Barnacles serves gastropub quality food without the chic décor or the prices

barnaclesI have reviewed the food at a number of taverns lately, causing some people to wonder if I have been drinking dinner or eating it. To them I say that like any reviewer, I write about what my readers are consuming, and lots of them are eating in bars. This is due to two trends – the young crowd who dine out most often are comfortable in that atmosphere, and bars are serving increasingly good food. It’s not always what I’m in the mood for, since I like peaceful and conversational dinners, but I must admit that I’m not immune to the excitement and energy of a lively room.

I overlooked Barnacles until recently despite the fact that it is actually across the street from this newspaper’s office. I had tried eating there about a year and a half ago and despite the place having a short menu, they were out of most items. There was nothing particularly interesting on the menu, so I said I’d come back another time, but didn’t. Then a few months ago, one of my colleagues at the paper mentioned that Barnacles served up a pretty impressive bowl of pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup. At first I thought I had misheard him — the divey bar across the street served pho? True, he insisted – they had a Vietnamese cook for a while, and he taught the rest of the staff. I immediately resolved to give the place another visit.

Barnacles used to be Fat Face Fenner’s Falloon, and it still looks like a beach bar circa 1965, albeit with flat screen TVs and staff who don’t look like derelicts. There are fewer staff, though – on our first visit on a Wednesday evening there was only one woman named Lauren who was bartender, server, busser, and woman of all tasks. Doing all of these at once is near miraculous; doing them while remaining cheerful is too much to ask, but she did it.

The menu looks like the usual bar snacks with two exceptions – the ceviche and the aforementioned pho.  But properly done bar food can be good, indeed. We started out with carne asada fries, homemade chili, and a small order of wings to see how this kitchen stacks up. The wings were good but conventional – it is possible to mess up wings, and I’ve been to places that did it, but these were crisp and not greasy, which checks all the boxes. Carne asada fries are an idea I don’t remember seeing before, but you can get mileage putting anything on top of French fries, so I suppose it was inevitable. It was more than just meat and potatoes – melted cheese, bits of green onion and tomato, and sour cream made it varied, and if you counted the homemade salsa it was almost a balanced meal. I’d ask for the sour cream on the side next time since the portion was excessive, but I would order it as a starter or a meal.

Barnacles Bar and Grill

Gana Kim and Adam Casper enjoy Vietnamese pho with their brews, served by bartender Jennifer Cole. Photo by Kevin Cody

The ceviche was surprising – large chunks of fresh tuna in a tangy lime and spice marinade with a hint of red pepper heat, topped with avocado and cilantro. The balance of cool fish and spicy, citrusy, and piquant flavors was spot on, and it paired nicely with a rich amber beer. I would recommend Barnacles for this item alone, because it was that good.

We had ordered a New York steak, a blue cheese burger, and a bowl of pho for main courses, and they arrived just as we finished the starters. The steak was flavorful and tender but done past the medium rare that we had requested. It had a good flavor and slight char that you get from a proper high-temperature grill. I’d have another but order it rarer than I actually want. We chose grilled zucchini and homemade potato chips, both of which were hot, fresh, and good.

The burger benefited from that char-grill flavor too, with a tasty sear on the hand-formed patty. It was a big, messy, tasty burger that reminded me of the old Fallon days, and there is no higher praise for a bar burger. As for the pho, the item that had brought me there in the first place, it was the genuine article. The beefy broth had a shot of star anise and herbs, not quite as assertive as you’d get in a Vietnamese neighborhood joint but still very good, and there were fresh bean sprouts and Thai basil as add-ins. It ranks with any pho you’re going to get around the beach cities, and is above what I’ve had in many Asian neighborhoods.

My wife and I returned to Barnacles a few days later to try their Sunday brunch menu and ordered a breakfast burrito and huevos rancheros. The burrito was decent, the rancheros a cut above, and the eggs had a mildly spicy sauce – all a great way to start the day. One note: Barnacles is the only place I’ve been for breakfast outside Utah that doesn’t serve coffee. I had a Myer’s rum on the rocks, which was the same color, but it wasn’t a substitute. Lauren did mention that you can bring in coffee from Ashley’s Deli across the street, or you can load up that thermos and bring your own from home.

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Barnacles has gastropub quality food without the chic décor or the prices. If you want to escape the loud music and dingy interior you can escape to the pleasant patio and enjoy the best of both worlds. The building has housed enough classic local joints to be part of Hermosa’s culinary history, and the kitchen here is carrying on the tradition.

Barnacles is at 837 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa – open daily 9 a.m. – 2 a.m. Street  parking only, no reservations, wheelchair access to some areas difficult, patio dining. Phone 310-798-9064.

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