By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I’ve eaten inside liquor stores before — pizza at Fiori’s in Mission Hills, a lobster roll at Corner Liquor in Normal Heights, and a memorable “meter feeder” ham-and-Swiss sandwich in the presence of attorneys making liquid purchases at Mixon Liquor and Deli near the Downtown courthouse. But in terms of ambiance, nothing beats KnB Wine Cellars in Del Cerro.
More than a wine depot, KnB impresses with a dramatic 20-foot-high wall of bottled spirits that leaves you wondering which way to run in the event of an earthquake. The zillion-dollar inventory carries everything imaginable: Aquavit from Norway; Arak from Lebanon; Eau Ve Vie fruit brandy from Switzerland; the brown-bag stuff; and you name it.
In the center of it all is a full-service bistro with ample seating. Opposite the liquor display is a full bar flaunting some serious craft brews. Wander toward the back of the room and you end up in the company of wine — lots of it — lining the shelves in a quieter dining area.
Where there is alcohol of this magnitude, there are requisite munchies. Here, it’s a mix of everyday bar food done well and café fare stamped with a fair dose of pizzazz.
As our party of eight settled in at a table on the busy front patio (it was a full house inside), we pondered what drinks would pair best to items such as spicy deviled eggs, loaded tater tots, a guacamole burger, fish and chips, and a few other dishes up for consideration.
Beer, of course. And it just so happened we came on a Wednesday, when all drafts are $4 apiece, whether served in 12- or 16-ounce glasses.
It’s a swell deal considering the choices spanned from high-octane cult favorites like Stone’s seasonal “Enjoy By” series and a couple of citrus brews to imperial porters, a spiced lager, and the “Hopocalypse” double IPA by Drake’s Brewing Company that I ordered.
When our food arrived, I basically kept a fork in each hand; one for my own meal and the other for wandering into reachable territory of others at the table. (I was among family, good friends and my spouse, so nobody minded.)
The Huevos de Diablo is a single egg, halved and deviled with a peppery, whipped yolk and topped with slices of grilled jalapenos. As the most inexpensive starter on the menu ($1.25), it went down in four easy bites.
It’s been a while since tater tots gave me a palatable rush. I’m basically sick to death of them, although when they’re called “tot bombs” and come strewn with roasted jalapenos and pieces of crispy bacon, I couldn’t resist. Better yet, they were crispier than most and mantled in hot, bubbly mozzarella cheese, which smoothed out their starchiness with a buttery essence.
Two of my tablemates ordered the panchito burrito encasing a beer-battered chile relleno and juicy carnitas in a large flour tortilla. After coincidentally encountering a rancid chili relleno the previous day from one of my go-to taco shops, I wasn’t inclined to try it at first. But when the oohs and aahs started, I succumbed. It was fresh and flavorful enough to heal my psychological scars.
The winning dish of the evening was the fish and chips, a meal that so often fails lately in other places because of skimpy portions, soggy batter or both. These would likely earn kudos from the most persnickety of Brits, even though limes were substituted for lemons, and the tartar sauce was spiked with Chingon Hot Sauce, which is made locally in Lemon Grove and sold at KnB.
But the tweaking of citrus and the medium-spiciness of the tartar worked superbly on the large pieces of cod, which yielded an abundance of moist, flakey meat beneath firm, non-greasy batter. The fries, too, were above-average — clean, crispy and not overly salted.
The menu is rather eclectic, extending to four different types of Angus beef burgers, various flat breads, blackened tuna salad, fettuccine in creamy tequila sauce and more. From the sandwich category, there’s “the yogi,” which layers melted brie, apples, honey and arugula between toasted olive bread. Pass me the wine list for that one.
A few desserts sourced from San Diego Bakery are also in the offing. We passed around the chocolate-peanut butter dome, a gloriously dense creation that sated our palates from only a couple of spoonfuls each.
KnB also serves brunch from 10 – 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, when $14 will buy you all the mimosas you can drink in that time span, and in a fitting environment that celebrates the myriad structures and nuances of liquor, beer and wine.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.