Anchovies get a bad rap. The small fish—which occasionally visit our shores in massive schools—evokes a strong, pungent flavor that can be a bit intense in heavy doses. The very visual of a serving of anchovies, soaked in oily brine and packed tightly in little tins, is one that few people find appetizing. To paraphrase Bart Simpson: You don't win friends with anchovies.
I have my suspicions, however, that many of the anchovy naysayers simply haven't given them a proper chance. For years, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ran a smear campaign against them (look Michelangelo, they don't just come standard on pizza—you can drop the tough guy act). But I get it: Out of context, they look a little gross. Sometimes that psychological block can do a lot to get in the way of enjoying something.
With all due respect to those who say they don't like anchovies, I humbly suggest giving them a second chance. For starters, there are the health benefits: Anchovies are a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help prevent heart disease. And contrary to many other fish that we eat in large quantities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports no threat of overfishing or damage to habitat, so the sustainability factor should also be appealing for those who'd prefer to minimize consumer guilt.
The most important reason to give anchovies a second chance, however, is that they're delicious. A little bit of anchovy can go a long way toward adding a lot of flavor to a dish, and there are a lot of restaurants in San Diego that offer a unique presentation that's well worth seeking out. Here are some of my favorites.
On a pizza: The delivery device for anchovies often comprises a bed of a crust, cheese and sauce, and San Diego's pizzeria offerings are no exception. Yet I'd suggest bypassing the New York-style pizza joints, or thick-crust 'za slingers and instead get your little fish fix at Urbn (3085 University Ave.) in North Park. A margherita pizza topped with anchovies is the way to go; thin, crispy crust provides a better complement to the anchovies than a dense layer of dough, and the anchovies are flavorful enough without the need to overcomplicate matters with other meats.
In a salad: You're probably expecting me to talk about Caesar salads here, since many variations on the classic Caesar do, indeed, feature anchovies. And you can get a fine anchovy-full Caesar at both Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights and Bleu Boheme in Kensington. But the best use of anchovy in a salad goes to the sardine salad at Buona Forchetta (3001 Beech St.) in South Park. The salad is simple: Arugula, white anchovy, parmesan, lemon and olive oil. The anchovies are amply arranged, yet without the heavy brine that can turn some eaters off. It's bright and refreshing, perfect for a summer evening.
In a burger: Anchovies have a pretty big flavor as it is, so when you combine that with a massive, grilled patty of beef, you've got a pretty indulgent meal in (and all over) your hands. In fact, I even had my doubts about this at first—I love a good burger, and anchovies as well. But smooshed together between two buns? At Slater's 50-50 (2750 Dewey Road #153) in Point Loma, you can add anchovies to any burger (among other toppings such as Fritos, sauerkraut or jalapeño). As it turns out, they complement each other well, the anchovies giving a nice salty burst of flavor after the initial bite of beef. It works surprisingly well, though it's best shared between two people.
As an accent: A little anchovy can go a long way, and if you're not quite ready to devour these tiny fish whole, then maybe it's best to tread lightly at first with an anchovy-accented appetizer. Tidal (1404 Vacation Road) in Mission Bay offers just such an option, specifically roasted cauliflower with anchovy butter. The anchovy is subtle, and it complements the roasted cauliflower, rather than overpowers it. That being said, the cauliflower is served in a shallow pool of that butter, so if you're inclined to slather it on and make that light savory touch into a slightly more powerful one, the delicious, glistening goo takes a simple dish and makes it incredible. It's a little dangerous—the more anchovy flavor you get out of it, the more you're likely to crave.