Monday, October 22, 2012

In & Around San Diego Town

(San Diego, CA)

Hop-infused vodka
You don't often hear San Diego mentioned in those dubious "Top U.S. Beer Cities" articles (I hate those fuckin' things), but look at a local beer map or flip through an issue of West Coaster and it's obvious that it can more than hold its own. 

I found myself in SoCal a couple weeks ago and after a stupid amount of time aboard planes, trains and automobiles, visiting friends and relatives, I was left with one measly day to explore San Diego on foot.  In prepping for this UBH, I used to form my own map of beer bars and breweries and it wasn't long before I realized that there was simply no way to take in everything I wanted to in just one day.  So, as usual, some tough decisions had to be made and I had to leave some really excellent places out.  (Sorry, SD.)

This hike was by no means a comprehensive tour of all that San Diego has to offer to the urban beer hiker, but I think we did pretty good:

South Park to North Park, via Downtown; 11.4 miles
Monkey Paw / Mission Brewery / Karl Strauss / Balboa Park / Hillcrest Brewing / Toronado / The Linkery / Hamilton's

View In & Around San Diego Town in a larger map

We left our accommodations -- a small guest house in South Park -- and walked a few blocks to Rebecca's Coffee House.  I originally planned to take the #2 bus to Downtown, but it was such a beautiful morning (and we were up early enough) that we just decided to walk. It added about two miles to the hike, but it was scenic and it got our thirst going.  We arrived at our first stop 30 minutes early, so with some time to kill, we bummed around in the nearby Goodwill's book section. There's something for everyone on the "Staff Favorites" shelf:

1. Monkey Paw Pub & Brewery
Monkey Paw doesn't have their hours on their website, but they do have a great line-up of taps -- including several of their own brews.  Don't overlook the cocktail list and the "San Diego Vodka Soda" -- a beer cocktail made with house-made hop-infused vodka. It's hard to describe as anything but a hoppy punch in the mouth.  It was very enjoyable, but I doubt I could handle more than one.  Also, I got some sweet BBQ chicken wings that were so damned tasty, I even ate the one that I dropped on the floor.

2.  Mission Brewery
This stop was not originally on my radar (it's easy to overlook all kinds of shit when you're planning a beer hike in an unfamiliar city), but I am so grateful that our beer tender at Monkey Paw (Chelsea?) mentioned it.  Mission is located a few blocks south, in an old Wonder Bread factory.  It looks pretty big from the outside, but when you walk in, somehow it feels even bigger.  The ceilings are very high and it gets a lot of natural light.  We bought a bunch of 4 oz. pours and while the IPA and Shipwrecked Double IPA were very tasty, we loved the Imperial Stout the most.  Very rich and smooth.  The feeling I got sitting there and enjoying the beer and atmosphere reminded me a little of Drake's in San Leandro.  It's not hard to imagine spending a whole freakin' day here.

3.  Karl Strauss Brewing Co. (Downtown)
From Mission, it's a decent urban hike right along the outfield wall of Petco Park and through the historic Gaslamp Quarter.  There's a lot to see along the way, but we couldn't afford the time to stop and take in too much.  It has a similar feel to Seattle's Pioneer Square, if you've ever walked around there.

Taplist at Karl Strauss: cue Star Wars theme

Just north of the Gaslamp, is the Karl Strauss Brewpub.  It was really lively for an early weekday afternoon.  I'm not sure if it was mostly tourists or business people or what, but we weren't able to nab seats at the bar right away.  When we finally did, we were presented with a huge menu and began the process of trying to decide what to try. I'm a sucker for homemade sausage, so I immediately ordered the sausage sliders special, but picking a beer wasn't as easy.

I think I went with the Tower 20 IIPA and Mandy got a whole pint of their cask beer du jour:  a coffee Imperial Stout.  (She asked for a schooner, but they don't offer that.)  I think it weighed in at close to 10% and tasted great, but it required a team effort to finish.  That, along with my IIPA, definitely put me in Buzztown -- I knew that if I wasn't careful, the next exit would be Blackout Island.  Luckily, the next leg of the hike is long, so I'd have some time to walk it off a little.

Balboa Park
The route from Karl Strauss to Balboa Park is quite urban, passing a lot of parking lots and crossing over the San Diego Freeway.  Once you get inside the park, though, it's very lush and peaceful. There's a lot of open space and even a large off-leash dog area, which made me miss having ol' Link along for the hike.

We continued north through Balboa to the Park's main East-West artery, El Prado, and then east past a swath of museums, shops, and the San Diego Zoo until we hit Park Blvd.  There's not much to look at as you head north along Park until you arrive at the neighborhood of Hillcrest.  (Note: Park Blvd. continues to University Heights, which I heard is a really unique place and worthy of inclusion on the next UBH.)

Beer Bottle Chandelier at Hillcrest
4. Hillcrest Brewing
Hillcrest is the first gay brewery in the world and as you'd expect, the place is fabulously decorated.  It's a very new brewery, but the beer is already solid.  (To the locals who told us not to expect very much from the Queens of Beer:  you might want to give it another try. They're doing good work.)  The pizzas we saw coming out of the kitchen looked great, too, but we were saving our appetite for a fish fry later at The Linkery.  Hillcrest's very lively crowd (and staff), plus the cleverly-named and delicious beers like, "Perle Necklace", "Long & Stout", and "Banana Hammock" combined for a really quick, but fun encounter.  Hillcrest Brewing isn't even a year old yet, but from what we saw and tasted, I think they'll be around for a long time.

5. Toronado
It's a straight shot east from Hillcrest to North Park and the younger sibling of one of the world's best beer bars, Toronado.   If you've been to the SF Toronado, it will feel familiar, but the differences are obvious.  The beer selection is great -- that wasn't a surprise.  They also had a full food menu, which I was not expecting.  Dinner here was pretty tempting, but I was really looking forward to a fish fry at the next stop.

People always want to compare the two Toronados when it comes to the service.  We've all heard and read stuff about how Toronado SF sucks and the beertenders are assholes and they're cranky, but at Toronado SD, they're much nicer and more patient, etc.  I've personally never had that experience at SF, but I have seen some shitheads get what they deserve from time-to-time.  It's a dumb comparison, really.  The bar in SF resides in a much different neighborhood (for over 25 years) than the bar in SD.  They each have their own personalities and a lot to offer.

The Linkery
Their logo looks like a sphincter, but their fish fry special of the night was tremendous.  (This was precisely what I was looking for almost two years ago, when I was wandering around San Francisco by myself one night.) It was a truly generous portion of beer-battered sculpin and potatoes that paired beautifully with my pint of fresh hop... something-or-other.  Such a fantastic meal certainly calls for a good long walk and a belt of Underberg afterward.

6. Hamilton's Tavern
From the Linkery, we hiked straight down the 30th Street corridor, past where we started almost 12 hours earlier, and arrived back in South Park.  Hamilton's was packed with a lot of lively young people playing pool and drinking beer, but the atmosphere was very jovial and unpretentious, not annoying.  The bar area was crowded and getting a beer required a bit of assertiveness (it was prime drinking time on a Friday night, after all), but I patiently waited to make eye contact and wasted no time once I had the bartender's attention. Hamilton's reminded me of Zeitgeist in SF or East Burn in Portland -- lots of people just hanging around, enjoying a crazy-good beer scene.

Ceiling Art at Hamilton's
The place started to mellow pretty soon, but one pint was all we could do.  The 11+ mile hike had caught up with us and we were ready to call it a night.  As much fun as we'd had, we knew that we had only scratched the surface.  Like any good beer city, San Diego has much more to offer than you can absorb in a few days. Here's hoping that it won't be too long before we're back in town, pounding the pavement and exploring more breweries and beer bars.

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