Feb. 13 2015 04:28 PM

San Marcos newbie out to up the inland restaurant game

Kung Pao carnitas
Photo by Jenny Montgomery

In this era of farm-to-table, I find it interesting that great places to eat aren't closer to the farms themselves. Oh, sure, in fertile San Diego, everything is relatively nearby, but the sunnier, crophappy reaches of our county tend to attract chains and suburban sprawl, while the coolest eateries try to get as close to the coast as possible. 

But contrary to the popular local adage, there is life east of Interstate 5. And those of us living inland demand decent food. Why, hello there, Inland Tavern. Thank you for opening! 

San Marcos' Inland Tavern (1001 W. San Marcos Blvd.) has taken over the former confines of divey Brit bar Penny Lane and turned it into a clean dining room and bar with a coastal feel, even though there's no water in sight. (Keep calm, fans of San Marcos-based British pubs! Churchill's is still carrying on just down the road.) 

Chef Rob Conaway is a local boy who's spent time cooking in Thailand and Vietnam, and although that influence is felt throughout the menu, the offerings are far more eclectic than the expected. 

Local food writers should start a support group on how to come up with new and interesting ways to write about tacos. While I wait for someone else to organize it, I'll be burying my face in a drippy plate of Kung Pao carnitas at Inland Tavern. The taco is messy and juicy, yet it miraculously stays together, with delicate shreds of pork doing the backstroke in a sweet and tangy sauce. They don't skimp on the cilantro, which tames the sweetness, and the humble scatter of crunchy peanuts on top is basic and inspired. The fish taco is light and airy with a wonderful tempura coating and lacy strips of pickled red onion playing the role of pico de gallo. 

Food trends come and go, from bacon-in-everything to endless riffs on chicken and waffles. Get ready for poutine to be the next big thing in caloric glory. Conaway's play on the French Canadian plate involves spicing up the fried potatoes with a Japanese spice blend called togarashi. Gravy and cheese curds keep with tradition, creating a perfect excuse (not that you need one) to explore Inland's craft beer and cocktails. 

Keep your eye out for the fried chicken skin, a perfect nibble no matter what you're drinking. Also generously dusted in togarashi, this cup full of crispy chips proves that Inland Tavern is working hard to raise the restaurant game in San Marcos. Move over, chicharrones, we've got more fried awesome to dip into some ranch. 

Tacos and small plates are winning, but you'll also find wings, bowls and sandwiches. I really dug the play of flavors in the avocado Brie torta. This deceptively simple sandwich hits every part of your tongue. Thick slices of avocado anchor things with creamy heft, while smooth Brie adds a bit more saltiness to chew on. A tangle of watercress provides unexpected bitterness while a kumquat moustarda is at once sweet and sour. 

Those cool kids at the coast might have the real estate, but with more joints like this, there are now plenty of reasons to stay inland.

Write to jennym@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Follow Jenny on Twitter @jennymontyinsd.


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