San Diego: thumbing through the dining scene

Anyone who has ever vacationed with me understands the benefits… and the disadvantages.  I am willing to shlep anywhere for food.  I don’t mind going 30 minutes in the wrong direction, if it means that the ultimate destination is supposed to pay off.  Not everyone I travel with is willing to succumb to this philosophy.  Fortunately, most of the time my family understands that a well-fed me is a happy me, and this is so much more pleasant than a cranky me.

During Christmas vacation, my family of four travels to San Diego to meet up with my sister who lives in Cleveland and her family.  My sister has come with a spreadsheet of potential activities for our week-long stay.  Uncharacteristically, I have only a few advance reservations for dining, and a headache-inducing list of possibilities.    This means that sometimes instead of enjoying the sights, I  am pouring over my iPhone and thumbing through magazines in search of destination-worthy food.

If you are not familiar with my blog, here’s a quick review of our dining habits:  I eat almost anything.  My husband eats no meat, but eats fish (no shellfish).  My son is a vegetarian.  My daughter only eats in Kosher restaurants, which means that she is mostly eating her own food before or after our restaurant excursions. (She is enjoying cocktails while we dine, however.)  In terms of my sister’s family:  my niece has the temperamental tastes of an 18 year old girl, sometimes adventurous and often indecisive.  My 13 year-old nephew can put away a ribeye steak like nobody’s business, and will find something to eat anywhere.  He is always content as long as he can amuse himself with a game on his phone . My sister and I are fairly food-compatible, so we can often share dishes, although she doesn’t like cheese. My brother-in-law is easy going when it comes to food.  Eight people.  Six days of eating.  Here are the highlights.

Craft & Commerce

Craft and Commerce

Day 1 in San Diego.  We take the Old Town Trolley bus tour around the city to give us the lay of the land. It’s hokey but serves its purpose.  Lunchtime:  my sister suggests we go to the first restaurant in sight, a seafood place. I give her a look that I hope will convey she should never suggest such a thing again. It is never about “seeing food” and eating it.  One of the restaurants on my list is just a few blocks away.  Off we go to Craft & Commerce, a gastropub in Little Italy.  I feel justified as soon as we enter the restaurant.  It has a cool retro/hip vibe. My kids immediately signify they are in vacation mode by ordering Micheladas (a spicy beer cocktail).  My sister and I both order a fried chicken sandy sandwich with crispy chicken thigh and chipotle buttermilk slaw. Unfortunately, the chicken is heavily breaded and the sandwich doesn’t hold together well.  Sweet potato fries with thyme, blue cheese, and malt aoili are delivered cold.  I want my first meal in San Diego to be better than this, so I ask for a new batch of fries.  When they are hot out of the fryer, they are irresistible. I give Craft & Commerce an A for atmosphere, but our experience nets a C for food.

Searsucker

Brian Malarkey from “Top Chef ” Season 3 has five restaurants in the San Diego area. There is no question that we will visit one of them. I select Searsucker, voted one of the hottest new restaurants in the country in 2011 by Time magazine.  It’s Christmas Eve and the place is hopping.  Like Craft & Commerce, the decor is natural wood and high industrial ceilings, although  the atmosphere here is more upscale and elegant.

The food  is described as “new American classic cuisine.”  My husband and I share a Caesar salad, which is thoroughly ordinary.  My “surf & turf” entree features scallops nested on corned beef hash.  This sounds terrific, and tastes pretty good, although the scallops need a few more seconds of searing.  Dinner at Ink in Los Angeles (our first night of vacation) is a tough act to follow.  I’m not expecting perfection, but I’m a little let down by the food in SD Day 1.

Searsucker scallops

Searsucker scallops

SD Day 2 is Christmas.  Our dining consists of lunch at the San Diego Zoo (not horrible) and dinner at a pub in Pacific Beach, which is near where we we are staying.  Decent but not worth mentioning.

SD Day 3. We have not had Mexican food yet, and we all decide this is a travesty.  I have identified options, but am not set on a specific one.  We’ve just come from Point Loma and are heading to Coronado.  We need a restaurant that’s somewhere along the way. A search on “best Mexican in San Diego” leads us to Las Cuatro Milpas in the Barrio Logan area.

Las Cuatro Milpas
I am not convinced about dining at Las Cuatro Milpas but the kids (i.e. me) are getting hungry and cranky.  There is a line out the door of the restaurant, and that is all I need to see. The line is a deterrent for the rest of the family, but for me it signifies a place that must be worth the wait.  Fortunately, there’s a Mexican bakery down the street where we can get goodies to tide us over.  Plus, the local Spanish-speaking man in front of us says that this place is the real deal.  He’s a regular patron. Our new friend helps us navigate the menu, which is very simple- tacos, burritos, tamales, rice. I order chorizo con huevo, which is a soupy blend of chorizo, rice, and pinto beans. We are warned that the women behind the counter are Mexican versions of Seinfeld’s soup Nazi.  I nervously order, hoping I’ve said the right thing. Once we receive our food, we eat at a communal table in a simple room with cinder block walls.  If you look up “hole in the wall” in the dictionary this is what you get. I like this place more for it’s authenticity than the food.  My dish is tasty, but not exceptional. I am happy, and even relieved, because we have finally had Mexican food.   Lunch for three of us is $13, and you can’t beat that!  Don’t miss Panchita’s Bakery down the street.  We leave with bags of delicious sweets that cost next to nothing.
  Las Cuatro Milpas Exterior
Ask people where to eat in San Diego and the most popular response is George’s at the Cove in La Jolla.  There are three dining options.  The higher end food and more formal dining is downstairs in George’s California Modern.  There is a slightly more casual menu upstairs at Ocean Terrace along with a view, and there is also George’s Bar.  My family decides to go downstairs for the upscale food, while my sister and her family opt for upstairs.  Ultimately they end up in the bar  because it is too cold to dine in the open air. One thing about San Diego, people will eat outside no matter how cold it is.  Those outside heaters are good, but sometimes they aren’t toasty enough if you’re not seated right on top of one.
Our meal here is by far our best dinner in San Diego.  In fact, my entree is one of my favorite dishes of 2012.  We begin with a salad called “Exploration of the Garden.”  It’s described on the menu as leaves, petals, fruits, juices, roots, and tubers.  What the heck?  I need an explanation, and our server’s response is so enthusiastic that I am sold. I can’t thing of a better representation of modern California cuisine. It is bright and fresh and fairly simple.  Vegetables with various toppings including beet puree, olive tapenade, and solidified pistachio oil.

 

Exploration of the Sea (half portion)

Exploration of the Sea (half portion)

George’s has a beautiful vegetarian menu that can be ordered as a tasting menu or a la carte.  This is our first restaurant in San Diego where my son has a variety of appealing dishes to choose from. I am surprised by this, as I expect San Diego to be more vegetarian-friendly. Perhaps it’s just my selection of restaurants that make it appear this way.

My entree is squab with strawberries and chocolate.  Who doesn’t love chocolate and strawberries?  Pair that with perfectly grilled squab and a few potato gnocchi and you have a luxurious dish that begs to be eaten in its entirety….which I do.

George's California Modern squab

George’s California Modern squab

Hash House a Go Go

Day 4 in SD and we head to the funky Hillcrest area of the city.  Friends have recommended Hash House a Go Go for breakfast and so off we go go.  This is a place that is about providing its customers with mountains of food.  Honestly, I don’t recall ever seeing such large entrees.  My sister and nephew order sage fried chicken stacked with a bacon waffle, hot maple caramel reduction, and fried leeks.  I share house hash with ground turkey, hardwood smoked bacon, onion, and smoked mozzarella.  I don’t care much for the ground turkey, finding the taste of the meat off-putting.  The chicken and waffles are quite good, but my favorite dish is a farm scramble with fresh mushroom, artichoke hearts, sundried tomato, and fresh spinach. This is a perfect spot for a vacation breakfast or brunch.  Caution:  the dishes are made for sharing, because no matter how much you think you can eat, you can’t eat it all here. We have leftovers that serve as our breakfast for the next couple of days.

Hash House a go go chicken and waffle tower

Hash House a go go chicken and waffle tower

Puesto

As we’re heading to George’s at the Cove, my son points out a fast food place with a sign boasting “voted #1 food in La Jolla.”  Really?  Fast food over George’s?  The people here must be stupid, I joke.  It is Day 5 in San Diego and we find ourselves near La Jolla around lunchtime.  I am still feeling somewhat Mexican-food deprived.  One lunch is not nearly enough. I am ready to challenge the ridiculousness of a fast casual restaurant being voted #1.

At first glance Puesto is a cross between Chipotle and California Tortilla, but way cooler and more colorful.  The menu consists of tacos, bowls, and salads.  The focus is on  Guisados (grilled foods) that include fish, shrimp, chicken al pastor, carne asada, and Mexican vegetarian items like zucchini flower, huitlacoche truffle and soy chorizo potatoes.  Homemade tortillas are layered with crispy melted cheese from the grill.  Fresh toppings include vegetables and a variety of housemade salsas. I have chicken and shrimp tacos, and a side of sweet corn with chili and lime. There is a layering of fresh ingredients: cheese, protein, salsa, and vegetables that result in an explosion of flavor.  I am floored.  I am in love.  My plan is to get back to Puesto later in the trip, but sadly I never make it.  Puesto is not a chain and La Jolla is the only location.  Too bad.  Puesto=  # 1 food in La Jolla?   Not so far-fetched after all.

Puesto-La-jolla-Tacos

Puesto-La-jolla-Tacos

Having satisfied my desire for great Mexican food, I realize that what is missing from our vacation dining is dessert.  Aside from the Mexican pastries, I am feeling dessert deprived.  Where are the donuts, the cupcakes, or the locally-sourced ice cream?  Have we simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Night 6 in SD puts an end to my deprivation.  Dinner…and dessert at D Bar.  I have changed our dinner reservation a couple of times, vacillating on what kind of food and in what area of the city to dine, before deeming this the destination of our last meal in San Diego.  This better be good.

D Bar

The question as our party checks in at D Bar is “are you here for dessert or are you going to start with dinner?”  For a split second that question makes me want to run for the door, eat dinner elsewhere, and come back for dessert.  D bar really doesn’t need to apologize for their savory food.  I have a competent seared tuna with wasabi peas, carrots, and basmati rice. My niece says that her entree of  macaroni and cheese with lobster and bacon is her favorite dish of the trip. But for me dinner really is just a prelude to dessert.  Co-owner Keegan Gerhard is a renowned pastry chef and familiar face on The Food Network.  Even my daughter, who is not much of a Food Network watcher, recognizes him.

Keegan Pic1

DBar is a fun place.  Chef Gerhard table hops and happily takes photos with fans.  Our server clearly likes her job here and her enthusiasm is infectious.  Where else can you find a completely open kitchen where you can see the pastry chefs at work?  We indulge in three desserts:  Faux Foster Banana Imposter, The Big Apple Crisp, and Milk and Cookies.  Worth every calorie?  Absolutely.  Happy endings for our vacation dining.

 

D Bar Apple Crisp

D Bar Apple Crisp

D Bar Banana Waffle

Faux Foster Banana Imposter

I ask my family to rate our overall San Diego dining based on a two thumbs scale.  My daughter can’t really vote (save for one very mediocre meal at a Kosher restaurant, she is only qualified to vote on cocktails…two thumbs up on that score). My niece vacillates between one and one and a half thumbs.  The rest of the group gives the food and the experience two thumbs up.  I give my family two thumbs up for pacifying me and my food obsession.  It isn’t always easy on them, but there is often a delicious payoff in the end.

Gardners and Singers in San Diego

Happy family in La Jolla

Craft and Commerce on Urbanspoon

Searsucker on Urbanspoon

Las Cuatro Milpas on Urbanspoon

George's At The Cove on Urbanspoon

Hash House a Go Go on Urbanspoon

Puesto on Urbanspoon

D Bar Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

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Send an email to lorisue6@gmail.com