Nov. 10 2010 06:43 PM

The best food and restaurants in San Diego


As a loyal party member, you will agree that equality is not only in our hearts and minds, but also on our tongues and filling our stomachs. How can we expect to prosper when some of us must trudge through the day having supped on bland blocks of processed chik-steak, while others toil strongly, like iron champions, with bellies full of spicy tuna rolls and scallop tacos? The answer, comrades, is we cannot: We must have gourmet and justice for all! The Fine Dining Authority issues the following approved restaurants that are compatible with the Chairman's Municipal Nutritive and Consumptive Standards.

Best teashop on a quaint urban street

James Bowman used to drive by the space that his teashop, Halcyon Tea, now occupies and dream of opening—well, a teashop. The storefront where he opened his place almost two years ago is now just as he envisioned: a small, comfortable, well-designed nook where customers can come and learn all about tea. The graphic designer-turned-professor-turned-small-business owner always knew this is where he would end up.

Tucked in at 3009 Beech St. in South Park, Halcyon Tea's location feels like an oasis: It's on a tree-lined street full of old-school storefronts and feels far away from traffic.

Though tea is essentially a niche product, Bowman's had plenty of business since he opened. Many people who stop by are simply curious about the rows of stainless steel canisters, each containing a different variety of tea, that line the shop's wooden shelves. That's fine with him; he relishes the feeling of sharing new teas with customers.

Haylcon Tea ( carries around 60 varieties from around the world, as well as tea kettles, tea pots and other specialty products. Bowman even stocks some books, stationary and chocolate from Eclipse Chocolat. The shop itself reflects Bowman's aesthetic: clean lines, plenty of wood and a few pieces of mid-century furniture to round it all out.

Bowman's knowledge of his product and his affable nature make it easy to pass the time inside, taste-testing and conversing about everything from travel to food to, of course, tea. It's a small space, but that only adds to the  charm that makes you want to stay awhile.
—Carissa Casares

Best place to get smoothies that sound like strains of weed

Located in a strip mall in one of San Diego's sketchiest intersections—Euclid and University in City Heights—Botello's Fruit Bar has a charm all its own. That is, if you think a tandem money-wire-and-currency-exchange side business is charming.

Seriously, though, the real charm is the way they attempt to convince you that you're ordering smoothies in an Amsterdam café. Cases in point: Purple Sensation, a watermelon, papaya, blackberry and OJ concoction; Pink Clouds, a banana, strawberry and milk mixture; and Midnight Ecstasy, quaffable bliss in the blended form of chocolate, plantain and peanut butter. Prices range from $2.99 for a nug to $5 for a Snoop Dogg-worthy large.

Non-dispensary business with an accidental pot sounding twist runner-up: Custom High Activewear in Chula Vista.
—Enrique Limón

Best way to get to the Greek

As a former Pacific Beach resident, I'll be the first to admit there isn't a ton of dining options in that area worth recommending to non-residents. Getting over the hill into P.B. isn't the most convenient, so you better have something unique on your menu.

How about tangy sheep's cheese, doused in booze, and then set on fire? Get thee to Café Athena (1846 Garnet Ave., to enjoy the saganaki appetizer—a gooey, salty, drunken plate of yum. Order this appetizer, and then clap with delight when the friendly Café Athena staff sets your cheese on fire, yells “Opa!” and then leaves you to gorge on the cheese along with soft, sandy wedges of pita bread.

Café Athena has excellent meal options as well. The Chicken Souvlaki is charred on the outside but still tender and juicy. The standard Gyro Plate won't disappoint, and they're generous with the tzatziki sauce.

As the weather turns, try the avgolemono, a lemony egg-based chicken soup with rice. Café Athena's version is rich and hearty and perfect for curing a cold. Many versions of avgolemono can taste like Hollandaise soup (which is kind of awesome). A cup from Café Athena will leave you full of bright flavors but won't weigh you down with cloying richness.

Yes, Café Athena offers tasty Greek food at a reasonable price. Just don't pass on the flaming cheese.
—Jenny Montgomery

Best comfort food (Chinese division)

Amid the vast and varied buffet of Asian cuisine that is Convoy Street, it can be easy to miss an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall like Dumpling Inn (4619 Convoy St., Suite F, in Kearny Mesa, Still, the place consistently draws in crowds jostling for a shot at one of nine tables.

It's probably because behind those dark-curtained windows, Dumpling Inn serves up an order that shouldn't be too much to ask for but is surprisingly hard to come by in San Diego: warm, simple, homey Chinese food at its best. The classics are all there, from a killer chow mein to the complimentary hot tea that every Chinese restaurant worth its salt should have.

But where Dumpling Inn really shines is with its dumplings (natch), which come boiled, steamed or fried, as the chef likes it, filled with everything from veggies to fish and chives to a seriously awesome beef curry. However, if you only eat one thing at Dumpling Inn, make it the Xiao Long Bao. These steamed pork dumplings are far and away the stars of this show, each one filled with a savory soup that explodes in your mouth with each bite. The only thing better than dumplings in a soup? Soup in a dumpling. I'll take a hundred.
—Sasha Orman

Best new restaurant that's not like another

The first time I went to North Park's El Take it Easy (3926 30th St.,, I wasn't sure if I liked it. It seemed too dark inside, and the chairs and tables looked more appropriate for a 1970s banquet hall than a brand-new restaurant. But then I went back. And back again.

To appreciate El Take it Easy is to understand it. The décor, for instance, was inspired by kitschy-cool spots in Tijuana like Garce's and Dandy del Sur, where the dark, windowless interior creates a sense of unchanging space—it doesn't matter if it's noon or 10 p.m., summer or winter—you're there to eat, drink and relax.

Then there's the name. It's a term owner Jay Porter's Mexican friend uses to refer to an American gigolo. Say it with a Mexican accent. See? It's kinda cute.

If you're a fan of the locally sourced food movement, then you get why the prices here are a little on the high side (though not prohibitively so). And, yeah, maybe chicken buches aren't your thing, but what about chicken nuggets covered in a rich mole sauce? They're served with a side of spicy mayo that works beautifully with the mole. Some other faves: Squash tostadas and any version of the empanadas (both squash and plantain have appeared on the menu). The pork-belly tacos are tasty, too.

What's endeared me most to this spot is the community space Porter's tried to create. He's welcomed all sorts of meet-ups and gatherings. On the Tuesday before Halloween, for instance, local arts promoters Sezio had people carving pumpkins in the middle of the restaurant. And, on Mondays, there's a DJ who spins jazz—a rarity in San Diego and a good place to chill with a sangria and one of those tostadas.
—Kelly Davis

Best way to visit the Andes without raising your altitude

There's nothing ostentatious about this Encinitas gem of a South American eatery. Splashed in rich blue and yellow, its teeny tininess makes for a quaint, romantic setting. The name Q'ero hails from the Peruvian people who live in the most remote part of the Andes—way up in the Cusco Region—and from a ceremonial drinking vessel. The uniqueness of San Diego's Q'ero (564 S. Coast Hwy. 101, stems from owner Monica Szepesy's wanderlust.

Melding Peruvian ingredients with her own interpretations, the traditional with the avant-garde, the flavors are unlike anything you'll find not just in San Diego, but also other Peruvian restaurants. And the staff are as cared for as the food (the exec and sous chefs are constants).

From noon to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Q'ero offers up a little something it likes to call Lunch Boxes. You pair one item, like a beef or chicken saltena, which taste like pillows of angels, with one of two small salads for $11, and life is good.
Oh, and those Cusco folks know how to party. They have a sacred beer called Chicha de Jora, which some brew—and sell—out of their homes. “OK, we made it to the nether regions of the Andes,” you say; “On which door do we go knocking?' The ones sporting a yellow flag. In NASCAR this means caution, but only a fraction of middle-aged white men trust that symbol. No yellow flags at Q'ero, but they brew their own Chicha and use it in dishes like the Bistek a la Trujillana made with grilled skirt steak from semi-local Brandt Ranch. Bring your picky friends and watch them melt. If they don't, they're witches.
—Brook Larios

The best old-school Italian joint

If you find yourself hungry in Lemon Grove, you'd do best to make your way to Lido's Italian Foods (7252 Broadway). The old-world Italian restaurant and bar is authentic—meaning, it's everything places like Buca di Beppo and Olive Garden pretend to be. Servings are big and hearty, servers are nice and work on a first-name basis with many of their customers, the atmosphere is great for families and the photo of the woman pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa is probably the owner's aunt.

Lido's is really best described in two words—nostalgically charming. When I walk in, it's like I've entered some cozy, well-lit, garlic-infused corner of my childhood. The owners have crammed every single soccer and Little League plaque they could on the walls in the bar. The menu is dated 2008, but nobody cares. A gal named Sue makes the drinks. And—my hubby's favorite—there's a sign in the kitchen that reads: “Pizza is a lot like sex. When it's good, it's really good. When it's bad, it's still pretty good.”

As for the food, pizza is what Lido's is known for, but they make a good lasagna, ravioli and chicken cacciatore. Order the cheese bread for an appetizer and giggle like everyone else does when you order a pizza and they bring you the complimentary house hors d'oeuvres (a small plate pilled high with salami, Cheez-Its and processed cheese). A glass of wine will run you $3.95 and you won't find a pizza priced more than $14.65.
—Kinsee Morlan

Best well-designed eatery

Back in May, CityBeat columnist Aaryn Belfer lamented that Golden Hill's Counterpoint (830 25th St., removed the Paris-inspired ham-and-butter sandwich from its menu. Apparently, it just wasn't selling well. “It takes a special person to recognize the complex pleasures and healing properties of such a simple combination,” she wrote.

Well, Belfer, have you tried Counterpoint's pain frites? Methinks you should. I quote from the menu: “Sliced lengths of baguette, slightly oiled, toasted, topped with blue cheese, served with jalapeno champagne honey.” The dish is as tasty as it sounds—an elegant twist on cheese fries.

The spot, which recently celebrated its first year, is in the mxd830 building. Designed by FoundationForForm Architecture and Development's Mike burnett, mxd830—which houses retail (the adorable vintage-resale shop Nest) and artists studios and live-work spaces—won an “Orchid” award last year from the San Diego Architectural Foundation, praised for being “modeurbanism at its best.” Counterpoint, designed by burnett's partner, Craig Abenilla, and Brian Lin, is the building's perfect complement with its mid-century-modeinterior and good use of a compact space via skinny, tall chairs and a loft for larger parties. The menu is small yet smart and includes one of the best beet salads in town. Owner Cameron Fomby is a fan of cheese, and it's used well here, from the cheese boards to sandwiches and, of course, those pain frites. The wine list is easy to navigate, and the beer selection is an ever-evolving ode to craft brews. Even better: the kitchen stays open 'til 11:30 p.m.
—Kelly Davis

Best place to enjoy coffee and dessert while lounging comfortably

The day I visited Michelle Ciccarelli Lerach, owner of Cups in La Jolla (7857 Girard Ave.,, an all-organic cupcake lounge, she and her team were taste-tasting straight-out-of-the-oven scones while drinking espresso pulled from the shop's pink espresso machine. As I sat with them, eating and lounging, I thought to myself: Rough life.

Formerly a lawyer, Ciccarelli Lerach decided to leave law behind and open a cupcake shop almost a year ago. But she didn't want to open just any cupcake shop; she wanted to open one that sold an all-organic product and had an inviting atmosphere, where customers felt like they could stay awhile. Though it's a small space, Cups has large windows, a plush outdoor seating area (including a doggie area), a wraparound bar where customers can sit and enjoy their “cup” with a glass of organic milk and plenty of pillow-topped, bench-style seating.

Ciccarelli Lerach is fully focused on cupcakes now (she does pro-bono work for farmers from time to time) and, in the past year, with the help of her team, has developed almost 100 flavors, including many that are vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free. With Cups, she wanted to make sure her shop revolved around three ideas: organic, local and sustainable. But unlike a lot of other environmentally minded businesses, she didn't want to preach it.

And she succeeded: When you bite into your Better with Bacon cup, a vanilla-bean cupcake flavored with maple syrup and topped with maple buttercream frosting and maple-sugar-cured bacon, you probably won't be too concerned about whether or not it's organic, but you will be pleasantly surprised when you remember that it is.
—Carissa Casares

Best summer-camp tableside treat

Gloomy weather got you down? Well, it's summer year-round at Kensington Café (4141 Adams Ave.,, where you can relive the awkwardness of your camp days thanks to the eatery's Haven's Cave S'mores, which are fired up in a tabletop, cast-iron pit.

Named after an eccentric Kensington doctor who excavated a series of passageways underneath his house, the graham cracker, molten Jet-Puffed marshmallow and Hershey's chocolate combo offers all the nostalgic flavor of camp, sans the compulsory OFF! Insect Repellent dousing. Licking your fingers is pretty much guaranteed; writing your name in your underwear is purely optional.
Just $7.75 will take one or two people back in the day, while $10.75 will feed up to four for that true “Kumbaya” feel.
—Enrique Limón

Where does the Leader go when he wants to nosh, nibble and get gustatory?

Breakfast: The Tractor Room for free-range wild boar hash or, when he's in the mood for something sweet, a buttermilk malted waffle. To impress visitors, he might head over to Bali Hai for the Champagne brunch buffet. He gives the “Loco Moco”-style eggs benedict a thumbs-up.

Mid-morning snack: Coffee cake and time with the people at Big Kitchen.

Lunch: Fish tacos on the Ocean Terrace at George's at the Cove or sushi and sail-boat watching on the back deck of the Fish Market.

Tea: Café Chloe's urban tea provides a needed caffeine boost.

Happy hour: Street tacos and guacamole at La Puerta. Happy hour “Happy Snacks” and a Mule at Starlite.

Dinner: Saigon in City Heights for some pho. Hamilton's tavern for a Pulled Chicken Wimpy paired with a Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye.

Dessert: Any of Extraordinary Desserts' bread puddings makes the Leader say “nom-nom.” For something light and quick, Red Velvet fro-yo from Yog-Art.

Late-night snack: Garlic and chive 'tots at Currant.   


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