We all know the saga of the space occupied by the much-loved El Callejon and how several owners have failed attempting concepts that just didn’t stick. It was about time for a savvy restaurateur to take over the space, realize what made it work to begin with and then freshen it up a bit with their own touches.
Based on my initial impression of Piña Encinitas, owner Travis Lester has done just that.
Going way back, Travis was born and raised in Oceanside, reaping the benefits of an Italian mom who loved to cook. He was good enough at baseball to play college ball at Pittsburg State in Kansas.
After graduating college he landed San Francisco, starting out in finance before he realized that hospitality was in his blood and started opening restaurants. That road took him to Cabo San Lucas, Hermosa Beach, Santa Monica and now downtown Encinitas.
I learned recording our radio interview that it was his original intent to bring back much of what made El Callejon so popular including the family-run vibe, great cocktails with an emphasis on tequila and margarita’s, and a solid kitchen with stellar Mexican favorites…including tortillas made on premise daily. The “Pina Marg” as they call it was my pick and it was the perfect happy hour drink on a warm weekday afternoon.
The open-air space looks great and flows nicely. It’s a sizeable building and they made the right call by transforming part of that space into a game room with corn hole and the like. I’ve always preferred the front bar though, with the sun shining through creating that amazing Encinitas golden hour coloring that is so sexy.
We started with the huge Smoked Tequila Lime Wings that are smoked in their house tequila lime marinade. They were the best wings I’ve had in a while and worked perfectly with the margarita.
Any time I see chicken thighs on a menu I have to go there so the flautas with pulled thighs, cilantro-lime crème and guacamole were next up and they were quite nice. Frijoles con queso with Piña beans and a house cheese blend rounded out our starters and was fun to munch on while waiting for our entrees.
I should note that I will be coming back shortly for the “Street Food” portion of the menu that includes some of my favorites including Elote on the Cob and the killer L.A. Dawg…a bacon-wrapped hot dog with onions, peppers, mayo, ketchup and mustard.
We decided to share two of their “bowls” including the rockfish and carne asada. I’ve caught a lot of rockfish offshore San Diego and love their versatility, and light, flaky consistency that makes them perfect to batter and fry.
That’s what they do at Piña in a beer batter and place it on a bed of pineapple salsa, cabbage slaw, cilantro-lime rice, Piña beans and spring mix. The textures and flavors combine to make this a fabulous dish. The carne asada was the turf in in our surf and turf bowl combo and was a meaty delight.
I’m sensing that happy hour at Piña is going to become a local thing in short order. From 3-6 p.m. they have a nice selection of tacos, dips and drink specials that, combined with that golden hour vibe and aesthetic I mentioned and happy hour pricing, will attract a crowd.
The entrées include barbacoa, roasted chicken mole, al pastor spit, cilantro pesto shrimp pasta and a full-on carne asada skirt steak.
Brunch is happening at Piña with pozole, menudo, french toast, chilaquiles, Piña fruit salad, street tacos and a giant breakfast burrito. Mimosa’s, Michelada and Bloody Mary’s provide the kick to your brunch experience at Piña.
I’m going to wrap this up with another mention of the bar at Piña as the cocktail list looks amazing and they have a fun selection of frozen drinks as well. The bar is actually open until midnight Tuesday – Sunday and the kitchen until 9 p.m. I’m hoping they add a bar menu for those amongst us that don’t eat until 9 p.m. some nights.
So it is of my firm opinion that Piña is going to make this space work. I’d suggest giving it a try and remember, if their parking lot on Coast Highway is full, the Coaster lot behind Piña is a solid backup parking option.
Find them at 345 S. Coast Highway, Encinitas or www.pina-sd.com