Eastlake's been waiting for a place like Babirusa. On a Wednesday night at ten o'clock, every seat at the bar is taken, and the half-dozen tables are nearly full, too, with everyone eating and drinking and laughing. The soundtrack is medium-loud '70s classics—Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, "Free Bird"—and the staff unironically bops around to the music. The people who work here are contagiously great: unpretentious and helpful and funny. The guy wearing the "I LIKE PIG BUTTS AND I CANNOT LIE" T-shirt—the words "pig butts" are inside the outline of a pig with a curly tail—briefly and inexplicably adopts an English accent. Another fellow gallantly refolds the napkin of someone who's stepped outside to make a call, like it's Canlis for a second. Maybe it's all extra fun because it's fun in a strip mall.
This strip mall, of course, is where now-famous Matt Dillon's first restaurant—Sitka & Spruce, in its original, tiny incarnation—staked a local/seasonal/excellent claim in 2006. That space had been a doughnut shop; there's still a Subway next door. It was then—sadly briefly—home to the late, beloved Christina Choi's cafe, the bountifully good Nettletown. (Christina Choi died suddenly of an aneurysm in 2011, a fact that will always be a stab in the heart to anyone who was lucky enough to ever meet her. Pause.)
Subsequently, Charles Walpole installed his own first restaurant, Blind Pig Bistro, in the original Sitka & Spruce space, painting the walls deep orange-red and following in Dillon's footsteps with an intensely local, deliciously seasonal menu ordered from a chalkboard on one wall. ("Blind pig" is another name for a divey speakeasy that charged admission to see a not-all-that-attractive attraction—such as a blind pig—then issued "complimentary" alcohol to all comers.) After a while, Walpole got ahold of the teriyaki joint next door and made it into Blind Pig at Eastlake Teriyaki, which served sandwiches that were pretty good, but not as great as you'd hope if you'd been to the Blind Pig. It just wasn't a place you'd go out of your way for—except for the excellent sloppy joe, which, happily, you'll probably find on the menu at Babirusa, which is Walpole's new replacement for Blind Pig at Eastlake Teriyaki.
What the hell is a babirusa? It's a kind of pig with tusks found in Indonesia and—in taxidermied-head form—on one of Blind Pig's walls. The Blind Pig and Babirusa are connected by a hallway; if you peeked into the Blind Pig last Wednesday night, you'd have seen a sedate scene, with intriguing stuff on the chalkboard like "octopus, sourdough waffle, grapes, smoked almond butter, $15" and "arctic char, orecchiette, capers, harissa, kohlrabi, caraway, $18." At Babirusa, the menu's less refined, and meant for snacking and sharing, with prices (for not-skimpy portions) from $3 to $14. Walpole himself has been in the kitchen lately, making sure it's all good.
Everybody checks out what everybody else is eating at Babirusa, and your neighbors might ask you for advice. The four people next to us looked jealously at our Painted Hills burger ($12), asked how it was, and then bemoaned the fact that they'd collectively tried almost everything else on the menu already (smart) and were too full to get one (sad). The beef was ground and cooked just right, the bun was glossy and light, and the grilled onion and salsa verde were fresh and unmessy compared to the sloppy/greasy/"indulgent" burgers elsewhere. It comes with Babirusa's take on patatas bravas, which actually achieve indulgence in the form of a fried potato: They're big, irregular cubes, but somehow airy.
Almost everything I ate was really good—and on two visits with a friend, it's possible to get through almost all of the menu, except that it's constantly changing, and you'll need to go home and lie down afterward. A lot of it is ballast-for-drinking food: a dish of greasy, salty fried marcona almonds and chickpeas ($3); less greasy, but still fried, tostones topped with creamy avocado, salty bacalao, and tomato ($9); a kimchi octopus pancake that was crispily browned and crunchily spicy, with bouncy bits of octopus ($8); smoked arctic char hush puppies, fried golden-crisp but not at all heavy, with only a hint of fish, served with shaved fresh horseradish and horseradish aioli ($5). One gathers that the last two items are made with the trimmings of their fancier cousins next door at the Blind Pig, a symbiosis that's great for Babirusa and makes great sense, too.
In the vegetation department, a salad made with spotted trout lettuce—it's just lettuce that has pretty spots like a trout (no fish involved)—and shaved kohlrabi with bread crumbs and a scallion vinaigrette was like a Caesar, but both more delicate and crunchier ($7). A beet salad had slightly spicy lamb's-quarters greens (which do not contain lamb), plus ricotta salata ($8). End-of-season asparagus was slightly scorched and served with walnuts and a mint vinaigrette ($8). Sautéed peavines turned up here and there.
A couple things were less tasty: a heavy Louisiana meat pie ($6) needed more spice, while the skin of a blackened rainbow trout ($14) was so blackened, it tasted acrid. But the pretty fuchsia beet-pickled eggs ($4) with sweet pickled vegetables are worth a trip by themselves.
The decor's basic: a red wall echoing next door, some cleverly crafted shelves laden with cookbooks, a watchful owl, and a porron (the tricky Spanish wine-sharing pitcher). What's fun is the food, and the wine ($10 and under per glass), and the cocktails, and the people.