By: Sheen Fischer
They do exist, you know. The magical, artistic, creative beings that leave us shaking our heads in wonderment. The people who can sing the National Anthem a capella before they clear their throat in the morning. Or, that can sketch the entire world in full color detail on a napkin with a dull, blue crayon. The ones that can take a basket of random food scraps and create a gourmet dinner with a couple of pinches of salt and pepper and a wave of an 8″ chef’s knife. The horse-like creature that can grow a single magical horn out of its forehead…wait…now you’re just being silly.
Gabe Hogan, owner and master builder of Oceanside’s Local Tap House and Kitchen moved his family from Vegas, bought the longtime Vaughan’s Market building in 2013 and spent a year converting it into one of the coolest new gathering spots on the Oceanside “Strip”. His mission: “Build a restaurant & bar that is built for the people, in a town where the community is our priority. Don’t specialize in one thing, specialize in great. Great food, great service, great cocktails, and of course, great beer.”
I believe that to be considered great, you must actually be much, much better than great. You must be talented, driven, lucky and a little bit magic. That way, your lowest common denominator, when you’re not at your best, in your worst moment, will still be great.
The rest of the time you are untouchable.
Enter Daniel Elliot Pundik, Executive Chef, Master Food Runner and Chief Busser of LTH. In my opinion, he is also the magic and the talent that helps achieve the “Great” in the always packed restaurant.
Let’s face it, we’re in Southern California, the new global hotbed of microbrewing – Great beer by itself isn’t going to pack the house. We’re in Oceanside – Great service with a smile and a friendly, beach town attitude is hard not to find. Great cocktails – get my wife to drink two of them and we’re leaving before dinner.
So, it has to come down to the food and, for any who have watched the evolution of Chef Daniel’s menu over the last year, it is abundantly clear that it doesn’t get any greater than what he’s doing here. His food is different than anything you’ll find in San Diego right now. Generous portions. Staunch, hearty flavor. Exacting blends of spices and sauces that assert themselves with richness, but that don’t overpower the main component of each dish. This is comfort food that reaches everyone, non-foodie and foodie alike, with complexity and boldness that evolve into an ultimate flavor experience in every mouthful and then morph into a divine umami-ness the deeper you dig into the dish.
A while back, I wrote about a place where we requested the brussel sprouts cooked extra crispy. That was at a good restaurant, but not chef driven as LTH is. Here, we placed ourselves in Chef Daniel’s hands. The brussel sprouts he served us were the kind of crispy that makes you understand the difference between great execution by a chef who wants them finished a certain way and a kitchen that is doing it because you asked for them that way.
You notice right away when tucking into Chef Daniel’s food that it is quite tangibly different from anything you’ve eaten before. Every dish is loaded with ingredients, but somehow the ingredients all revolve around the main component. It is not until you reach the bottom of the plate that you realize things only get better. All of the juices, spices and small bits have collected into those last few scoops of pure taste bud tickling joy. In a lesser executed dish, this could be a mess. But, here, it should be collected, put in a jar and sold as a magic elixir.
These fried green tomatoes with pork belly and microgreens leave no room for doubt regarding Chef’s southern roots. Hailing from Miami, he was exposed to diverse cuisines ranging from Cuban to Jewish while growing up. He has no classical or culinary school training. In fact, he says he’s Grandma and friend trained, crediting friend Paul Rinaudo, executive chef of Spike Africa’s with teaching him many of the tricks of the trade when he was starting out.
In fact, only nine years ago, Daniel was touring as the lead singer/songwriter with his band “The Big Screen”, complete with a recording contract, an album (Left Coast Love Affair) and a music video (Skylines – check out YouTube).
So, I just listened to the album and watched the video. Seriously, WTH? Talent like that and he throws it all away to cook? He could have been a rock star! But, I digress…
I’ve had my fair share of fried green tomatoes. Usually, they’re all about the same – sour, hard and saved by a quick dunking in grease to make a crispy batter. These were different. Not a bit of sourness and a slight toothiness to let you know there’s something there, but somehow the green doesn’t scream at you, it whispers in this dish.
This dish proves that there is simply no substitute for innate talent, whether it be musical or culinary. Knowing exactly how big of a pinch of cayenne to sprinkle, how thick of a slice of jalapeno is just right or how long to fry the basil is about the same as knowing that you’ve got to hold that quarter note just a squidge longer than a quarter and that the A minor is going to give you that yearning sound that the A major is lacking.
I know. It is patently unfair that one guy gets to be world class good at more than one thing. Really. But, the universe is a fickle mistress. She hands bacon to her favorites and the rest of us get a frying pan filled with hot bacon grease across the skull.
So, this off menu albacore sashimi offering, made by a chef who never worked in a sushi restaurant was ho-hum…as in Holy frickin’ Moly, Hummuna Hummuna Hummuna, give me more! Topped with fried Thai basil, pickled beech mushrooms, avocado, togarashi and surrounded by wasabi cream sauce, this dish was an amazing marriage of fresh, organic, sustainable ingredients that was simultaneously light and explosive on the palate. The pepper kick is just right, giving you the type of nudge your best friend would give, light enough to be fun but hard enough to let you know it could have been worse.
Over thirteen years, Chef has acquired an extensive resume. Starting in the baking world making bagels, he moved on to bigger and better things from East Coast to West Coast, honing his skills as chef de partie, sous chef and executive chef at such notable local establishments as Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe, The Crossings in Carlsbad, 333 in Oceanside and Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa. Along the way he has “jammed” with some of the top chefs in the region.
This Mac and Cheese dish has flavor all the way to the bottom. It has, as they might say in the music parlance, “Big Band” flavor. The kind of flavors that, enjoyed collectively, result in one harmonious offering that will make you want to grab your wife, husband, girlfriend, dog or favorite stuffed or blowup doll and go twirling on tiptoes across the room. But, it is also the kind of flavor where you can listen carefully for the individual components; horns, percussion, strings and vocals, each chiming in at the right time, adding to the symphony that is playing on your tongue.
Since it was National Burger Day, Chef suggested we try the 60/40 handcrafted chorizo/beef burger with homemade chips, red pepper aioli, arugula and a pretzel bun. So, we emptied out our hollow legs and dug in. Move over brioche, there’s a new bun in town.
Greatness attracts greatness. Chef Keith Lord of The Wild Thyme catering company stopped in to drop off a present and a mandate. The present – some special cuts of beef from a sustainable cattle farm in Bakersfield called Autonomy Farms, specializing in grass fed, grain finished beef. The mandate – share it this time. Apparently Chef Daniel fell in love with the last batch and accidentally ate the whole thing…Hey Chef…Where’s the Beef?
I thought we’d never make it to dessert. Remember, these are hearty portions. This is, by any definition, a foodie joint. There is diversity, depth of flavor, family style dining and affordable prices. But, if you come to graze your way through the menu instead of hitting a quick entrée and a drink, either bring a lot of help or a pickup truck to take the leftovers home in.
Dessert was not the respite nor the ending I was hoping it would be. It was more…as in S’mores and bread pudding. This is where marshmallows and day old pretzel buns get laid to rest. Use the approximately 37” tall spoons to dig all the way to the bottom for the full, blended flavor effect.
Beignets are a dangerous thing to serve a guy who grew up 50 miles from the French Quarters in New Orleans and spent a childhood eating arguably the best beignets in the world…certainly the most famous…at Café Du Monde. You will get no false gushing about beignets from me, lest I lose my Cajun Card.
These were the best I can remember ever having on the West Coast. The powdered sugar was applied while the donuts were still hot from the oil and formed a reminiscent moist, silky powdery coating. The dough itself was not quite the melt in your mouth concoction found in the original, but we can safely blame that on the hard water we have on the Left Coast. The lemon and orange zest in the dough was a reminder that these were never intended to be traditional beignets, but a really sexy cousin. Bury all of that in the airy, light goat cheese whipped cream and… Hey, save me some!
During our two hour interview, which Chef spent mostly in the dining room with us, these were the troops pushing out the recipes which they learned under Chef’s tutelage. Nacho on the left and Marco on the right have been with Chef through three different establishments, starting as dishwashers and now working the line with fervor and enthusiasm.
At one point during the interview I asked Chef what his goal was each day. What is it that makes him say, “I’m done. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do today.” He talked about his love for his staff, back of the house and front, his restaurant owner, his vendors. How he loves working with them, supporting them, pushing them to be great.
Throughout his soliloquy, I noted that he never once mentioned his patrons – the diners that are the beneficiary of his talent. When I asked about that – I got a hard, cold stare in return (not really, it just sounds better that way). I ended up answering my own question. If all things are performed with greatness as the goal, greatness will be the result. And his patrons will be the beneficiaries. Silly me.
Please don’t ask me about the secret menu items. I don’t know anything about the chicken and waffles served between 10:00 p.m. and midnight every Friday and Saturday.
But, I do know that the new glow in the dark epoxy coated reclaimed wood tables that Gabe and his crew were installing on the afternoon we visited will be well used and much appreciated by the thronging crowds that form the line out the door every evening.
Having a mythical creature in the kitchen will do that for a place, you know. Cheers, my friends!
308 S Coast Hwy Oceanside, CA 92054