Even if it weren’t my job to go out and look for new places to eat, I still wouldn’t be able to eat the same thing over and over again.
I rarely visit any place on the regular. It’s just not in my nature, as I’m always looking for something new. The following list includes a few of the spots I just can’t stay away from as well as a few restaurants everybody should try at least once. None of them are fancy — most are the opposite — but they’ve all delivered a memorable meal or two.
4135 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Big Front Door
I dig this combination deli and wine shop in University Heights as a place to grab a sandwich or salad and a special soda for lunch. The remodel that Steve “Sheep” Riley and company put the place through was just short of a miracle for the formerly dingy space. Now, the titular door swings open wide, and it’s like a giant patio inside; great for sitting, and the staff will let you on the WiFi if you ask. The small selection of wine for sale (take-home only) has some cool choices, too.
4404 Texas Street, University Heights
Kiko’s got its start in Baja in the ’80s, and the Kiko’s truck in the Texas Food and Liquor parking lot in University Heights sells the same Mexican mariscos for short money. The marlin tacos are outstanding and the aguachiles, clamatos, and seafood cocktails all deliver pure seafood joy. Buy drinks in the liquor store first (the truck has none for sale) and don’t try to go on Sundays (10–7 any other day). Bringing cash is a good idea, but if you want to risk it, they have Square running sometimes to take cards.
928 Ft. Stockton Drive, Mission Hills
A lot of people ask me, “Where should I eat?” Izakaya Masa is my number-one recommendation. The compact sake house in Mission Hills has more charm and poise than half of uptown’s restaurants put together. Best of all, the kitchen’s open until 1:00 a.m. in the tradition of Japanese izakaya. The exceptional tonkotsu ramen isn’t available until after 9:00 p.m., but it crushes the competition like Godzilla on a bad day. Japanese tapas and sushi make up the rest of the menu, but I just can’t say no to sake and ramen. Make reservations — it’s small.
4134 University Avenue, City Heights
The only thing that’s not on the menu at this Vietnamese spot in a City Heights strip mall is vegetarian food. Everything else that flies, runs, or swims gets cooked up sooner or later. You want crocodile? They got that. Little, bony fish that’re so hard to eat, the waiter shakes his head and warns you to pick something else? They got that, too. You can cook and wrap your own spring rolls — working through a forest of fresh herbs and greens in the process — or just pick one of the 200+ items you’ve never seen before on the menu.
1st Street 123 1825, Zona Centro, Baja
For the reckless gastronome: walk right under the arch and keep on going down Calle Primera for a few blocks. Past the intoxicatingly meaty carniceria (stop there later) and a few seedy-looking bars. The oyster house will be on the left. Seven Seas Soup is the specialty of the house, but oysters and cockles are under $10/dozen. Shrimp cocktail costs about the same. Go crazy with “La Negra Salsa Marisquera,” a soy-and-chili sauce.
3416 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
Blind Lady Ale House
The beer selection is neither the biggest nor the weirdest, but the tap list is composed with a care and finesse that no other place in town matches. I have it on good authority that company policy calls for rigorous flushing and cleaning of beer lines when kegs are changed out; a practice that’s not as common as many people surmise. For every tasty brew at Blind Lady, there’s an equally well-executed food offering. It’s the best place to go to for moules frites (mussels and french fries) and cured meats.
2911 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
Coffee and Tea Collective
Sure, there’s a solid dose of Portlandia hipster smugness courtesy of the tank-tops, vintage track bikes, and expensively hand-made lamps. But that’s tempered by one very important development: the Collective has sold me some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. And they sold it to me for a reasonable price. The guys at the Collective are sourcing, roasting, and applying boiling water to coffee beans with a Captain Ahab–like single-minded intensity that some people might call crazy, but I call it admirable.
2123 Adams Avenue, University Heights
Cueva has grown much in the past two years. The bar has stockpiled some good wines and beers, and the kitchen has pinpointed which flatbreads and tapas are working out. But the real gem at Cueva is the staff. Chef Oz still makes time to chat with tables. Jo and Cory at the bar, who apparently never stop working, are great at remembering faces and always friendly. I like small places, and Cueva feels as small as it gets.
3448 30th Street, North Park
4030 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria
Yeah, Lefty’s pizza is a little wacky. It’s practically upside down and it's three times thicker than pizza has any right to be (even if that is how they do it in Chicago). But it’s totally good. The “stuffed” pizza that takes a full hour to make is probably the only pizza rightly called “pie.” I approve.
Plus, everyone there is nice and they remember people’s orders with surprising accuracy. “Best pizza” is a tough call, but best pizza place is a no-brainer.
4607 30th Street, North Park
Just remember this phrase: cottage-cheese cup with mango, watermelon, salt, muchas chiles, and lime. You’ll thank me. Now, go forth and experience the greatest fusion of Mexican and Gringo cuisine there is! Sorry, California burrito, you had your day in the sun.Time to let the juice bar shine.
4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
Shabu Shabu House
Fact: anywhere along Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa is going to be a pretty cool meal. Shabu shabu just has the advantage of being more fun to do. It’s a Japanese style of cooking where diners get a boiling pot of broth and swish meats and vegetables through it in a self-cooking frenzy of scorching soup. Good times. The shabu shabu is fairly mild — just a basic miso broth — so if you’re into a bigger meal, go with sukiyaki. It’s just as fun, but the sweet, salty sauce is more filling. Beware the hot drops! ■
More Feast 2012: Eats for Freelancers | Spirit of Family Dinnertime | More Than Dish or Deal | Accessible Gourmet | Lunchtime in Kearny Mesa | Best Fried Chicken