Best New Burger: Frozen Kobe-style beefburgers (Trader Joe's and elsewhere, about $8 per one-pound package of two patties). These burgers, made from ultra-tender beef raised on Idaho's Snake River Farm, are showing up at restaurants all over town. If you're willing to cook your own, their retail price is less than half what restaurants charge. Sauté or grill them fast -- the meat should be as rare as you can handle -- or consider using them raw (freshly defrosted) for steak tartare. And remember: Pampered cows don't get mad.
Best New Peruvian Restaurant: El Dorado (311 Palomar at Third Avenue, Chula Vista, 619-426-4545). Several authentic Peruvian dishes cooked with skill justify the trip. Papa rellena is potato bliss, a football-shaped patty of creamy mashed potatoes wrapped around a filling of lean ground beef and condiments, then deep fried to create a millimeter-thick layer of crunchiness. Seco de cabrito, baby goat stew, offers a complex explosion of flavors, including cilantro. The kitchen also makes a mean ceviche and yummy fried bananas.
Best New Thai Restaurant: Rama (327 Fourth Avenue, near K Street, Gaslamp District, 619-501-8424). The more spacious sibling of the marvelous Celadon Thai outshines its big sis, with the same exhilarating dishes, plus a few new ones. The Tom Kha, hot-sour coconut milk soup, is beyond rich -- made from fresh coconuts. This is the secret of many of the curries, too. The menu bravely offers less popular (but equally delicious) authentic dishes such as Gai Qua, chicken with broad, flat noodles and a slightly sweet sauce based on palm sugar, and the wicked Kanna Moo Krob, a tasty fat-fest made with unsmoked bacon.
Most Delicious Sculpture in the Medium of Fish: Pearl (11666 Avena Place at Webb Park, Rancho Bernardo, 858-487-3388). This extraordinary dish looks like a dish mop with sponge rubber "fingers." It's an edible sculpture made from Chilean sea bass, with fish-flesh rising from the skin like an onion flower. Lightly baked to form a crust over the tender meat, it's served sprinkled with pine nuts and dots of melon -- and tastes even more fabulous than it looks. Pearl, a spin-off of Emerald on Convoy Street, also deserves kudos for excellent dim sum, including a superb shark-fin soup dumpling: A concentrated broth (poultry-based but with hints of seafood) surrounds a translucent purse of the thinnest possible won ton noodle dough. Break it open and out pours minced and shredded mystery ingredients, with multiple textures and fascinating flavors.
Best Dungeness Crab: "Special Sauce" Dungeness Crab at Phuong Trang Vietnamese Seafood Restaurant (5296 University Avenue at 53rd Street, central San Diego, 619-582-0603; 4170 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa, 858-565-6750). The crab is live when you order it -- you can even shake hands -- and sauced with tamarind, a sweet-tangy fruit paste that glazes the stir-fried shells and meat. The top shell, perched over the chopped limbs, is stuffed with the coral (roe), tomalley (liver), and stray crabmeat bits, bound into a substantial omelet that's hard-glazed with the same exuberant sauce.
Best Sushi: Taka (555 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp, 619-338-0555). As sushi bars multiply in the Gaslamp (along with everywhere else), Taka remains the local standard, with impeccably fresh seafood, perfect rice, and exquisite technique.
Best Dessert: Sweets are not my strong suit, so this is a hard category for me. Most people crave a sweet ending to a meal, especially chocolate -- which I find boring unless it's exceptional. My choice is the trembling, airy panna cotta made by Jack Fisher of Region (3671 Fifth Avenue at Pennsylvania, Hillcrest, 619-299-6499) -- who also makes his own cheese.
Cheesecake on Parade: Speaking of cheese, cheesecakes are rising to prominence, perhaps finally replacing the last decade's exhausted parades of crème brûlée and tiramisu. The year's most exciting renditions were Laurel Huffnagel's daring Brie cheesecake at California Cuisine (1027 University, Hillcrest, 619-543-0790), Damaso Lee's bewitching pistachio-crusted honey-orange ricotta cheesecake at Trattoria Acqua (1298 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-0709), and Hannes Cavin's airy New York cheesecake at New Leaf (Hilton Gaslamp Hotel, 401 K Street, Gaslamp District, 619-702-8280).
Best Spot for Espresso and Dessert: Assaggio (835 Fourth Avenue, between the two Bandars, Gaslamp, 619-234-6538). Open nightly until 11:00 p.m., Assaggio is a great place to stop for dessert and coffee after a movie or play. It offers house-made desserts, fresh from the day's baking, including a poufy spongecake concoction called dolce di crema (resembling Latin tres leches) and an authentic tiramisu restrained enough to remind you of why this sweet got popular. The espresso is outstanding, both in its Italian beans and the "barista" technique. Even the decaf version tastes the way coffee smells.
Best Local Sweet: Chuao Chocolates (the Lumberyard, 937 South Coast Highway, Encinitas, 760-635-1444; Westfield Shoppingtown UTC, 4465 La Jolla Village Drive, 858-546-1463; www.chuaochocolatier.com). Sublimely complex Venezuelan chocolate meets creative fillings, such as passionfruit-caramel and ginger-green tea. And then there's the irresistible passionfruit gel candy. Wow.
Best French Toast: Brockton Villa (1235 Coast Boulevard, La Jolla, 858-454-7393). Confession: Only rarely do I enjoy breakfast in restaurants, unless that meal is their forte, so I can't honestly name any overall "Best Breakfast." But I do know French toast and regard Brockton Villa's "Coast Toast" as the Platonic ideal of the genre -- slabs of fluffy Italian bread soaked overnight and baked to a chewy crust, with the interior texture of a soufflé and the alluring flavor of orange liqueur.
"A Sucker Born Every Minute" Booby Prize: Osetra (904 Fifth Avenue at E, Gaslamp District, 619-239-1800). The most expensive restaurant in metropolitan San Diego (and maybe the whole county) has become the hottest ticket, with reservations taken six weeks ahead of time. What do you get for your money? Well, there's a Las Vegas atmosphere, with glitzy decor and a "wine angel" in black tights hoisting herself up and down a glass tower to fetch your precious bottle. If you are a celebrity, an identified restaurant reviewer, or if you start your meal with the caviar plate (indicating your intention to spend grandly), you may get decent service. If none of the above, then probably not. The cooking? After seven-person meals on two evenings, we were more impressed by the angel than the food.