My favorite neighborhoods in most large cities tend to be the ones that are just on the edge of gentrification—the areas just a few blocks away from the heart of the action, where you still have to walk past people or places that might make you nervous. This, I’ve always found, is where the truly interesting things are happening, fueled by creativity that hasn’t yet been crushed by a massive influx of corporate cash. That’s how I felt recently walking east on Fremont Street, past Atomic Liquors and the Bunkhouse and crossing 11th Street. Banked by long-abandoned motels to the north and a string of newly developed but still-unoccupied storefronts on the south, I finally arrived at Downtown’s latest culinary hot spot, PublicUs.
PublicUs is yet another quick-casual spot where you order at a counter and take a number to your table to await service. The main dining area is dominated by a series of sleek modern communal tables that appear to seat about 10-12 people each, with trees protruding through their centers. There’s also a side area with a series of low-to-the-ground two-tops with stools that seem more designed for kindergarten children than adults. The crowd during my visits has varied in age from twenty-somethings to young families to seniors, but it also featured all of the tattoos, dreadlocks, beards and multicolored hair you’d expect in this neighborhood.
The single-page menu has plenty to offer. It starts with a trio of sandwiches. Next up are eight “specials,” which are really the restaurant’s only full entrées. They’re followed by some “proteins,” which as the name suggests, includes such things as ahi tuna, chicken breast and grilled flank steak served in a simple preparation, without sides. (Those same proteins are included in the “specials” section with more thought behind them.) All of the above are made to order, and preparations can be slow. If you want something quicker, opt for one of the many pre-made salads or slaws, or a delicious dessert. They also take their coffee and tea pretty seriously, although I prefer the gourmet bottled sodas. As much as I love the neighborhood and the vibe of PublicUs, those were both predictable. What surprised me here was the creativity and attention to detail on the ever-changing menu. You rarely expect to find a purple yam cake with squash puree and plum relish, or apple cider-braised short ribs, in a small cafe. But there they are on the menu, alongside fried chicken and a schnitzel sandwich. I loved a coffee-rubbed roast beef sandwich topped with brie, pear-horseradish slaw, hazelnuts and truffle aioli. It was surprisingly light and bright, despite an abundance of flavors that could very easily have been culinary cacophony. Even the accompanying house-made potato chips, seasoned with Old Bay spice, were a cut above. And the two desserts I’ve tried have been quite good.
An entrée of fennel-dusted ahi tuna was nicely peppered on the outside, beautifully rare in the center, and set atop a delicate collection of baby bok choy, wild mushrooms and a mildly sweet Thai coconut broth. But the surprise hit was a cold orzo salad that brought together the sweetness of figs, the crunch of pistachios and the heartiness of roasted bell peppers. (Although it could have used just a touch more acid.) My one complaint would be a semi-tough flank steak, although I enjoyed the accompanying wasabi potatoes. Entrée portions are also rather small, especially in light of the $13-$22 price range. As Downtown continues to expand in multiple directions, PublicUs helps Fremont continue to march east. Its block will most likely soon be as sanitized as the ones to its west. I just hope the neighborhood retains a bit of its grit for a while.
Al’s Menu Picks
- Coffee rubbed roast beef ($12), fennel dusted ahi tuna ($18)
- orzo salad ($4.50)
- warm bread pudding ($6)