values. It’s why we don’t do vodka or shit beer, and think about every aspect of a space—because it’s a reflection of who we are and what we want to perpetuate to our community,” says Tafazoli. “It was the Greg Kochs [Stone CEO] and the Lee Chases who reaffirmed what I thought. At first, people were coming in to Neighborhood and not getting it, and sticking to our identity and not watering it down—back when everything was on the line—that’s what made us.”
CH’s first all-out culinary endeavor, Ironside Oyster, has been packed since opening in early May. In the works are North Park’s Underbelly, an East Village juice bar, and Rare Form, a Jewish Deli that will share space with a Stone tasting room in the historic Simon Levi building next to Petco Park.
Tafazoli says of the perceived “seasonal” neighborhood, “The stadium has shaped the cultural geography of East Village, and not in a good way. Too many businesses cater to the stadium crowd. It’s not about walk-by traffic for us, it’s about the great community of people who live there,” he says. “We’ll create a synergy there with the two different businesses. The idea is that our core values are very much alike. Stone knows who they are, they stuck to it, and it’s been effective. They paved the way for a lot of people. You have to respect it.”
No one could have predicted the force that craft beer would play in the trajectory of Tafazoli’s businesses, let alone its tremendous impact on the local economy. Tafazoli points out that the proof lies in a craft beer newspaper like West Coaster—something most people wouldn’t have looked twice at a decade ago.
Still, Tafazoli remains cautiously optimistic about San Diego’s brewing future.
“A lot of brewing companies have popped up without understanding the soul and economics of the business. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of these guys will be able to sustain,” he says. “In the end, I want everyone in the community to be successful, but unfortunately capitalism is harsh. I think there is a lot of local talent sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how things play out. I see them stepping up as other people phase out. Then, we’re going to experience a stronger renaissance.”
Chef Craig Jimenez has consulted in some of the most successful kitchens in town, and now, back to experimenting
Sparks flew in 2007 when Craig Jimenez—then just 26-years-old—was promoted to his first executive chef role at The Guild, where modern gastronomy met funky plate-ware, all designed by owner and artist, Paul Basile. While guests ate, they could literally look in on Basile’s massive metal and fabrication shop at the experimental restaurant concept in Barrio Logan.
Jimenez and Consortium Holdings’ Arsalun Tafazoli met at The Guild; in between meeting with Basile on custom designs for his newly opened Neighborhood, Tafazoli would stop into the restaurant for Jimenez’s sliders. When the restaurant closed, Tafazoli snagged its chef along with some of Basile’s presentations like the street taco holders, and even the chairs from the bar.
Though The Guild had a loyal following of adventurous eaters, it was ahead of its time, especially location-wise. But by the time it closed, Jimenez had fed all the right people, including Michael Alves, who gave the chef a jingle after the nationally swooned-over Craft & Commerce grew to unimaginable success, steering Jimenez back to consulting—his passion.
“I’ve been on a crazy journey these past few years. Craft is a huge highlight—so was was Henry’s Pub. To me, our city needs as much help as it can get. I don’t discriminate. If it’s a small, dinky shop and someone’s too good for it, I’m not. Food needs to be shared and done right.”
Alves, who was in the market to re-concept his Liberty Station restaurant, Joao’s Tin Fish Bar & Eatery, knew just the guy to do the job. With Jimenez on board to make the Portuguese and Italian-influenced Roseville Cozinha a hit, one of the first things he did was eradicate all the watered-down macros and implement a craft-driven beer program.
“I think we’re just going to keep rotating the selection,” explains Jimenez of the plan. “There are so many great beers out there.” Right now, there’s a changing lineup of 15 brews from Cismontane to Iron Fire plus some of San Diego’s Old Guard breweries as well.
“With the experiences I had at Neighborhood, I learned a lot about beer and how to diversify it, which is really cool because Mike is listening to my suggestions and getting them in. Everyone’s getting on the same page here.”
So what’s next? “Eventually, there will be a lot more one offs, and beer dinners,” Jimenez says.
Become a fan of Roseville Cozhina on Facebook for promotions and events updates; though a date hasn’t been set, this month, the restaurant will host a dueling beer dinner between Ballast Point and Iron Fire. Brewers from both camps will present four courses each, with pairings.
“During this time of recession, beer was good buffer. There’s so much value and flavor in a pint, and it’s interesting, because brewing was like some kind of lost art. Beer is responsible for bringing in that hug the city needed,” Jimenez says. “Looking at where our region was just three years ago—it’s changed a lot. And not just restaurants—with people buying locally. Now farmers are able to provide a more consistent product. The money stays here, which is great.”
“I told Mike a year ago that Craft & Commerce is nothing special: Its food is simple and consistent. You make all five or six ingredients the best you can get, and make it affordable,” he says. “Successful restaurants are doing a few things right, with de-cluttered menus.”
Alves ran with it. He bought a wood-burning oven to bake pizzas and roast veggies. It’s also where one of the most popular dishes—whole roasted shrimp with parsley, and garlic—reaches sweetness that sizzles. Rustic, oven-toasted bread comes in handy to sop up all the delectable juices that tender potatoes at the bottom of the skillet haven’t. The expansive kitchen is a playground, Jimenez says, where he can grind meat, make pates and just have fun nailing down the dishes that will stay.
“We think of it as auditions. If something doesn’t sell, we take it off the menu.”
Jimenez tells West Coaster that the juniper-brined, bone-in pork chop is also a hit—but we already knew that from experience—along with the cioppino. If you go for the pork chop, the creamy mashed potatoes aren’t to be missed. We had to order an extra side.
The flavors are clean and distinguishable, portions beyond generous—small plates? Huh?—and the atmosphere is chill, but still undergoing some changes to transform it into more of a communal ale house.
There are specials every night of the week but Saturday; on Mondays, there’s a burger and beer combo special and on Tuesdays, if you order a pizza, any craft beer is $3. For an affordable date night, there’s a $20 per person, three-course menu available on Thursdays. Happy hour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Sundays from 3 p.m. until close. Expect a little something different on each of these nights, as Jimenez stocks his kitchen with seasonal ingredients from Suzie’s Farm and other local purveyors.
“I’m hired to execute others’ visions,” he says. “At the end of the day, if they want to do a hot dog, I’m gonna make the best damn hot dog.”
Still, he’s not stopping there. While Jimenez is wearing the executive chef’s coat at Roseville, he’s been working on a project of his own for the past 10 years that is starting off as a soup dumpling stall called KAEN Come Eat Now at the Public Market. It’s back to the Barrio, and full circle for the impassioned chef whose big smile and laughs are contagious.
“San Diego is small. You see who respects you, and who keeps their word; it’s a good sense of community in the end,” he says. “Seven years later, and I’m off to a good start.”
There were 1,000 people too many at last year’s Mission Valley Craft Beer Festival, which was a good thing for Fresh Start Surgical Gifts—the local non-profit that benefitted $6,500 from ticket sales—but not-so-much for cramped festival-goers whose $40 admission saw diminishing food and drink supplies less than halfway through the six hour event. The selection of outstanding dishes and beers went fast and waiting in lines seemed to take forever, but the charitable fest certainly wasn’t lacking in substance. This year, organizers at the Handlery Hotel and Resort have responded to criticisms by promising to refine the experience for everyone– guests to vendors.
A number of improvements are planned for the festival’s third installment coming up on April 1, including the addition of a VIP hour (1-2 p.m.) and a pool-side, meet-the-brewers after party (’til 8 p.m.) with live music, each $10 more on top of the $40 general admission price. This year, regular party hours have been cut in half (2-5 p.m.), there’s five to 10 more food and drink vendors than last year; picnic tables, additional seating, water stations and two areas for bathrooms have all been added so that guests can get the most out of the all-you-can-eat/drink fest, and this year’s ticket proceeds will go to another charity near and dear to San Diegan’s hearts—Wounded Warriors Homes.
Founded by Steve and Mia Roseberry in Vista, California, their mission is to provide medically discharged single men and women of the armed forces with affordable housing and additional resources to ease the transition from active duty military to living independently as veterans of war. The program is targeted specifically at those with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); affordable housing is available to eligible persons for up to two and a half years, allowing savings for cars, deposits for renting or down payments for homes. Before the Roseberrys founded Wounded Warriors Homes, every weekend they transformed theirs into a sanctuary for the very people they help now, citing the importance of calm and stability that a comforting environment provides. This cause is truly noble, and pairs perfectly with San Diego’s military and craft beer backgrounds.
The Mission Valley Craft Beer (and food) Festival is bringing together the region’s best grub and grog for the charitable celebration. Last year’s highlights included the Cajun spice and catering company Shaker Bake Foods, whose fragrant piles of peel-and-eat shrimp caused quite the feeding frenzy; they’ll be back again, and this time with a half of a cow. Other anticipated food vendors include the pork-guru behind Carnitas Snack Shack, Chef Hanis Cavin, R-Gang Eatery’s Chef Rich Sweeney, A.K.A. The Gourmet Tater Tot King, and Anthony Friscia of downtown’s first yakitori and ramenjoint, Gaijin, that opened in February. Chef Jeff Rossman, known most for La Mesa’s Terra American Bistro, will also be on hand representing his latest venture, Bunz, preparing Three Li’l Pig sliders with bacon, ham, pulled pork and beer thyme mustard. Look forward to even more good eats from Sea Rocket Bistro, Stone World Bistro and Gardens, The Bailey BBQ and of course Executive Chef Karl Prohaska from The Handlery. There will also be vegetarian and vegan options. For more on the culinary participants, check out the Facebook page (Mission Valley Craft Beer and Food Festival).
As for the beer, selections are under wraps but expect the best– especially during the VIP hour — from Ballast Point, Green Flash, Stone Brewing Co., Karl Strauss, Hangar 24 Brewery, On the Tracks, and Monkey Paw. The complete list is 24 breweries, listed below. Three bands will also perform live on the West Coaster stage.
Discounted tickets are available for designated drivers and The Handlery Hotel is offering special-event room rates. The after-party is a must, and was added to the event roster so brewers could enjoy themselves after a hard day of festival work. Tickets are on sale now through TicketDerby.com; there is a link on the Facebook page that leads to the ticketing site.
Mission Brewery, The Beer Company, Lighting Brewery, Ballast Point Brewing, Green
Flash, Oggi’s, Stone Brewing Co., On The Tracks Brewing, Hangar 24 Brewery, Monkey Paw Brewing Co., Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Coronado Brewing Co., Crispin Cider Co. Tailgate Brewing, Rough Draft Brewing Co., Butchers Brewing, Latitude 33 Brewery, El Cajon Brewing Co., La Jolla Brewhouse, Golden Coast Mead, Hess Brewing, Eel River Brewing, Lagunitas Brewing, Manzanita Brewing
Transportation Options: The festival is encouraging taking the Trolley to the festival. Parking is available approximately 0.4 miles west of the Handlery (see below)
TICKETS: General admission is $40, and VIP admission is $50.
Click here to view more info/purchase tickets.
Karl Strauss celebrated its 23rd anniversary last month and among the usual Changing of the Barrels hoopla, the brewery gave party-goers a taste of their upcoming release. Wreck Alley Imperial Stout is a boozy (9.5% ABV) beer with dark-roast coffee notes and a sweet, warm finish.
The ale, named after a stretch of Mission Beach where several ships have crashed forming a reef where sea life now thrives, will be available year-round starting April 1st. A fine member of the Karl crew advanced West Coaster a 22 oz bottle, and I can attest that it pairs well with chocolate and bacon.
Wait for it to warm a bit before serving so that you have a better chance of tasting the cocao nib and Ethopian coffee intricacies in this brew. I found that it danced around roasty, bitter and toffee-sweet notes, with a bit of an alcohol-y finish — nothing offensive, but definitely there. I liked that it wasn’t sticky-sweet to drink.
Darkly kilned malts combine with Ethiopian coffee beans procured from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters to provide a bitter but balanced backbone for the overall sweet concoction. The bottle advises drinkers to stow some away for aging; it’ll be interesting to see how this beer ripens over time.
Drink it for yourself at KARL’s Cask Night on March 29th, an event that goes down every Thursday of the month at the KARL brewpubs.