Common Stock

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The geometric chicken on their logo says it all: this is a place that understands fried chicken.

The recurring theme at San Diego’s Common Stock is nostalgia. The menu is made up of nostalgic American plates—like fried chicken, burgers, and Caesar salads—but nothing is as it seems at first glance. Every item from the past is thoughtfully updated to bring it into the 21st century, with flavors inspired from around the world: aji verde on the chicken, curry hummus, a salad made with brussels sprouts and kale.

According to their website, the restaurant focuses on “genuine hospitality and thoughtfully orchestrated table service.” This phrase was meaningless to me, full of throwaway buzzwords, until I dined at Common Stock in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood the other night. Now, I agree that this phrase is an accurate way to describe the restaurantgoer’s experience.

From the delicately positioned tables and rectangular, open bar that feels like a large kitchen island (check it out), to the level of care in the service, Common Stock does feel extremely thoughtful and carefully curated. A leafy green arch lines the entrance, opening up into this cozy, intimate experience where the staff seem genuinely glad that you made it into their secret garden, and welcomes you to stay as long as you like.

Sidecar with chai-infused bourbon
Sidecar with chai-infused bourbon

Sidecar

I start with the house sidecar, made with chai-infused 60/40 bourbon. Sweeter than a regular sidecar, it arrives with a dusting of cinnamon on top, a nod to the chai spices blended into the bourbon. The smoke counteracts the sweetness in a cocktail that is borderline too saccharine, even for me. With the smoke holding its own against the sugar, I’m left with the subtle flavor of warming spices sliding down smoothly with the bourbon.

(Note: Common Stock is now serving up this sidecar, and other cocktails, to go! Just one of the things they’re doing to keep the community spirit positive during this pandemic. More on that below.)

Curry hummus and grilled naan
Curry hummus and griddled naan

Curry hummus

I am often very skeptical when any dish on a menu is billed as “curry” something. It’s often a prelude to an anemic dish, created by someone who tossed in a few shakes of curry powder and turmeric thinking that would be sufficient to lend an “East Indies” note of exoticism without the many other components that make curry taste like curry.

Not the case with this curry hummus. Nicely spiced and full of flavor, it’s creamy, not lumpy or grainy, and is served alongside griddled naan with nicely charred edges. My only complaint is that the hummus could withstand a little more heat, like I’d expect from a curry.

Umami fries
Umami fries and dipping sauces

Umami fries

If a restaurant is advertising umami fries, they’d better deliver. Umami is a very hefty word that implies all sorts of intangible flavors and promises to satisfy in a way you can’t quite comprehend.

The fries at Common Stock are uncommonly good. Are they umami? Maybe not. At first bite, they’re delicious. Coated in the subtlest seasoning I have ever tasted, these fries are understated, but confident, like they don’t have to prove any arbitrary definition of umami.

The fries are served with a very herby ranch dipping sauce, which I enjoyed. Unfortunately, after a few bites, the label “umami” just doesn’t satisfy the expectation anymore. They’re good for a while, but I can’t finish them. If you’re having something fried, save the calories and stomach space for the fried chicken.

Warm brussels caesar with fried chicken
Warm brussels caesar plus fried chicken

Warm brussels caesar with fried chicken

For the main, I do something a little crazy—I order the warm brussels caesar salad, and add a fried chicken on top. Apparently it’s done all the time at Common Stock.

Brussels sprouts are the hot new thing today, right? Every restaurant serves them, usually cooked with bacon and/or a balsamic glaze to lend some fat, richness, and acid. They’re the ugly duckling vegetable that suddenly exploded into everyone’s favorite appetizer.

Covered in cheese and generously coated in a thick, creamy dressing, this warm play on a caesar salad achieves all the richness we’ve come to expect from a brussels sprouts dish, with no bacon. (Just look at how much parm is on top!) Tang and acidity come from the caesar dressing. It’s an even 50/50 balance between halved brussels sprouts and outer leaves that have flaked off and crisped up while cooking. I really appreciate that all the brussels sprouts were bite-sized and uniform. It’s the little things that really make a dish stand out.

The cubed croutons are crisp on the outside but soft and spongy on the inside, a welcome departure from traditional croutons that scrape the roof of your mouth on their way in. Each crouton is like a savory, edible sponge that has been toasted over a fire just until it’s crispy.

Now to the chicken, the highlight of the night. The breading is great. It gives a thin, crunchy exterior with none of the bready, carby filling. Bits of crispy fried skin crumble off the chicken and becomes a secondary crouton mixed in with the salad. The chicken encased within these crumbs is hot, salty, and juicy, the way chicken should be.

Eating the brussels caesar and the fried chicken all together, it borders on just a little too salty. I reach for my water glass fairly often while eating this dish, but I can’t stop. It’s so heavy and decadent (for a salad) that I take about a third of it home.

(They also do a version of Nashville hot chicken, which is sweeter than I expect, and less spicy, but still delectable.)

Nashville hot chicken

A neighborhood staple

The menu is focused, not sprawling. Each category on the menu offers only a handful of dishes, so everything is thought out and done well. There’s a reason Common Stock still averages a 5-star review.

The playlist on this night creates the perfect indie ambience in this unpretentious but special neighborhood bar. Sounds of Sufjan Stevens’ Chicago float through the atmosphere. Time stops for just a moment. Here I sit, slightly swinging my feet from the barstool, listening to the quiet music, admiring the detail on the floral arch. It’s a place that encourages you to stop, look around, and take it in.

We aren’t rushed to leave after paying our bill, instead encouraged to stay, chatting with the bartenders as if we had met before and were simply catching up after a while. As we leave, someone runs up behind me with the leftovers I had forgotten on the counter. It’s the details of the atmosphere here, their whole ethos, that make Common Stock such a memorable spot.

Common Stock feels like the quintessential neighborhood joint, right off the main drag in Hillcrest but somehow also a world apart. Many have come and gone in this block of square footage in Hillcrest, but I hope Common Stock stays for a long time.

Bonus: Common Stock’s Response to Coronavirus

As if great food and great hospitality were not enough, the way Common Stock has been responding to the coronavirus outbreak is nothing short of noble. They’ve admirably been feeding workers who recently lost their jobs due to the outbreak, offering takeout and delivery and to-go cocktails to everyone else, and sending out positive vibes on social media.

As if Common Stock wasn’t already an integral neighborhood hangout, it has really risen to the occasion and become a beacon of community and optimism, reminding us that we’re all in this together.

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