Campus crowd happily shares its tasty secret: Zanzibar Cafe at UCSD

A trio of Fish Tacos with blackened tilapia, spicy cabbage slaw, mango salsa and house-made hot sauce on the side. Photos by Kelley Carlson
A trio of Fish Tacos with blackened tilapia, spicy cabbage slaw, mango salsa and house-made hot sauce on the side. Photos by Kelley Carlson

By Kelley Carlson

Zanzibar Cafe on the UC San Diego campus plays a supporting role during performances at The Loft, but when classes are in session, it takes center stage. Tucked into a corner on the second floor of Price Center East, it’s one of the restaurant’s two locations in San Diego. While Zanzibar Cafe’s downtown site is more of a full-service bistro, the UCSD counterpart is designed for quicker service.

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A trio of Fish Tacos with blackened tilapia, spicy cabbage slaw, mango salsa and house-made hot sauce on the side. Photos by Kelley Carlson

Inside the modern establishment — an artsy space with sculptural lighting fixtures and paintings that grace pea-green walls — customers order food at the bar/counter, and it’s brought to them at their seats. Some people opt to relax on the benches loaded with green and white pillows, with their companions sitting opposite them on plush ottomans; others socialize around tables large and small. The music is ambient, ranging from hip-hop to indie.

It’s often a morning stop for campus crawlers, who start their day with a cup of steaming coffee and fuel up on fare ranging from burritos and egg dishes to bagels and parfaits.

As the weather warms and lunch hour approaches, many people take their entrees onto the communal patio that contains about a dozen tables, some of which are shaded by umbrellas. Midday dish offerings include the Mango Chicken Salad, a colorful combo of grilled chicken breast, sliced mango, cucumber, jicama, goat cheese, roasted almonds and sun-dried cherries on a bed of mixed greens, with a side of sun-dried cherry vinaigrette; and the Turkey and Bacon Melt with Roma tomato, pepper jack cheese, spinach and sun-dried tomato aioli on sourdough bread.

Among other popular choices are the Zbar Mac & Cheese with a cornmeal crust and a side salad; and a trio of Fish Tacos made with blackened tilapia, spicy cabbage slaw, mango salsa and house-made hot sauce on the side.

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Those who sit at the bar can interact with the staff and ask questions about food, drinks and entertainment.

Zanzibar’s social hour begins at 4 p.m., and the selections become simpler, such as fried pickles, a basket of fries and chicken nuggets, flatbread and hummus with pita. Beer and wine are served inside only.

Tyler Vandertie, The Loft’s general manager, suggests customers sit at the bar and interact with the staff by asking questions. “You get the full scope of what’s going on, and people likely won’t go wrong with any of the food items. If it’s on the menu, I like it,” said Vandertie, who approves everything served.

For a special treat, stick around after the end of social hour and catch a show. Officially, Zanzibar closes at 6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, but on performance nights, it rearranges seating and then reopens for dinner and drinks at door time. The kitchen operates through the end of the show — usually between 11 p.m. and midnight — serving items from the lunch and social hour menus.

Events — spotlighting everything from rock bands to movies to art shows — are held about six nights a week. About half of the shows require tickets, which can be bought ahead of time or at the door. Regular events include “Blabbermouth,” an open mic night drawing poets, singers and comedians held the first Monday of each month; and “Reply All: Jazz,” staged the first Wednesdays.

Vandertie credits owner Carole Janks for the unique atmosphere at Zanzibar.

“Her energy trickles to everyone involved,” he said. “It’s a friendly environment, good food, good atmosphere.”

For nonstudents planning to visit Zanzibar at The Loft, the most convenient parking is the Gilman Parking Structure, at Gilman and Russell drives. Permits are available at stations inside the structure for $2 an hour. To find Zanzibar, walk to an exit and follow the signs to Price Center East.

On The Menu Recipe

Each week you’ll find a recipe from the featured restaurant online at lajollalight.com. Just click Get The Recipe at the bottom of the story.

This week:

Zanzibar’s Chicken Curry Mayo Salad

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