By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
If you’re expecting a wild, simulated ride through the cosmos when stepping into @Spacebar, you’ll be disappointed. There are no maps of the galaxy plastered on the walls or twinkling pin lights stretched across the ceiling.
But if you’re on the hunt for beer, wine, coffee, healthy foods, fried foods, Spanish tapas, burgers, cake, comedy, live music, or you name it — the cafe’s owner, Frank Moody, has you covered.
An information technology specialist, Moody combined his computer career with a longtime dream of opening a cafe 10 years ago. He named it after the space bar on a keyboard, preceding it with the Internet’s reliance of the “at” symbol. Naturally, the cafe offers free Wi-Fi and plenty of tabletops for customers to settle upon with their laptops and iPads.
The main dining area features a small stage for evening performances by local comedians on the fourth Friday of every month, starting at 7 p.m. Singers and songwriters take to an open mic on the remaining Friday nights of the month, while poetry readings occur the second Sunday of every month.
Even when visiting on a quiet midday, and sitting near two young men discussing a business project with their laptops deployed, there’s a creative energy in the air that attracts an inspired and ethnically diverse patronage.
Moody is also a retired Air Force master sergeant. He lived in Spain for two years while serving, and took a strong liking to the country’s tapas. Hence the hot and cold tapas he offers such as the divine tortilla Espanola, a Spanish potato-egg omelet of sorts served in clean-cut wedges. Pair it with a salad and you’ve scored yourself a highly satisfying meal.
Gambas al ajillo particularly blew me away. It’s a traditional Spanish dish of shrimp cooked in butter, garlic and white wine. Much like scampi, Moody kicks up the recipe with generous pinches of crushed chili peppers. Served with warm crusty bread for mopping up the precious liquid, you’d pay almost double the price in fussier restaurants for these five plump crustaceans. Here the cost is $9.50.
Moody admits his menu needs streamlining. There are actually three of them, with two of the menus somewhat overlapping the main one. Though a bit confusing, the findings cover many bases.
There are burgers, loaded fries and chicken wings for student types; smoothies, acai bowls, hummus-veggie plates and quinoa-stuffed peppers for health fanatics; and Champagne, house-made sangria, artisan cheeses, crafty paninis and a few entrees for culinary sophisticates.
In addition to the tortilla Espanola and buttery shrimp, I also tried the “green monster” smoothie served with an environmentally friendly paper straw. Thick, icy and made to order, it featured a nourishing whip of spinach, celery, carrots, mango and pineapple.
A colorful arrangement of baby carrots, bell peppers and celery came on a plate of warm pita bread and two types of house-made hummus: basil and red pepper. It’s an ideal shareable item priced fairly at $7.50.
Most of the tuna-melt panini I ordered came home with me because of its jumbo size. Made with albacore strewn with sliced green olives — and dressed moderately in mayo — the sandwich layered in cheddar, juicy tomatoes and crisp romaine lettuce (now safe to eat after last month’s recall). The ridged bread, supposedly sourdough, resembled in texture and flavor a thin, soft waffle. Though light and pleasing, it predictably became soggy by the time I boxed it up.
My finale was fried cheesecake, which shouldn’t be compared to the wicked deep-fried vittles you’d find at a county fair. Served as two rectangular logs, the dessert is rather refined with its outer veneers of glassy caramelized sugar, and hot gooey centers of sweetened cream cheese beneath. It reminded me of crème brulee, though possibly better.
Moody has a good thing going with his colorful cafe, a space you’d more likely see in an urban center rather than tucked away in a generic strip plaza on a suburban street. For those who assume @Spacebar is merely a coffeehouse that serves only pastries and trendy acai bowls, some good surprises await.
—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.