March 7 2014 07:15 PM

La Jolla newcomer serves seafood in a subterranean setting

The tuna chicharron
Photo by Mina Riazi

For folks whose pockets run deep, downtown La Jolla provides a wealth of dining options. White-tablecloth restaurants like Nine-Ten and George's at the Cove prevail in the posh seaside neighborhood, where designer handbags often carry pint-sized dogs, à la Paris Hilton. Depending on my mood, La Jolla's bougie undercurrents either leave me feeling slightly amused or flat-out irked. 

Thankfully, eateries like the newly opened Hake Kitchen & Bar offer breaks from the fussiness. The subterranean space (1250 Prospect St.) is polished and unpretentious—marble, dark-wood accents and studded leather create an inviting atmosphere. 

Hake's toned-down opulence pairs well with its menu, which, despite citing Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean influences, is cohesive and uncluttered. The one-page lunch and dinner menus are split into five sections: appetizers, snacks, tiraditos, main courses and sides. You won't find the restaurant's namesake on either one, though—our server notified us that hake live far away in the Mediterranean. 

The tiraditos reflect an intersection of Latin American and Asian cuisines, sashimi-style Peruvian dishes influenced by the country's large Japanese population. At Hake, the paper-thin slices of raw fish are dressed in a light marinade, then garnished with everything from house-cured pickles to garlic chips. 

But it's the tuna chicharrón that you'll be most excited about. Chef Lionel del Leon breathes new life into a classic Latin American dish, swapping out pork cracklings for fried tuna. Spoon meaty bits of the flash-fried fish into a steaming-hot corn tortilla, and then add a dollop of guacamole. Onion, cilantro and lime cut the richness and complete the flavor-packed appetizer-for-two. Just in case it needed reviving, your faith in the transformative power of deep-frying will be quickly restored.

Refreshingly light, the Nicoise salad is a fine complement to the heavy chicharrónes. Rosy slabs of seared tuna, crunchy green beans, hard-boiled egg and olives are drizzled with a house vinaigrette. It's simple and unassuming, an iconic salad done without frills. I wish I could say the same about Hake's Greek sandwich, which feels like a humdrum re-imagining of the gyro. Hake's version uses toasted brioche instead of pita, and although the roasted lamb is delicious, it arrived a little cold—just a little, really, but enough for me to notice. The fries almost make up for the sandwichís slip-ups, but not quite.

Because I hadn't devoured enough deep-fried foods, I ordered the crispy broccoli with Serrano ham. For anyone who's struggled through a plateful of the green veggies, I suggest flash-frying them. The end result is fantastic—the broccoli's tops adopt a delicate crispiness, like biting into a transparently thin potato chip. The veggie's flavor evolves, too, and tastes similar to roasted Brussels sprouts with its toasted, almost meaty, undertones. Sure, the broccoli now has less nutritional value than a Twinkie, but I'm somehow OK with that. 

I popped the last greasy floret into my mouth and experienced a profound revelation: Hake may not flaunt glittery ocean views like its neighbors do, but it does serve up delectable, innovative fare, and really, that's enough. 

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