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The Taste Buds create a habit at a sustainable, local eatery

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, one of our staffers who plan to keep his/her identity the best-kept secret in San Diego, and guest foodie Sour.

Local Habit
3827 5th Ave. (Hillcrest) San Diego, CA 92103
(619) 795-4770

Website: mylocalhabit.com
Open 4:30 to 10 pm Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 pm Friday, 11 am to 11 pm Saturday, and 11 am to 10 pm Sunday. Kitchen closes at 9:30 pm daily, 10 pm on weekends. Happy Hour is 4:30 to 6 pm Tuesday through Friday. Food and other brew specials.

Casual, rustic atmosphere

Local Habit slid right into the center of Hillcrest last summer, but it was not without notice. The space is barely recognizable compared to its previous Pizza Fusion days, and this farm fresh food and craft brew establishment has really carved a place out for itself in this highly competitive food district.

The two young entrepreneurs that bring us this hip, sustainable and creative new eatery – Chef Nick Brune and Adam Hiner -- have completely revamped the interior, giving it warm and rustic feel. Silk panel artwork showing hops up-close and personal, rest alongside pictures of local farms in their glory in the relatively small, but open and airy space.

The lights, which hang on cords from the extra high ceiling, are made from magnum-sized Stone Brewing Company bottles. The music? Classic rock, but the kind that provides for good conversation and comfortable dining experience.

Reclaimed wood from fences torn down in San Diego help create the rustic feel. Local Habit focuses on California beers and wine, a real treat for craft beer lovers, especially since San Diego has recently seen an influx of breweries.

According to the restaurant's website, Brune and Hiner have put a lot of thought into things.

"Our goal is to create a community in San Diego based around local organic produce, meats, and craft brewed beers. We will showcase hand-crafted pizzas and sandwiches featuring the amazing produce from local organic farmers and award winning craft brews found right in San Diego’s back yard."

One of the more appealing things about Local Habit is that a large part of the menu changes on the first of every month, so you can come back on a regular basis and always find something new.

And nothing is ever gone forever; most of the dishes seen on any given month may rotate back around, in similar or completely different forms, depending upon Chef Brune’s whim. You also won't ever see anything go to waste, here; as any leftovers will find themselves in another dish, on a pizza or in the next day's bread.

Even with 12 taps, the beers also tend to fly off the menu quickly, so don’t wait too long to try something you see and consider. They replace the taps the minute they run out, but it just might be something completely different, so be aware.

Note: If you are a foodie and enjoy learning more about the dish you are about to consume, or would love to know what to pair that pint of Ballast Point Smoke Screen Lager with, feel free to ask for Chef Brune. He will deliver the goods.

Originally from Louisiana, the chef has been looking forward to the month of February ever since they opened and you have got to sample what he has in store for you, straight from the Bayou.

Small plates with big taste

The fact that these selections are dubbed “small plates” on the menu is actually a misnomer, as their large portions and even bigger flavors should really put them in the “entrée” category.

We decided to grab a Taster Set ($11), which comes with six different 3-ounce pours from their 12 taps of craft brews that come in various flavors, and sizes, based upon alcohol content. Chef Brune decided to have us start with the Carmelized Garlic with Crostini ($6.) that was on their “Daily Specials” board and asked that we pair it with an Alesmith Grand Cru, a darker cousin to the traditional Belgian-style ales.

The garlic was delicately baked, leaving it soft and creamy, and the thinly sliced crostini was soft on the inside, with a nice, firm crust. Salty decided to pair it with Alesmith’s My Bloody Valentine, a red hoppy seasonal ale released shortly before Valentine’s Day each year, that tasted a lot less hoppy with the garlic infusion.

Next we tried Stuffed Mirliton with Lemon and Chive ($9). Mirliton (see middle-left photo), known outside of the Bayou State as "chayote squash," is light green in color and pear shaped. Brune brought one out and explained how they bake it, then carve it all out (like an avocado), setting the outer skin aside to refill later with a roulade.

When it arrived, we both agreed this squash roulade with cayenne tomato reduction had the perfect Creole-style kick.

Sour felt the accompanying coleslaw tasted "really fresh," and Salty was happy the slaw wasn’t drowning in vinegar or mayo. It was the perfect match for the heat of the Mirliton dish, smoothing out the fire, just ever-so-slightly but keeping the flavor intact.

Sour later tasted the My Bloody Valentine ale and claimed it was “screaming with all kinds of flavors. It was sophisticated and busy but pretty clean at the end.”

Unfortunately, others must have agreed, since Local Habit ran out of the small batch they started the month with, almost as quickly as they made it available. It didn’t even last the first week, much less to Valentine’s Day. Make sure you make your plans early next year.

Next we split a Muffaletta ($8), a sandwich that originated in Sicily, but is now the signature sandwich of New Orleans. It is a Creole version of the classic Italian sandwich, with all the expected meats but the added flavor and luxury of a marinated olive salad.

The bread is always a large, round loaf, and one serving always consists of half of that loaf, which we promptly cut in half again and still had quite a handful. Salty had experienced a Muffaletta before in New Orleans, but this was Sour’s first time and Chef Brune's version was a hit with both of us.

The Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye was a perfect match for this smoky, meaty and flavorful sandwich.

Pizzas like you have never seen

Lots of people offer pizza these days, but Local Habit’s are baked in a big stone oven and offered up regular, gluten free, vegetarian or vegan. You also have crust options of Napolitana, whole wheat and gluten free.

They also offer combinations you will not see anywhere else.

There were no pizza tastes on this visit, however on a previous occasion, we tried the House Smoked Pork Loin with Piperade, Shaved Red Onion, Petaluma Mozzarella and Jack ($13) and it was fabulous.

The pork used for the pizzas is cured for nine days and then smoked for 2.5 hours.

Its thin, crispy crust and rich, smoky flavor paired great with several beers on the menu, from Pils to Porter. Salty is not a fan of IPAs, but decided to jump in with both feet and after pairing a slice of this pizza with the Mad River Double IPA said, "it was amazing."

Chef Brune surprised us with some leftovers from an experiment he created during a recent Brewmasters visit.

The dish included his own style of Mole, made with Alesmith Speedway Stout in place of chocolate, and he poured it over some of that smoked pork on top of rice. It was quite a treat for Salty, especially with a pour of the Speedway Stout. Sour felt the spices used in the sauce and the crunch of fresh onions really gave it "zest" appeal.

It was not offered on the menu, but Brune expects to whip up some Creole Tamales using the same ingredients throughout the month, so watch for this tasty dish as a nightly special.

Other options on the pizza menu are:

  • Grilled Eggplant with Carmelized Onion and Garlic Oil, Oregano and Old World Portuguese ($9)
  • Toasted Coriander & Oregano Chicken with Mortar Pesto, Marinated Zucchini, Spring Hill Goat Cheddar ($10)
  • California Quattro Formaggio: Petaluma Mozzarella, Spring HIll Goat Cheddar, Jack & Old World Portuguese ($9)

Those are just three more of the total of six standard pizzas regularly offered, aside from the occasional special.

These cleverly paired ingredients blend together to bring you very distinct, even exquisite flavors in every bite. You will forget you are eating "pizza." It should also be noted that they carmelize their onions for five hours on very low heat to lock in the flavor.

Scrumptious Sides

Mac ‘n Cheese ($6, $7) seem to be a staple within the industry these days, but will you find Gouda and truffle as ingredients? You will here.

Most adults have nightmare memories of being forced to eat brussel sprouts as children and are still suffering from the consequences. Blame is often put on the vegetable itself, but an argument can be made that those old-school preparation methods lacked freshness and creativity.

Case in point, the Roasted Brussels Sprouts with House Mustard and Chive ($5) dish at Local Habit is simply divine. If you have continued to ignore this miniature cabbage throughout your life, we are here to tell you that perhaps, “doth protest too much.”

The same might be said for cauliflower. Although cauliflower did experience a popularity surge when it became paired with carrots and broccoli as a healthy lunchtime snack alternative, most still know it as a drab, boring, tasteless vegetable.

Such was the case with Sour, who had absolutely no interest in trying Chef Brune's Roasted Suzie’s Cauliflower with Spring Hill Butter ($6). Salty felt this was indeed the reason Sour should opt to try them.

When asked, the chef personally described his cauliflower dish to us as "simple but phenomenal," and that was all the additional encouragement Sour needed. It was comprised of two breeds of cauliflower, Romanesco (a hybrid, also inaccurately known as broccoflower) and Purple.

"Now that is cauliflower I could eat," Sour said, beaming. "Pretty amazing stuff right there."

Salty didn’t have to be convinced, but it was indeed cooked and seasoned perfectly and was bursting with flavor.

The Sauteed Greens with Julienne Onion and Garlic ($4.50) were next up and Salty was happy to see the unknown greens were actually Kale when it was delivered to the table. Kale is another form of cabbage but the leaves are leafy and not compacted and they are full of nutritional value. It is even thought to repair cells and block the growth of cancer cells.

Local Habit's kale was first fermented with Serrano chilis and then steamed with apple cider vinegar.

Salty and Sour had differing opinions on this dish. Sour initially called it "delish," but after a few bites also felt it needed to be cooked a little longer, while Salty loved its firmness. Sour also felt it needed more salt or a little bacon to enhance the flavor. Salty felt it stood completely on its own.

Miscellaneous Offerings

Craft Brew Alternatives

We didn’t try any of their Gluten Free Beers but felt it was important to mention them, along with their various ciders, including Julian Hard Apple Cider and several others from Fox Barrel.

They also have a delightful list of non-alcoholic beverages, including root beer, ginger ale, iced tea and Kombucha, which is made in house and tastes delicious.

A carefully chosen mixture of California whites and reds round out the beverages they offer.

Mobile and Daily Specials

Local Habit has their very own iPhone app at the Apple Market Place. You will get drink and other specials right from your phone and it is free to download.

On Tuesday nights, Local Habit offers a six-pour, 3-ounce flight for only $9 (reg. $11).

Every Thursday there is a new Cask on Tap, which comes with a progressive cask special. From 4:30 to 5:30 pm, it is $2, from 5:30 to 6:30 pm $3, and from 6:30 to 7:30 it is $4.

If the cask is still flowing on Friday they, will start the special over again, beginning at 4:30.

Brunch

Various creole-inspired delights adorn the Cali-Creole Brunch, served only on Sundays from 10 am to 2:30 pm.

Their fresh squeezed Mimosas ($6) are not the "all you can drink" kind, so expect an exceptional blend, using California navel oranges left on the vine for six months.

The house-cured pepper bacon is smoked in house, but their Habernero Jelly Pork Belly with Fried Eggs and Cheesy Polenta ($10) is their biggest seller.

Those not in the mood for egg dishes on Sunday can still find sandwiches and many of their other standards on the menu, like pizzas, sides and salads.

Upcoming Special Events

Since Chef Brune was born and raised in Louisiana, February is one of the busiest months so far for the popular eatery.

Here is a rundown of their special dinners and events planned for the shortest month of the year.

Feb. 18: Balboa Park’s Taste of San Diego

Chef Brune will be whipping up tasty bites and pairing them with a half dozen local breweries. Proceeds go to San Diego Historical Center educational programs.

For more information and tickets: Taste of San Diego.

Feb. 19: Crawfish Broil

Chef Nick is bringing his Louisiana roots to San Diego for a traditional Crawfish Broil.

From 11 am to 6 pm on Friday, Feb. 19, you can have 1.5 pounds of broiled Southern hospitality.

You will get $1 off all beers if you wear Mardi Gras beads between 11 am and 6 pm.

After 6 pm, normal service will commence with various crawfish specials offered throughout the evening.

They recommend reservations for parties of six or more.

Feb. 21: Fat Tuesday Brewmaster’s Dinner

Five courses of Creole food paired with five craft brews from Anderson Valley Brewing Company.

6 or 7 pm seating, $50 per person

For more information and tickets, click HERE.

After 8 pm, the restaurant and bar will be open for drinks and special Mardi Gras-themed dishes until 10 pm. The bar may stay open later.

Make sure you stop by before, during or after the Hillcrest Mardi Gras celebration.

All in all, Local Habit has some of the most creative items on their menu that we’ve ever seen. And you won’t find them wasting any food; leftovers will appear in other dishes on the daily specials menu or even in the next day’s bread.

Even the most discerning craft brew drinker will never be disappointed with their ever-changing selections from thoughtfully chosen breweries that often take on the theme of the moment.

"The two things I wouldn’t have ever tried (Mirliton and cauliflower) were my favorites," Sour said at the end of our meal.

Climb out of your comfort zone and try something new at Local Habit. We don't think you will be disappointed you did.

For more info about any of these events, email info@mylocalhabit.com or visit their website for more info on their current menu and craft brew options.