The State of 31st Union
David Hunsaker leads a busy life.
By day, he works in sales for a commercial printing business.
By night (and weekends), he oversees the farm-to-table restaurant he opened last summer in downtown San Mateo, 31st Union.
The name of the restaurant refers to the fact that California was the 31st state in the union. It also proclaims the restaurant’s commitment to sourcing ingredients from within the state.
The 50-seat establishment is compact, with wood tabletops affixed to sawhorse legs that are set close together. A large bank of windows lets in a lot of natural light, all the better to illuminate the funky, charming decor. Think rustic and reclaimed, with barn wood wall panels, a polished cement floor, and a California state flag hanging on one wall. The focal point is a chalkboard-like outline of California on a back wall, with feathered arrows pointing to the areas where the restaurant’s ingredients have come from. Even the hallway leading to the restroom gets an artsy treatment with a bank of clip boards, each holding a page from a vintage catalog.
Recently, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant to try Executive Chef Paul Burzlaff’s cooking. He was most recently sous chef at the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.
Speaking of wine, the restaurant has a surprisingly large wine list, including quite a few wines stored in kegs, which keeps the wine fresher and minimizes its carbon footprint. One nice option is the chance to try a flight of either three whites ($16) or three reds ($18) of your choice. That’s just what my husband and I did, with him opting for the reds (Basket Press Cuvee on tap, Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas from Paso Robles on tap, and Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon) and yours truly going for the whites (Clif Family Sauvignon Blanc on tap, Tangent Albarino from San Louis Obispo on tap, and Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc from Paso Robles on tap). The 3-ounce pours arrive at the table, each with the name of the wine written on a tag made out of an old menu. It’s a fun, even educational way, to taste the same varietals side by side or even to indulge in three tastes of three different varietals all at once.
The menu is all about sharing. It’s mostly small or small-ish plates meant for sharing, with the exception of items such as the Niman Ranch burger with fries ($14), which was the daily special that Saturday night. Each evening features such a special, such as meatballs ($10) on Tuesdays and whole roasted Dungeness crab ($29) on Thursdays.
We started with the crispy pig ears ($5). They arrive as a golden tangle of strips, upright in small silver bucket. Alongside, there is spicy aioli to dip into. The ears are crisp with a chewy texture. Think of them as fries with more character. Hunsaker admits he had to talk up the pig ears for the first few weeks after opening, as many of his clientele were skittish of them. He’d tell them to order ‘em, and if they didn’t like it, he wouldn’t charge them. He no longer has to do that as they’ve caught on like crazy.
Next, a nicely dressed salad of Dungeness crab, baby golden beets, watercress, blood orange and almonds — all arranged down the length of a rectangular plate. The citrusy dressing didn’t overpower the crab, allowing its natural sweetness to shine. You can choose a small ($9), as we did; or a larger version ($13).
Braised Niman Ranch short rib sliders ($11) are pretty hard to resist. They come three to an order , with tender meat, frisee and a slice of pickle piled into a crisp, airy bun.
The fish and chips ($12) features three pieces of Pacific-caught cod coated with a light batter infused with Lagunitas IPA beer. The fish was crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside. But surprisingly bland. It cried out for a little more seasoning, even a touch of sea salt.
Grilled Niman Ranch hanger steak ($15) had a wonderful crusty char on the edges. It was accompanied by roasted sunchokes and maitakes.
Dessert offerings are fairly limited, mostly variations of ice cream, but with a chocolate pecan bread pudding ($7) to stand out from the pack.
I opted for the ice cream sandwich ($5). That night, it was two sturdy chocolate shortbread cookies dusted with powdered sugar and sandwiching a rich chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. Casual and with down-home appeal, it was a fun way to end the night.
When asked which of his jobs was harder, Hunsaker didn’t hesitate to answer: “My day job. Because it’s not nearly as fun as my night job.”
With one visit to 31st Union, it’s not hard to see why.
More San Mateo Restaurants: Viognier
And: All Spice