By Matthew Wood
It’s just after noon on Friday afternoon and Steven Yeng looks nervous.
The man who opened the wildly popular OB Noodle House is standing in the middle of his new creation, Bar 1502, and the place – which opened less than a week before – is half empty during the normal lunch rush. (Ed.: this is the site of the old Blue Parrot.)
“I don’t think people know we’re open,” he says.
It’s hard to imagine being able to walk into Noodle House and get a table. At the original location, on Cable Street just north of Voltaire, the wait is almost always an hour-plus can grow to more than two hours.
“Locals just couldn’t get in anymore,” Yeng says.
The new location, at Bacon and Niagara, is a sentimental one for Yeng, who grew up on the same block.
His family came to the United States from a refugee camp in Southeast Asia with no money. They found their first television set in the alley behind where the restaurant is now.
“Me and my brothers put it on a skateboard and wheeled it home. Then we turned it on and said, ‘Whoa, it works!’”
Yeng said he got offers from all over San Diego to build a new Noodle House location, but he never hesitated when deciding to stay in OB.
The new spot is certainly a gamble. Not many restaurateurs would have the guts to build basically the same restaurant just blocks from the original. But not many people love Ocean Beach as much as Yeng.
“I mean, who opens the same concept restaurant in the same neighborhood?” he asks.
The question lingers as he pauses for a moment, thinking about it himself. Then, he moves on, as if it doesn’t really need to be answered in his mind. And then his phone rings. It does that a lot.
Yeng said he’s been putting in 140-hour work weeks (is that was even physically possible?) and it shows. He has the look of a man who won’t rest until everything is exactly perfect.
Yeng, who met his fiancé when they both attended Ocean Beach Elementary School, said the new place really wants to focus on the locals. And whiskey. Really good whiskey.
“There’s a lot of crap whiskey out there,” he says.
That point is echoed by bartender Jay Birger, who knows his drinks. “We’ve got the good stuff,” he says of a drink menu that includes nine specialty cocktails and a beer list that will focus on drinkable IPAs and a large selection of sours. They also serve a Thai tea infused with Makers Mark whiskey that Yeng thinks will become the place’s signature drink.
The food menu is limited for now, but will be much the same as the original when it’s up to full speed. Get the usual assortment of pho soups, along with the wildly popular fried rice. There will also be some more adventurous items on the menu, like chicken hearts and fish meatballs.
The place is much smaller than the original, but also much more open. A row of outdoor tables (yes, you can drink at them, unlike the other place) line the Niagara sidewalk. The bar stretches outside with seats perfect for a sunny OB afternoon. The inside is deceptively small, but it has an open and inviting atmosphere. A tree grows through the middle of the indoor tables.
Yeng says they have big plans for Farmer’s Market Wednesdays. A live blue grass band will play in the middle of the restaurant as bartenders serve up specialty drinks made from produce found at the market.
The focus isn’t just on local customers. It’s on local employees as well.
“I have about 140 employees and a solid 90 percent of them live in OB,” Yeng said. “All these guys you see here live in OB. It’s all for family. Everyone here is my family. If they are happy, we will succeed.”
He didn’t even want his photo taken for this story, instead deflecting the camera to his bartenders. Yeng’s worries of nobody showing up turn out to be unfounded. Just a few hours later, there’s a wait for tables and the bar is packed. Not bad for a place that hasn’t even had its grand opening – that comes this weekend.
So, if you haven’t checked it out yet, it might be now or never to avoid the long wait. Yeng doesn’t hesitate when asked if he hopes the new spot will be as big as the original.
“Oh yes,” he replies. “If you don’t shoot for a star, what’s the point?”