Food Writers Have Foils: barleymash
Food writers often have foils, individuals in their lives off whom they can work. Calvin Trillin is a master of writing about food (and so many other subjects). Mr. Trillan had Alice, his wife of many years who died too soon in New York City on September 11, 2001 (not because of the WTC events, but as a result of a heart problem.) Alice, per Mr. Trillin, “had a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.” Another charming foil is Miss F, the real star of Domesticity by Bob Shacochis. In Domesticity Mr. Shacochis shares lots of stories about Miss F, most of which end with a recipe.
I do not suggest by raising the matter of foils that I can walk alongside Mr. Trillin, Mr. Shacochis, or any of the many other fine writers about matters culinary. I do think, though, that a foil is necessary, albeit not sufficient.
For me, the foil shall be Ms. J, with whom I have shared a life, a home, and many tables in lots of restaurants. I must be kind, for Ms. J and I still share a life, a home, and many tables in lots of restaurants. That said, she is a little bit particular!
Ms. J cops an attitude about any place that seems even close to pre-packaged. (All: read sports bar!) The food must be pre-packaged, and anything “pre-packaged” equals “bad.” She’s right often enough … but not always! And she needs to try barleymash in the San Diego Gaslamp District.
barleymash does not promise much upon arriving. It’s a big room, with floor-to-ceiling openings to the street, at the northwest corner of 5th and Market, the Gaslamp’s main corner. Lots of people, lots of television sets—showing football, basketball, and anything else involving opportunities for people to gather and consume alcohol—and lots and lots of noise.
I got lucky getting in on both visits, sitting at the bar once and adjacent to it the second time. (Friday and Saturday evenings are tough, so if you’re part of a group of any size, be prepared to wait.)
On both occasions my gin martini was perfect, dry, cold, and big. (Once, Ms. J asked me why I thought a particular bar made a really fine martini. “It’s really cold,” I said, “and really big!”)
On my first visit I had Citrus Vodka Ceviche for $12. I got a large dish, full of fresh white fish, citrus vodka, fresh squeezed citrus juices, cucumber-salsa fresca, and guacamole, accompanied by barley chips. (Think potato chips with a different flavor.) On the “splits” part of the menu and, I presume, intended as an appetizer for the table, it offered me a refreshing meal that allowed me to walk away not full, but satiated.
My second visit also involved a martini—still dry, still cold, and still big—and more fish. This time I had the Brick Oven Seared Tuna for $15. I received a beautiful plate full of very fresh greens, topped with kalamata olives, goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, red onions, and fresh herbs. Roasted-tomato balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Oh, and lots and lots of seared ahi. See for yourself:
barleymash does not exemplify fine dining in the traditional sense. Service is very friendly and mostly attentive, but it’s very casual. The food, though, is much better than it has to be for a bar at the main intersection in San Diego’s tourist district.
 The vodka was unnoticeable, so unless you alcohol issues exist, the vodka part can be ignored.