Lick the Plate: Exploring Northern Chinese cuisine on Convoy at Village North

Lick the Plate: Exploring Northern Chinese cuisine on Convoy at Village North
Village North owner Steven Ji brings his Northern Chinese cuisine to San Diego. Photo by David Boylan

Given its proximity to North County and the vast array of Asian restaurants, markets and spas available, I’m a bit embarrassed that it sometimes takes a press release to get me down there to the Clairmont/Kearny Mesa area of San Diego. If you wait until after 6:30 p.m. or so when traffic lightens up it’s about a 15- to 20-minute drive — tops. Not a bad jaunt to get to some amazing cuisine that at times seems like a world away.

Village North was another nice fix from Brook Larios at PlainClarity who had been nudging me for months to check this place out. She kept raving about this 24-year-old named Steven Ji who spent the first eight years of his life in Northern China in the district of Nancha where food rationing was common and meals were more like social gatherings. The cuisine from this area is not what most of us are familiar with when we think of Chinese food. His family moved to Northern California when Steven was 8, but the memories of the hearty, budget-minded food of his youth, the kind his grandma made — Chinese soul food he called it — lingered on. The abundance of California was a bit of a shock to Steven at first, and he also noticed that the Chinese restaurants did not feature the food of Northern China.

After a stint at St. Mary’s College, Steven transferred to UCSD where he graduated and spent a lot of time in the Convoy area of San Diego with classmates exploring Asian food options. It was then that he again noticed a lack of Northern Chinese options and the idea for Village North was hatched.

He found a space on Convoy and spent almost half a year remodeling the former sushi restaurant that occupied the space. The kitchen is designed to house two chefs under one roof — one specializing in Northern Chinese fare and one in Southern Chinese. The Southern style is what most of us are accustomed to but you should definitely explore some of the Northern options. Nothing is Americanized on the menu and Ji claims all the dishes would meet his grandma’s approval. He recruited chefs from Los Angeles who were familiar with the Northern style of cooking, held tryouts and he was on his way.

The 109-seat venue with private dining room options has a bright, open and modern decor, with blue lighting highlighting the crescent shaped bar. All the dishes, from the broths to the noodles, are made from scratch. It’s a labor of love and ensures authentic cuisine.

So being Mr. Lick the Plate adventurous eater guy, I thought I’d start the meal with the Chicken Feet with no idea what I was getting myself into. Served cold and with an intense spice, I could not keep them in my mouth long enough to chew any skin off the foot and well, it was not a pleasant experience. I should note that they were not on the list of dishes to try that was provided by Brook. If you do go there, I would advise a demonstration by your server.

That said, everything else I had was fabulous. She did suggest the Rainbow Noodle Salad to start, which was light and delicious with a very slippery noodle that was new to me and a bit hard to manage with chopsticks but worth the effort. Pork and Pickled Cabbage Hot Pot kept warm with chaffing flame underneath was amazing and per my conversation with Steven they pickle the cabbage in-house. That should be no surprise as much of what you get at Village North is prepared on-premise. Fried Tofu and Northern Pork were both stand out dishes but it was the Swai fish fillet with the numbing sauce that really stood out.

Specializing in Northern Chinese cuisine, Village North restaurant adds a unique touch to the area that is already bustling with restaurants and if you have not been, it’s almost an overwhelming experience. Another bonus for you night owls is that they are open until 2 a.m. on the weekends with a late night menu of hot and cold dishes so the after-party crowd can look forward to standout dishes such as melt-in-the-mouth Pork and Pickled Cabbage Hot Pot, Beef Dry Pot, Sweet Chinese Yam and Braised Chicken with Chinese Mushrooms. Beer, wine and sake are available as well.

As of this writing, they do not have a website but you can find them on Facebook, Instagram and Yelp. I also heard they are not open on Tuesdays so please check that prior to making the trip 4428 Convoy Street #330 in San Diego or call (858) 277-1888.

Lick the Plate has interviewed over 700 chefs, restaurateurs, growers, brewers and culinary personalities over the past 10 years as a column in The Coast News and in Edible San Diego. He can be heard on KSON, FM94/9 and Sunny98.1. More at www.lick-the-plate.com

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