Demeter, Earth Mother, goddess of the harvest, we cannot comprehend why, amidst our carbon carnage, you continue to bless us with such the smorgasbord of eateries from all four corners of the world. Perhaps it is just your way of compensating San Diego for its dearth of seasonal weather, which, too, is under your purview. We shan't question your motivations but, rather, since no one likes to eat alone, we invite you and a friend (we suggest Aequitas and her horn of plenty) to these, our finest culinary establishments.
Best place to see food growing from the ground
The first time I tried to visit the New Roots Community Farm, I got lost. I went too far on El Cajon Boulevard and started to believe that there was no way I was ever going to find a garden in the middle of the dreary urban landscape. I was driving down 54th Street when at last I found it (at Chollas Parkway), a sea of green in the middle of the city. Since its inauguration in September, the farm has become a place where people from all cultures have a universal goal: to grow their own food. The day I was there, the farm was brimming with small children running barefoot, people working the soil, families communicating in languages I didn't understand and people laughing together as they watered, composted or simply sat in the shade. I left that day as the sun was setting with the urge to start a community garden in my own neighborhood, so I, too, can be better connected to the food I eat and the people around me.
Best place to watch militant animal-rights propaganda while eating vegan pho
OK, just so we're clear: The gentle, charming waiters at University Heights' Loving Hut (1905 El Cajon Blvd., www.lovinghut.us/sandiego) actually mean it. I saw one of them tenderly shoo a fly out the door of the restaurant—taking up a couple minutes of his time and possibly irritating the diners—to avoid swatting it. The video screens overhead loop images of miserable caged dogs and inscrutable PSAs in Vietnamese from Supreme Master, that motherly guru who looks like she ought to be hosting “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.” The walls are adorned with daft koans (“Each positive thought changes the pattern of your aura”) paired with pictures of the great vegetarian minds of history (Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Alicia Silverstone). The whole experience is a bit like that scene at the beginning of the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate where Frank Sinatra keeps swapping between the Maoist brainwashers and the ladies' flower show. Only, imagine that scene set in a Pinkberry at lunchtime with a bunch of cute sleeved-out lesbians. The pho is super good, too. It's like a friend in your mouth. But not an animal friend. Because we don't eat our animal friends.
Best char-grilled burger
It's hard to argue the old-school credibility of a restaurant with framed oil paintings of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne hanging from its walls, but that's exactly what Western Steakburger (2730 University Ave. in North Park) proudly displays in its main dining room. An artifact from an era before omnipresent health-consciousness, Steakburger is one of the last of a dying breed around these parts—an unapologetically greasy burger joint, where the portions are big but the guilt associated with eating oneself into a food coma is non-existent. Even for newcomers, there's an inviting sense of community here. Irritated cooks and customers are absent, and many of the patrons casually chat with the owner, Gus, as if they've known him for years. Longtime North Park residents can't be blamed for still craving the massive Western DeLuxe (a half-pound patty topped with gyro meat) after so many years. The burgers are literally too large for their own buns, dripping oils all over the thick-cut fries covering their Styrofoam plates. It may not be the most eco-friendly restaurant in the world—and if you're a vegetarian, steer entirely clear—but things don't get much tastier or filling for hungry carnivores on a budget. Just make sure to bring cash, pilgrim.
Best sandwich not called ‘steak and cheese'
Prior to 2003 I was in a funk when it came to tracking down a decent cheesesteak in San Diego. Every “steak and cheese sandwich” I tried (always a bad sign when you see a cheesesteak listed this way on a menu) had issues. Many came without chopped meat—major sacrilege—some came with far too little steak and most were served on a roll that had the consistency of a Nerf football. But then I tried Gaglione Bros. (3944 West Point Loma Blvd. in Midway, www.gaglionebros.com) and realized that someone in San Diego had finally seen the light. The steak is sliced and diced on the grill with whatever extras you choose before the cheese is melted into the goodness late in the process. And the rolls are actually fresh! My God, it's a miracle—a good sub roll in San Diego can actually happen! Pity the vegetarian who cannot indulge in a 12-inch cheesesteak with extra cheese and no onions every week. It's basically like going to church, only much more delicious. If you tend to veer away from cow, there are plenty of other great sandwiches, notably The Turk—a Thanksgiving dinner trapped in a sub. It's so delicious that when it hits your lips, just don't pay attention to what it does to your hips.
Best light lunch served by hot foreigners
San Diego seems to want its citizens to get fat. How else can we interpret the number of eateries that serve gargantuan burritos containing a volume of food that no one should ever consume in one sitting. That's why North Park's Caffe Carpe Diem (www.caffecarpediem.com) is such a lush oasis in a Mexican-food desert. Located at 3139 University Ave., just east of CityBeat's office, it's a great spot for a quick lunch. The two standout panini sandwiches are Farmer's Daughter (brie cheese, sautéed sweet apple and prosciutto di parma) and the Kebab à la Turka (ground beef kofte with onions, fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs), but there is also a panini with three cheeses, tomato and basil; one with Turkish sausage, cheese and bell pepper; one with roasted turkey, sautéed mushrooms, Swiss cheese and aioli; and one with three cheeses and roasted ham. But what really makes these plates are the extras: lightly dressed salad with seasoned diced tomatoes and cucumbers, a small mound of tabbouleh and a good amount of fresh fruit, such as grapes, orange and watermelon. Another perk of Caffe Carpe Diem (albeit a decaffeinated one) is the staff. Yeah, sure they're way more friendly than your average jaded English grad at Starbucks, but that's not what has us taking way more breaks than are usually allowed during work hours. Truth is, they're smokin' hot over there! What's more, they all seem to be from some foreign country where, in order serve coffee, you have to do it in some sexy accent that makes patrons unwittingly tip $5 for a $2 cup of joe. Even the dude is hot!
—David Rolland and Seth Combs
Best breakfasts enjoyed while looking a stuffed deer in the eye
With enormous portions of tasty biscuits, pancakes, chicken fried steak and larger-than life bowls of fruit, Janet's Montana Café (2506 Alpine Blvd. in Alpine) would be a great East County breakfast destination even if it were in a bland setting. The fact that the interior is far from bland only makes the dining experience that much better. The atmosphere is as pleasing to the eyes as the food is to the taste buds. The expansive interior of Janet's looks like a classic hunting lodge, with thick wooden walls and deer-antler chandlers. A few stuffed animal heads reside in each dining room of the café; even the paintings depict hunters and cowboys hard at work. If you have an aversion to taxidermy, though, you can eat on the porch and enjoy the soft babbling stream amid ancient oaks. Just be prepared to bring home the bacon—and a 3-inch-tall biscuit and some tasty home fries.
Best place to enjoy authentic Mexican corn smut
The menu might label them “black mushrooms,” but that's only because that's the American-friendly nickname for corn smut. Corn smut is a fungus that grows on corn, bloating and blackening the kernels, and the huitlacoche quesadillas served at Rana's Mexico City Cuisine (9683 Campo Road in Spring Valley, www.ranasrestaurant.com) are made with the stuff. In America, infected corn stalks are destroyed; in Mexico, they're a gourmet treat. The flavor is rich and earthy, similar to mushrooms, which is why gourmets have campaigned for the fungus to be renamed “Mexican truffles.” Rana's prides itself on serving authentic Mexican City cuisine, and huitlacoche is a historical staple of the region. Long ago, the Aztecs would infect their corn with it by scratching the plants with a knife to allow easy entry of the disease. If fungus isn't one of your favorites, there's a lot of other traditional fare available, too. Many of the selections will be unfamiliar to even the most die-hard taco-shop fan in San Diego, like Alambres—a cheese covered fajita-like dish served with traditional nopales (cactus).
Best Greek-style taco
Fusion food tends to be associated with expensive, gourmet restaurants, but the only Greek / Mexican fusion restaurant in San Diego, perhaps even the world, is far from fancy. In fact, it's located in the far reaches of Jamul. This fusion was not an intentional creation by an inspired chef but, rather, the result of true love between a Mexican man and a Greek woman. The Greek Sombrero (12891 Hwy. 94) is not officially a fusion restaurant because it blends together only two cuisine types for just one dish. The creation is the gyros taco—a corn tortilla filled with spiced gyros meat, veggies, taziki sauce and cheddar cheese. The other menu items may not combine the two cultural flavors, but they are no less delicious. The Greek tomato green beans and tomato potatoes are soft, fresh and flavorful. The carnitas are moist and tender. Perhaps the best meal, aside from the gyros taco, is the Greek sampler plate with chicken slovaki, gyros, Greek salad, green beans and potatoes. Do yourself a favor and pair the sampler with a from-scratch margarita.
Best locale to relive your childhood and savor an alterna-Thanksgiving feast
Inspired by Mexican paletas, or ice pops, former interior designer Lisa Altmann started creating her own unique all-natural, organic version and testing them out on her husband, her book club friends and even her two rescue dogs. “My Maggie loved the peach ginger,” she recalls. The denouement was Viva Pops (3330 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights, www.ilovevivapops.com) with its selection of more than 40 specialty gourmet flavors, including lavender lemonade and pineapple chili, as well as vegan options and a new line of coffee pops developed with David Wasserman of Downtown's Joes on the Nose (www.joesonthenose.com). “There's something really great about a popsicle,” Altmann muses. “It brings you back to your youth, it's yumminess on a stick and it's good for you.” For those eager for a turkey-and-stuffing alternative, creamy sweet potato, chocolate pumpkin spice and cranberry relish creations will be available seasonally, as well. After finishing up, drop off your stick in the recycle bucket by the door, and don't worry, they aren't used in new pops—they're cleaned up and dropped off at the neighboring Rare Hare Studio, where crafty kids take Altmann's discarded pop handles and create masterpieces of their own.
Best Greek-style burger
At its Serra Mesa strip-mall location, Winnie's Oriental Food (3298 Greyling Drive) is a world away from Mykonos, but its mixture of East and West cuisine and 11-inch TV/VCR combo projecting The People's Court set to mute—as traditional Chinese bamboo pipe music plays from a nearby boombox—make it a veritable culinary United Nations. Now, I'm no Candice Woo, and perhaps I was just really hungry that day, but the Gyro Burger, an 8-ounce ground steak patty topped with gyro meat and served on sesame seed bun with a side of Siracha and Kikkoman, made my taste buds wrap a piece of napkin around themselves to serve as a makeshift toga and belt out a hearty Opa! at first bite. As for slamming your plate on the floor after you're done to complete the experience? Go for it—it's Styrofoam.
Best Little Italy hole-in-the-wall
It's surprising to catch a group of old men that look like extras from the Sicily scenes in The Godfather smoking cigarettes and arguing in Italian outside a San Diego restaurant, even if it's located in Little Italy. But those are exactly the type of guys you'll find sitting under the faded red awning in front of Pete's Quality Meats & Grilled Sandwiches (1742 India St.) on any given afternoon. It lends an authenticity to the neighborhood that's been largely missing since it began gentrifying in the early '90s. Talk about stripped-down: Pete's has five items on its menu, and they're all sandwiches. No caprese, no antipasto and, most importantly, no mozzarella sticks. Thirsty? There are three drink options: Coke, Diet Coke and bottled water. You want a special order? Is the dining area too small and dingy? Go to one of the tourist traps up the street. But people keep coming back. The sausage sandwich is easily the best in town, served (as it should be) with sautéed peppers and onions on crusty rolls from a bakery down the street, and the steak, eggplant, meatball and chicken sandwiches each have devout followers. A meal at Pete's is efficient, especially for lunch—a sandwich and drink runs about $8, perfect for getting a taste of Little Italy the way it was. And perhaps, the way it should be.
Best place to get a crabcake sandwich
There's rarely a time when Point Loma Seafoods (www.pointlomaseafoods.com) isn't packed to the gills. OK, bad puns aside, this little fish market (2805 Emerson St.) does a hot-food business that draws crowds Monday through Sunday, so much so that it's sometimes hard to get through the door. The seafood plates are popular, but I'd skip them for the sandwiches. Served on San Francisco sourdough bread with homemade tarter sauce is your choice of lightly breaded (not battered), fresh seafood from tuna to squid. Yes, the sandwiches are fried, but in cholesterol-free soybean oil so you can feel a little less guilty. I recommend the crabcake sandwich, but I wouldn't turn down the scallop sandwich or the crab-and-shrimp sandwich, either. Sides include french fries, onion rings or coleslaw. While you're there, pick up some fresh fish to take home for later. You won't be disappointed.
Best fine-dining-restaurant beer list
So, you've heard that our city was recently voted the best beer town in America, right? While it's awesome that San Diego's beer scene is getting the credit it's due, a lot of top San Diego restaurants have yet to get the memo, judging by their still macro-beer-dominant taps and bottle list. The 30th Street corridor is on board, but what gives, rest of San Diego? We beer people will drink two—make that three—locals for every Bud, I promise. Take an example from restaurant manager and former beer-bar owner Neal Wasserman of Nine-Ten in La Jolla (910 Prospect St., www.nine-ten.com), who puts together fine, seasonal lists for his restaurant. Local breweries are well-represented, with bottles from AleSmith, Ballast Point and Coronado and even lesser-seen styles from Stone Brewing, including collaborations like a black pilsner and a coffee-macadamia-coconut porter.
Best alternative to burritos
For a town abounding with taco stands and Mexican street fare, San Diego gets surprisingly little representation from other countries south of the border. That's one reason why El Salvador Pupuseria Y Restaurante is such a treat. Located at 3824 University Ave. in City Heights, El Salvador offers “comida típica Salvadoreña.” From Platano Frito con Frijoles y Crema, a plate of steaming fried plantains served with refried beans and cream for dipping, to Yuca Frito con Chicharrones, crisp, delicious fried yucca roots topped with chunks of salted pork, El Salvador's appetizer menu is enough to make any fried-food connoisseur swoon. Beyond fried-plantain pies and Salvadorian tamales, though, come enticing entrées like Pollo Guisado, a flavorful chicken stew served with tortillas and rice. Finally, as the eatery's name indicates, one absolutely cannot come to El Salvador without sampling a customer favorite: homemade pupusas. A traditional Salvadorian snack, pupusas are thick corn tortilla cakes stuffed with your choice of meat, cheese, rice or even loroco—a Salvadorian plant. Top pupusas with a spoonful of curtido (pickled cabbage), bite in and you may never crave Roberto's again.
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