Aug. 24 2011 10:06 AM

Tacos and burgers are given a tasty twist at homey and hip new Hillcrest spot

Empire House's tasty trio of tacos

I immediately liked the feeling of walking into the dusky, charcoal walls of Empire House. It conjures a groovy old house with mismatched chairs, some of which reminded me of sitting in a junior-high auditorium. And before I wax on about the food, I'd like to thank Empire House for having an unobtrusive and comfortably familiar soundtrack serenading me throughout dinner. I mean, when's the last time you heard Indigo Girls coming out of the speakers of any hipster establishment? OK, fine, I was in Hillcrest, and I'm dating myself, but I enjoyed being transported to the earnest days of being a college freshman, without the communal living and shower shoes.

I'd describe the menu at Empire House as eclectic but tailored. There are New York-style sandwiches, hearty breakfast scrambles, funky-sounding treats you don't normally see from San Diego eateries (check out the sausage bread), Asian influences and elaborate tacos. And then we have the burgers.

But first, let's revisit the Asian influences: An intriguing option is the kaarage, or Japanese fried chicken, an item on the small-plates menu. There's nothing fancy about this dish, although the grated daikon radish is a sweetly pungent condiment offsetting every bite of meat. The plate comes piled with scaldingly hot nuggets of what seemed to be mostly dark-meat chicken, fried to a crisp that was crunchy without being greasy. Some of my pieces were a bit on the rubbery side, but the parts of my tongue that weren't burned away liked the salty taste of each bite.

Empire House also puts together a solid plate of tacos. In a town powered by tacos—from the post-inebriation, I'll-eat-anything-greasy versions to the journeyman Baja representatives to the gourmet twists—one might think there isn't room for more. One would be wrong! I say the more tacos, the mejor.

Try the three-taco plate so you can sample the various versions offered at E.H. The braised pulled pork is the standout, with that shredded velvet texture and savory goodness that comes from cooking a hunk of pig low and slow. Various taco toppings include pickled carrots, more of the tasty daikon and a cilantro slaw that matches well with the beef tacos—like a delicate chimichurri sauce. The tacos all come decorated with cotija cheese, a thoroughly common, yet outrageously under-appreciated, salty garnish.

Fried up in the gorgeousness that is a cast-iron pan, the burgers are hefty, flavor-loaded and alone worth a visit. My dining pal and I split the BBQ Bacon Burger, which comes glazed in the house red miso barbecue sauce (also available on wings). Having a bit of puckery tang with each bite of burger was different, but not unwelcome, and it certainly stood up to the rest of the strong flavors fighting for dominance on the burger, from garlic aioli to bacon and pickled red onion. (At that point, I'm not sure what use the slice of lettuce served, but it did its best to hang with its wacky bunmates.)

Gluttons, be advised that Empire House has an item on its menu called Man vs. House, which challenges you to eat 50 of the burgers, all by your lonesome. Succeed, and you get a free T-shirt, as well as a quiet shaming from the rest of us, because you're disgusting.

Empire House is politely elbowing its way into the casual dining scene in San Diego. It may not be the noisiest kid in town, but the playful food should help the restaurant strike back at boring dining options.

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