April 2 2012 08:31 PM

Secret dishes at Mama Testa, Big Kitchen, Carnitas Snack Shack and more of your favorite San Diego restaurants

Steamed tacos "George's Way" at Mama Testa
Photo by Amy T. Granite

Mama Testa: Bobby Flay got a beat-down when he went head-to-head in a fish-taco competition with Cesar Gonzales, owner of Hillcrest's tacos-only joint. There are 29 varieties of 'em, and that's it. Or so you thought. On your next visit, order the “Mama Cesta” steamed tacos “George's Way.” Instead of showing up in a basket, they'll come on a plate with an enchilada-style red sauce, over a layer of refried beans and topped with pickled onions, shredded lettuce and queso fresco. 1417 University Ave. in Hillcrest

Big Kitchen: The South Park café known for its star-studded list of visitors and the dishes named after them makes every guest feel like a celebrity—chefs will make anything (so long as they have it) by request. One dish to ask for is The Alcatraz: ham, bacon and eggs smothered in a sausage gravy with a side of toast. It'll shed those hangover shackles in no time. There's also a fried-chicken special with mashed potatoes and grilled corn on the cob, usually available every other Thursday—call ahead to confirm. 3003 Grape St. in South Park

Bo-Beau: Executive chef Katherine Humphus pivots when there's a vegetarian or vegan in the house. Her crispy Brussels sprouts with pancetta have garnered foodie raves, and vegetarians can experience their own version with dried cranberries, toasted hazelnuts, goat cheese and apple cider vinegar. She also prepares a vegan quinoa dish with red curry broth, broccolini, carrots and mushrooms. “Every time a server says, ‘I have a vegan!' I get excited to share this dish with them,” Humphus says, “and when I bring it out, all the other tables around ask about it.” 4996 West Point Loma Blvd. in Ocean Beach

Carnitas Snack Shack: There's no such thing as too much pork. Take, for instance, the BLT from the “crack shack”; dangerously addictive as-is, chef / owner Hanis Cavin revealed that substituting its ham with pork belly—crisped on the griddle—has become popular among regulars. Sweet brioche bread is sliced to order and manages to hold layers of crunchy, chewy bacon, generous slices of rich belly, plus all the fixins'. It's worth the wait in that long line—and best eaten standing up. 2632 University Ave. in North Park

Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria: Chicagoans' late-night, post-drinking grub of choice—“Pizza Puffs”—are unfamiliar territory for Californians, but we don't have to be deprived of the unholy union between a pizza-pocket-like object and deep fryer any longer. It took Lefty's a whole year to convince the Chicago-based company, Iltaco, to ship its Puffs out west, and the original flavor with cheese, sausage and sauce is available at both locations, by request only. It's a meal in itself, deep fried for eight minutes with flaky dough similar to filo. Now if we could just convince the Windy City eatery to stay open 'til 3 a.m. 3448 30th St. in North Park; 4030 Goldfinch St. in Mission Hills

Burlap: If individual plates of food aren't your party's style, Brian Malarkey's North County haunt will roast a whole pig for groups of 12 to 15 people with 48 hours notice. More people than that? No problem—hog sizes go up, but the feasting price stays fixed at $60 a head. Sides of coleslaw and roasted vegetables are included. 12995 El Camino Real in Del Mar Heights

R Gang Eatery: The clock is ticking, leaving Californians just three months to indulge in all the foie gras we can before it's illegal. Chef Rich Sweeney's “R Underground Tots” are available 'til then, and the handmade, fluffy delights from our youth get a grown-up twist—stuffed with brie cheese and black truffles, they're served alongside a marsala foie-gras cream dipping sauce. Sometimes Sweeney can bust these tots out on the fly, but the only sure way to eat 'em is to call 24 hours ahead and make a reservation. 3683 Fifth Ave. in Hillcrest

Blind Lady Ale House: There's no shortage of crafty pies at BLAH, but one picky former employee didn't agree. “The Tina,” named after said employee, is a damn tasty combination of pesto, caramelized onions, bacon and Fontina cheese. Order it any time by special request. 3416 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights

Starlite: Middletown's gem offers a straightforward menu with something for everyone, but Thursday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m., adventurous diners can get their fix with chef Kathleen Wise's special dishes that rarely make a second appearance. Stop in for a one-of-a-kind, mercy-of-the-chef-like dining experience; past dishes have included a Burmese pork stew and whole, steamed Canary fish. Vegetarian and vegan specials are also available nightly. 3175 India St. in Middletown

Bencotto: Whether there are two or 10 in your party, request the “Bencotto Specialty”—risotto arrives at your table in a carved-out wheel of Grana Padano cheese. The al dente Arborio rice is stirred in the cheese wheel, scraping up the nutty cheese and spreading it throughout. Drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction, this dish is both dramatic and simple. 750 West Fir St. in Little Italy

Lincoln Room: Ever wonder what the staff eats? Executive chef Chris Walsh caters to fellow employees—and now to you, too, with his buttermilk-chipotle fried-chicken sandwich. Served on an egg bun with pepper-jack cheese, caramelized onions and arugula that's been tossed in ranch dressing, it's honestly stonerific. Order it any time. 901 Fourth Ave., Downtown

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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