Dec. 27 2013 04:26 PM

Little Italy restaurant offers a mixed bag of flavors

12-31 spoon photo
Queenstown’s fish ’n’ chips plate
Photo by Mina Riazi

Queenstown Public House is rooted in the peculiar. Located right across from the San Diego Firehouse Museum, the antiquated building (1557 Columbia St. in Little Italy)—with its faded wooden façade and sprawling porch—seems better suited for a bucolic setting. Jars of honey-colored "sun tea" brew on the patio. Watering cans double as vases and a welcome message—"stayawhile"— adorns a porch step. The restrooms are labeled "Womans" and "Humans." But even more odd is the synthetic turf ceiling. A scattering of wire sheep hangs from it, upside down, supplanting the chandelier that you'd expect to find.

Sheep inspire more than just ceiling decorations at the New Zealand-themed restaurant. The menu features rack of lamb, lamb skewers and a lamb burger. After all, for more than a century, sheep farming was New Zealand's chief agricultural industry. So it makes sense that the new eatery pays homage to the ruminant mammal.

If you're not a fan of lamb, though, you needn't worry. A black-bean veggie burger, steak 'n' chips, quinoa salad and beef sliders are some of Queenstown's many other menu offerings. There's also the tantalizing "Triple": a rich smattering of fried finger foods— calamari, zucchini and asparagus—served with rosemary aioli and cocktail sauce. My fried-food cravings steered me toward the fish ‘n' chips, which our server named as one of Queenstown's most popular dishes. My grub buddy ordered the Bare Lil Lamb burger, reportedly another crowd favorite.

But first, before exploring the entrées, dedicate a moment to the "family style" section. It's all hearty, stick-to-your-ribs stuff. The raw veggie platter is the only exception, but it's tough to even ponder radish and jícama when there's a soft pretzel to consider. The plate-sized pretzel arrives hot and oily and glittery with salt. The first few bites are close to perfect, especially when decked in jack mustard or jalapeño cheese. But then the knotted carb begins cooling down and ditches its chewy, cakey texture. I suggest splitting the pretzel among three or four friends so that it doesn't live to see the back of your fridge in a grim to-go box.

Queenstown's fish 'n' chips plate boasts a generous slab of haddock, beer-battered and deep-fried. The crunchy, light-golden shell gives way to moist, flaky fish. It's even more wonderful with a shot of lemon juice. The classic dish wouldn't be complete without chubby, thick-cut fries, and Queenstown's spuds balance a light, crisp exterior with a soft, meaty interior.

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Queenstown serves brunch. Standard breakfast fare—like granola and French toast—sidles up to less familiar options, including prawns and grits and mac and salmon. There's even a fried-chicken- and-waffles offering, dubbed the "best fried chicken in town." I'll bet it's good, but I doubt it's the best.

Much likes its décor, which, although charming and trendy, feels affected, Queenstown's menu might benefit from a sharper focus. I appreciate the variety of dishes, but I also think it's much more remarkable when a restaurant does a few things really, really well.

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