THE SAFEHOUSE, billed as North Park’s first izakaya (Japanese-style late night tapas bar, roughly) has been swinging the University Avenue scene for about 8 months now. Owner Nick Thanasith heads up the kitchen and offers up a number of Japanese standards like yakitori, customizable ramen, and yakisoba. Alongside these are an assortment of steamed buns with different fillings. Think pillowy-bread bao taco. And, unlike traditional izakayas, there is an impressive lineup of craft beer, much of it local. Bingo! Open until 3am on Fri-Sat nights, this is just the formula for a late night walkabout in North Park.
And North Park large viewable box is what you’ll see when you approach. The entire storefront is open faced: what you see is what you get. Two shop doors pull up in front of a small outdoor seating area. Small four-tops and three counter high tables with barstools for six. An L-shaped bar. The buildout speaks more of a bar environment than a restaurant. A silent large screen TV and four smaller TVs serve as wallpaper. A red, white, and black color scheme invites you to take this seriously. “Bros” stand and chat at the bar. Something between hardcore and lo-fi is playing in the background, the kind of music you’d hear played at an independent record store which feels out of place in this setting.
I head over to check out the tap list with 30 selections. This is brilliantly put together, and the showpiece of the restaurant. The bartender is solid on his beers and can explain it all in a trice. I choose a Fall Brewing (only how many yards away off of El Cajon?) 2 a.m. Bike Ride, a Dark Horse coffee and vanilla bean stout. Not that this have ever been successfully paired to Japanese food in history, but someone has to do it first. I know in my hidden heart of hearts I will be back here for beer, soon. Hey, even the bathroom sports a hanging periodic table of beer styles.
On to ordering food. In a starchy mood, our party orders tonkotsu ramen; several steamed buns including braised duck with scallions, cucumber and hoisin; and agadashi tofu, which is fried tofu served in broth. Food arrives and the first few bites are met with approval, the noodles are chewy, the buns are steamed well, a perfectly-cooked egg is nestled in the ramen. But then, the sodium in all the sauces and ramen broth starts to destroy everything. I’m not one to complain of salt in Japanese food, I know the rules. But there is something in the balance of sauce to meats and the spongy, bland offset of steamed bun that eventually make these not a pleasant eat. The steamed buns begin to taste like they are all sauced with the same diametered squeeze bottle. A lighter touch with the miso, hoisin, and spicy mayo would go a long way here. The tofu is fried, alright, but sits in a broth which, flavor wise, is just this side of heated H2O.
The food menu feels conceptualized for kitchen manageability but is not executed well. Taking some time to work on the menu and develop simple, tasty signature items will really go a long ways in this setting. The service staff, while not unfriendly in any way, seems stiff and somewhat unresponsive, really out of place in this low key environment.
THE SAFEHOUSE has a good start. If you become a regular here, maybe if only for the beer right now, the relaxed environment is a strong suit. There are a lot of walk-in recognitions and hugs amongst patrons. Hopefully the owners will return to the kitchen to develop food that will make your late night stay in North Park a truly memorable experience.