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DINING REVIEW: The Taste Buds find their True North at a local tavern

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News has a regular dining-out column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Salty and Bitter, two of our staffers who plan to keep their identity the best-kept secret in San Diego.


3815 30th St., San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 291-3815

Open Monday to Friday, noon - 2 am; Saturday and Sunday, 11 am - 2 am.
Happy hour seven days a week, noon - 7 pm, with additional daily specials.

NORTH PARK -- For the last several years, North Park has been a community undergoing a total reinvention of itself.

Once the sleepy, in some cases shabby and almost downtrodden sister-city to Hillcrest's fresher and more bubbly personality, it was previously most well-known for its annual Toyland Parade and the crash of a PSA jetliner in 1978.

No more.

Today, North Park has evolved into a hip neighborhood with bustling streets, trendy shops and nightclubs, diverse food-dessert-cocktail options, a myriad of popular street festivals, coffee shops large and small, a revitalized historic theater, a new parking garage, and even its own farmers market.

True North Tavern is a big part of the neighborhood's reinvention, bringing a classy, more sophisticated look and feel to the traditional sports bar environment.

In fact, for anyone who ever threw back a beer at Shooters, the very popular but now defunct men's bar and pool hall on 30th Street just north of North Park Way, the first thing you notice when you walk into that same address today, is how bright and open the floorplan of True North is, compared to its dark and unseemly predecessor.

The next thing you can't help but notice are the televisions, because there are 29 of them, viewable from just about every angle in the restaurant. They also have 23 beers on tap (recently expanded from 14) that rotate often and range from traditional and domestic, to exotic and/or local microbrew options - they truely have a beer to whet any palette.

The atmosphere

We were escorted to our reserved table by Kasey, a bubbly and chatty hostess who would keep track of us on our journey. She took us to one of the wooden, horseshoe-shaped booths along the north wall, which were not only built, but hand "textured" by the sweat and muscle of the new managing partners and several of their closest friends.

One of those friends is Ralph Freeman III, who is not only one of the managers of the bar/restaurant, but he also helps with PR, events and also looks forward to bartending on Friday nights. Ralph greeted us shortly after we were seated and his charisma overflowed the rest of our stay.

Brick walls and dark wood accents create a rustic feel to the bustling atmosphere, and the ceiling now has an open beam plan (a perfect match to the floor plan) and lends itself to the great acoustics of the space. The front wall facing the street is made up of sliding "barn doors," which have become quite popular in dining spaces in San Diego, allowing in fresh air and sending out a welcoming invitation to pedestrians.

A huge square bar is the focal point of the main room and it has dozens of high top barstools, similar to others (shown above, right) which are found at the surrounding "four top" tables.

Several different stations of ESPN can be found on the screens -- offering you every kind of sports you may be interested in, simultaneously. Music is also piped through the tavern, but at the perfect level so you can still conduct conversations. This changes up later in the evening, when the standing-room-only crowd is met with video DJs taking over the screens and with music videos on rotation that have been popular over the last few decades. (We gleefully witnessed some videos from MTV's heyday, which was a real treat.)

There are still two pool tables in the space, which are generally always in use. There is also choice of a front patio along 30th or a more intimate back patio that has its own full bar and allows smoking.

Bitter felt the servers were quite friendly and the overall bar atmosphere was great for socializing, enjoying a great meal, playing a round of pool, or watching a game. 

Food and Drink

Amazing craft beers

Although they have dozens of bottles on their menu, we decided to dive right into several of the unique brews on tap. First up, Firestone Pale Ale. IPAs seem to be taking the world by storm these days and although Salty is not a fan of real hoppy beers, this tasty brew became a new favorite of the pale ale genre. It was crisp, light and refreshing, with low hop content.

This was in direct contrast to the beer-of-the-month Alesmith X, which was unexpectedly full of hops despite its light color. Still tasty but with a heavy bite, this is an Extra Pale Ale, so those who enjoy the big kick hops give will love this one. Bitter, in fact, thought it was a "refreshing summer-time kind of beer."

Ironically the Green Flash 30th Street seemed hoppier still, but something about it was quite enjoyable and smooth, even to someone like Salty, who is normally dissuaded by heavy hops.

An upscale bar menu

This may be a tavern and a sports bar, but the menu does not offer typical sports-bar-tavern food. Sure there are a few "staples," but since they share their kitchen with neighbor Urban Solace, even the staples are far from standard.

When it was time to taste True North's food offerings, we took input from Ralph for most of our choices.

The Loaded Tater Tots ($8.50) are made with their signature potato bites (made with a top secret spice blend that will leave your mouth watering all on their own) and both Salty and Bitter agree, it was a complete meal in itself.

The tots were cooked to a crisp perfection and still able to hold their own after being mothered with a healthy portion of marinated carne asada, cheddar cheese, scallions, spicy creme and salsa fresco and the perfect compliment of fresh cilantro. Many a "Wow!" was heard coming from the Taste Buds' table on this dish. Highly recommended for any meal or occasion. (After much coaxing we were able to get the ingredients of the spicy creme - ancho, chipotle and spicy mayo.)

Other items not to miss on the appetizer menu are the Ahi Tuna Poke (above, left), the Duck Spring Rolls, Warm Soft Pretzels and their House Made Warm Chips.

We went from hot and spicy to much hotter with the PB & J Wings ($8.50), one of the four "wings" selections found on the appetizer menu. Yes, you read correcty, peanut butter and jelly; however, this isn't the combo your mom slathered between two pieces of bread for you.

First the free-range, steroid-free chicken wings (noticably smaller without the injections) were marinated and cooked up very crispy and then tossed in peanut sauce, ala thai satay. Salty was amazed at how well the peanut sauce clung to each wing and wasn't as messy as expected. The 12-14 peanut-crusted wings are served with a side of jalapeno jelly, which together, made this dish not only unique, but a smashing success (although you definitely need a beer to settle the heat). These are a MUST for fans of "hot" wings for a change of pace, while still getting the intensity they enjoy.

We needed to cool our jets after those yummy wings so next we begged for the Cashew Chicken Salad Sandwich ($9.75), which was another pleasing experience.

Made even more welcoming by its great presentation, this sandwich boasted huge tomato slices, crisp lettuce, luscious chunks of chicken and had just a tinge of lemon evident in its salad dressing base. It was served on freshly made toast (soft with toasted edges) and along with their standard tater tots, which again, were mouth-watering with their sides of Chipotle Ketchup and Herbed Aioli. Can't say enough about the consistency of these tots, crispy on the outside, moist on the inside and bursting with that secret flavor.

Ralph sees this dish soon becoming a favorite: "I'm thinking summer, the patio, cashew chicken sandwiches … " Salty and Bitter couldn't agree more; add a large Arnold Palmer (lemonade-tea) and it just might make for a wonderful afternoon watching the world go by along 30th.

We bypassed the salads, but they have three classics to choose from: Classic Chopped Caesar, Chopped Chicken and Spiced Shrimp salads.

At Ralph's suggestion we stuck with the heat theme, opting next for the Burner Burger ($9.75) over the other five burger offerings. This tasty burg started out with 8 ounces of prime ground chuck, with chipotle mayo, the jalapeno jelly (from the wings), pepper jack cheese, crispy onions and fresh sliced jalapenos. It was spicy and hot but all the ingredients blended well together to make it one of the tastier burgers we've had.

Other fancy burger options are the Juicy Lucy, which takes those 8 ounces of ground chuck and stuffs them with white cheddar and blue cheese; a Mushroom Swiss, and a 5 ounce "Damn Good Veggie Burger."

We were too full for dessert, but can't wait to get back to try the House Smores and Famous Abe's Ice Cream Sandwich.

Stuff on the Side

True North has daily food and fun specials and weekly and monthly events that keep their clientele coming back, night after night and week after week.

For cigar afficionados

Once a month in the back patio bar, Freeman hosts the Cigar Mixer. The first Monday of each month from 6 to 10 pm, you can sit back and relax with a beer, a burger and a cigar. For $25, gets you three featured cigars, an entree of your choice and beer from Firestone Brewery.

Freeman gets all of his cigars from local purveyors and will be there, stoking his favorite selections right along with you.

Can you take the heat?

Wednesdays are Taco Wednesday when True North turns into the TNT Cantina, where they offer your palette to the spiciest tacos this side of Mexico. The Wall of Flame Challenge is every Wednesday and if you think you can take the heat, see where you - and your photo, end up - on the Wall of Flame or the Wall of Shame.

Photos shown above left, from the top: One of True North's six fabulous burgers; fresh and melt in your mouth Ahi Poke; and their signature Tater Tots, where tasting is believing.