"A little bit of everything makes it all successful." So says Russell Simmons, one of my top five entrepreneurial inspirations. I'm not sure how much attention the king of hip-hop ever paid to San Diego, but over the past five years, I've taken notice of several interesting nooks and pockets within our fine city.
There's something charming about having a cocktail in one of the many old-school dive bars with dim lighting and red-leather booths. I find the cops patrolling on bicycles strangely appealing. And I love that I can spend $3 on a meal at Pokez and be completely full until tomorrow.
Here's a quick tap into my brain on all the random bits of everything that I dig in San Diego.
But first, a proper introduction is in order; after all, you don't know me from one of those glum-faced Charger fans at Qualcomm Stadium. Here's a concise rundown of all the things that make me grin and make me cringe:
Grin: chicken teriyaki, El Zarape burritos, Elvis Costello, my new Powerbook, girls with big watches, the new Outkast record, the Godfather trilogy (well, maybe not the 3rd installment), the Golden Hill slope, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the bar at the sports arena after a gulls game, Basquiat, CNBC's Maria Bartoloma, Jewel's fucked-up teeth, iTunes, Wes Anderson's films and Kurt Vonnegut's "A Long Walk to Forever" (yes, I still believe in romance).
Cringe: cell phones going off in movie theaters, women who wear Juicy Couture sweat-suits and drive Hummers, Starbucks on every corner, having no other grocery store downtown besides Ralphs and, finally, people who think the pizza in South Park is good. Ouch.
Now for the picks:
Benny's-If there's one person that knows meat, it's my friend Jason. He's been manning the grill at the Turf Club for quite some time, and if that's not enough cred, the guy's from Kansas City. Dude, that's a barbecue expert for those of you a little slow on the draw. Look, the man knows his meat, and when he told me that some hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint off 30th Street in South Park has one of the best hamburgers he's ever tasted, I just had to check it out. When the man's right, he's right. And to top it off, let me just say this: $3.25 gets you a double cheeseburger, French fries and a soda. Just divine.
19th Hole Restaurant-When your Saturday night doesn't end until Sunday morning, you'll want to top the experience off with a cheap, greasy breakfast at the 19th Hole. The 19th Hole, which sits atop Florida canyon as part of the Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course, makes my list because I know exactly how it feels after a hard night of partying. You're in no mood to be seen at your typical "must be seen" breakfast joints (The Mission, Hash House a Go Go, Café on Park). Don't get me wrong, those joints are all great, but you've just lost half your brain cells and you need a chill breakfast that's cheap, comfortable and offers a killer view. Sit outside on the patio, get your coffee fix on and dig into a grilled cheese or chicken fried steak. Biscuits and gravy. Golden Hill. Yum.
Albie's Beef Inn-Albie's is a classic. We're talking super old-school steak house off of Hotel Circle in Mission Valley. Entering Albie's means entering a time warp. It reminds me of the scene in Goodfellas when they walk through the back of the restaurant, past the kitchen and straight to their table. The steak-tips at Albie's are where it's at. Be careful if you order the fried calamari because it's cut in strips. That kind of threw me for a loop. Also, Albie's is a bit pricey, but the atmosphere rocks harder than De Niro in Casino. The airbrushed portraits of naked women (from what appears to be the "40s) hanging in the lounge are classic. You'll head back to the parking lot with a full stomach and toothpick in mouth.
Café 222-Shock advertising must still be effective because I've seen that ridiculous billboard with the woman sporting a waffle on her head, and somehow it got me to check this place out. I was amazed at how chilled-out the place was. Definitely geared toward the urbanites moving downtown, Café 222 might use cheap advertising tactics, but don't let that keep you away. It offers a decent breakfast fairly priced, good staff and, most of all, comfortable atmosphere. (See also: Jimmy Carter's Café on 5th Avenue in Bankers Hill). Definitely a great place to kick-start a breakfast before hitting the beach.
The Waterfront-Tagged as the oldest tavern in downtown San Diego (more like Little Italy, now), the Waterfront wins on many levels. For one thing, their burgers are amazing. The Texas burger is the way to go, and don't forget to ask for a side of ranch dressing because you'll need it for some serious fry-dipping action. They're open late-serving grub until 1 a.m.-and they offer free popcorn. The place has been the setting for episodes of Blind Date, Guns-N-Roses is in the jukebox and, best of all, it's one of Bill Murray's favorite bars. And everyone knows Bill Murray rocks, from Stripes to Rushmore. Oh, and ask the bartender why their coke on tap is so sweet. I have a feeling it's not really coke. My gut feeling is it's some RC action.
Red Fox Room-Like The Turf Club and NuNu's, The Red Fox Room is a perfect companion to any date. It's also a great getaway place if you just want some alone time. That is, alone time with awesome veggies and ranch dressing, a loaded baked potato, chicken teriyaki and fried shrimp. Excellent service, old-school flavor, red-leather booths-the works. It's a bit pricier than most steakhouses but well worth it, especially on nights with live music. You're sure to hear some Sinatra thrown into the mix. And, in case ya didn't know, that's a very good thing.
South Park Bar and Grill-I was very excited to hear a new restaurant was opening in South Park. This neighborhood has so much growth potential and SPB&G just proves things are moving in a positive direction. The South Park Bar and Grill compliments the vibe felt throughout the neighborhood, and the menu selection is rather impressive. I prefer sitting at the bar and diving into their rib-eye steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes. Only thing that bums me out is that the owners keep raising their prices-when they opened, the rib-eye went for $11.95, and now it's up to $18 (!). It's so tasty that I can't refuse, but do us all a favor, turn off the cheesy dinner music and use that great stage for some live jazz. Or maybe get a few DJ nights in there and stay open past 10 p.m. Level prices matched with even better management will keep South Park Bar & Grill on my radar.
El Zarape-hands down, the best Mexican food on the planet. "Nuff said.
Pasta Espresso-I don't make it out to PB all that often, but when I do, it's usually for a stop at Pasta Espresso. Homemade pasta, sauces, garlic bread and salad all for about six or seven bucks. Excellent service, great magazine selection while you wait and comfortable seating both inside and out. And tell Mark I said hello!
EZ J's in PB-It's the homemade bread and the surfer attitude that makes me excited about going to EZ J's. They make the best subs in San Diego, and they're only getting better. They've recently opened a second store on 6th Avenue in the downtown business district. The drive to PB was keeping me away, but now there's no excuse.
Best Chicken and/or Eggplant Parmesan Sandwiches-San Filipo (Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest).
Best Thai Food-Amarin Thai (around the corner from The Alibi in Hillcrest). I love going to lunch at Amarin because it feels like you're going over to a friend's house for some grub. As my good friend Duane says, "The place is tits." Great service, spicy food by the number, kick-ass homemade soups, and you can top things off with some fried banana and honey. Oh man, I'm hungry just thinking about it. Best thing about Amarin: you'll have a satisfied appetite but it's light on your wallet.
Best Menu Item Not On The Menu-The cheesecake at The Turf Club. Order it plain or Reese's peanut butter-style.
Best $2 Beers on Tap-Piccadilly Bar (next to the Greyhound station on Broadway).
Best Kiss-Rooftop of Mister A's. It'll cost you 20 bucks for one round of drinks, but c'mon, you know it's worth it. Feels like you're on top of the world. And can wear your Rushmore blazer to fit in.
Best Date-Take the one-hour harbor excursion tour on a sunny Sunday afternoon. You'll be surrounded by senior citizens and tourists, but don't sweat it. That's the beauty of it. The tour guide will provide you with hilarious factoids on San Diego-plus there's a bar on the top deck. Hit that shit up and you'll do no wrong. Then, take your date to Busalacchi's for my favorite Italian food in San Diego. No doubt this place is a favorite for celebrities who don't want to be noticed (just check their wall of fame along the stairwell). If you're worried about your budget, try 5th & Hawthorne and opt for the couples dinner special. A paltry $45.99 gets you a four-course meal, bottle of wine and spectacular service. To top it off, head over to the Whistle Stop for Keep It Like A Secret, the indie-rock night hosted by Holiday Matinee every Sunday from 9 p.m. till close. Oh, man, that is one shameless plug.
The best dumb attempt to recreate something that you just shouldn't recreate-NBC's downtown studio trying desperately to replicate their Rockefeller Center Studios, where all the tourists watch from outside, looking in. Sorry guys, New York City this ain't. Your studio faces the back of a bus stop. I do like watching your show because it's funny to see people look in and then keep on walking. Or, if you get lucky, you notice the bums leaning up against the glass and their drool on the window. Classic. ©