By Steve Mayberry

Sometimes just a taste of Hillcrest can be too much

I guess "Taste of Hillcrest" scared some people off, so they renamed it the "Taste of Uptown/Hillcrest." From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. last Saturday, close to 40 Hillcrest restaurants-yes, they were all 100 percent in Hillcrest-offered small samples of their wares to wandering hordes of gastronomes. I resolved to start early, move quickly and eat everything offered at every participating eatery. That meant six minutes per restaurant, including transition time.

Right. I started the day by locking myself out of my building, in the rain. By the time we found the ticket tent, my semi-regular dining companion and I were rain-soaked and almost 30 minutes behind schedule. We decided Hash House a Go Go, famous for their big breakfasts, was the perfect first stop. Except that they were handing out large paper ramekins of Snickers bread pudding. Delicious, but hardly a day starter. Across the street, lines were already long at Region, for a toasted baguette topped with strawberries and balsamic vinegar.

Soon afterward, we came upon perhaps the most incongruous participant, in terms of location and otherwise. We made a three-block detour to the Washington Avenue Der Wienerschnitzel. All told, we lost perhaps 20 minutes, and far too much valuable belly space, to two lukewarm, foil-wrapped wieners. It was a strategic error from which our campaign would not recover. I burped uncontrollably as we shuffled back to Fifth Avenue. The final nail in the stomach was the Corvette Diner fried pickle and cold meatloaf sandwich. I chewed for a few minutes, but my swallowing reflexes had been short-circuited. A mere dozen eateries into the list, and stick a fork in me, I was finito.

I stumbled through a few more doorways, my head burning, stomach churning. Finally, I admitted defeat, went home and curled into the fetal position. I emerged again, 20 minutes later, and limped to the finish. I made a few more appearances, tasting here and sipping there, a shadow of my former self.

"You were a trooper," my gorging companion offered at the end.

"Just wait until next year," I mumbled, crawling back into bed.

In the spirit of a hit-and-run survey, a couple other observations from the day:

* Best in show: At David's Coffee Shop, Flowers by Sean handed out flowers to every customer. On the patio, three coffee pots full of fresh-brewed coffee fronted trays of all-you-could-eat carrot cake, brownies and coffee cake. Only the ice tea was a wash, literally, caught in the open and collecting rainwater. We lingered longer than we should have, warmed up, dried out and gladly let our valuable minutes slip away.

* Most cheese: The couple in Taste of Schezuan dumping their dumplings into a to-go bag. They smiled sheepishly at us. "We're too full to eat anything else." Whatever.

* Best drinks: At Amarin Thai, diners were invited to eat in their new adjacent wine bar, "Just Wine," with a complimentary glass of chardonnay, merlot or cabernet.

Street cred 101: Michael Steb-ner, one of San Diego's best chefs, carried out grill and sous chef duties in the doorway of his intriguing new Region restaurant.

Raciest booth: At Jamba Juice, the black guy dressed up like a banana to give out free smoothies. Oh, my.

Least in need of me: The Corvette Diner, with throngs of families, and Hamburger Mary's, with the mimosa brunch crowd, were both doing fine without the "Taste of" crowd, thank you very much.

Best service: When my semi-regular dining companion grumbled, "Oh god, not more sweets," the waitress at St. Tropez brewed a cup of tea instead.

Worst Service: Starbucks could not cut up their scones quickly enough. And having their stand just inside the door created a cluster-fork situation in the doorway.

Best sideshow: The moveon.org "Bake Back the White House" tent outside Hamburger Mary's.

Better than expected: Although too many places-including a couple of my favorites-treated the hordes as a nuisance, several comported themselves well. In a perfect world, Arrivederci Pizzeria's thin-crust pizza and Lotus Thai's sampler plate would earn them both many repeat visitors.

Best long-term marketing: Margarita Mary's, the new Hamburger Mary's spin-off, packed them in with free margaritas and carne asada quesadillas. (Margarita Mary's will open again, probably for good, April 29.)

Best short-term marketing: The Abbey gave out coupons for a $40 prix fix (sic) four-course dinner for two, valid that night only. If only I hadn't been in the fetal position, groaning, the covers pulled up over my head. Damn you, Der Wienerschnitzel.

We're feeling much better now, thank you, at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.