Mama said there’d be days like this, but I don’t remember anything about “weeks and weeks like this.” Normally, I’d try to save a report on food-delivery services for the rains of winter, but in this case, I heard about them right on time to celebrate Labor Day weekend with some heavy labor. (In October, the Reader’s “food issue” is coming up, which means — aagh! — three extra writing assignments on a very short deadline.)
Just as I was despairing over how to go out to eat and still find time to work, I got an email from the publicist of Eat24Hours. The next day, I saw a Flash ad on the Reader website for San Diego Food Connection. My delivery was at hand!
I was a little (a lot) skeptical. The last fledgling delivery service to lobby me offered dire choices from mediocre national-chain restaurants. (Keep yer bloody bloomin’ onions to yerself, mate.) But I dutifully checked out both newly discovered websites to see what they might have for delivery to my neighborhood, underserved Golden Hill, and — wow! Eat24Hours had 38 restaurants I could order from. San Diego Food Connection had 17. Most of the restaurants at both (there’s plenty of overlap) are neighborhood places, just not in my neighborhood. SDFC, with the smaller list, was stronger on somewhat “better” restaurants, such as Red Pearl and Savory Deli. On the other hand, Eat24 includes my favorite local Indian restaurant, Gourmet India. (The crystal ball shows another delicious sev poori and peshawari naan in my near future — with a delivery charge of only $2, too.)
Both services are easy to use. You enter your zip code to learn which restaurants deliver to your area, shown as a list of names and restaurant icons. To look at the menu, click on a restaurant that interests you. If you decide to order, you register (name, address, etc.). I found Eat24 a little easier to order from: pull up a menu, lick your lips, and click on the dishes you want. They also offer the chance to search by cuisine. But on SDFC, it’s a snap to order several hours in advance and specify your delivery time. They proved pretty accurate at this, showing up only ten minutes late. Neither is any great shakes at ordering a full day ahead — I tried both and somehow got snarled up — as soon as I entered tomorrow’s date for delivery, the order process just stopped. (There’s probably a way, I just didn’t find it and became too frustrated to keep trying.)
SDFC delivers from 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Eat24 follows each restaurant’s normal hours and includes several restaurants that are open quite late (midnight or so), but forget the “24 hours” claim. That applies to other cities where the company has branches. I doubt there’s anything for a 3:00 a.m. post-bar snacker on the list here, although I didn’t pursue this issue intently — later for that.
Eat24 promises an email to confirm your order, but they didn’t send one either time I ordered. (You can go back to the website to the online order log to make sure your order “took.” It also keeps a record of your past orders, which I suppose could be useful in some way.) On SDFC, you can opt for email confirmation, and if you do, it’s just the opposite: “Your order has been received!” “Your order is being prepared!” “Your order is on its way!” “Your order is about to arrive!” “You ate your order, do you have fridge space for all the leftovers?”
Yeah, if you’re single, over-ordering is a temptation, because most delivery restaurants have minimum orders of about $23. So, say you order $19 worth, now you need some more, and you look over the menu and consider the delivery charges and — whoops, you just decided to stock up for tomorrow’s dinner, too. (Since I ordered from three restaurants, my fridge is now bulging like Shakespeare’s, with dinners for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…)
Both websites allow you to pay with cash or a credit card. Delivery charges vary per restaurant. A couple charge only a dollar or two, a few as much as $7.95, but $6.95 is the norm. SDFC tacks on a small-change fuel surtax. Both websites add a 15 percent tip for the driver, which seems a bit high. After all, he hasn’t been offering you service, menu advice, and flirtation for two hours. I mind the tip less for faraway restaurants, more for those two miles and ten minutes from my doorstep. On the other hand, the automatic tip does save you from that awkward doorway moment when you discover you’ve got nothing smaller than a $20.
SDFC promises delivery within an hour. Eat24’s delivery times, they claim, range from 45 to 90 minutes. I experienced both ends of the spectrum; it was more like 100 minutes on the second order. So don’t wait until you’re already ravenous, order at the first hunger-pang.
The Scouted Restaurants (in order of appearance):
Given that delivered food is not the same as fresh-made and fresh-served, I wouldn’t consider assigning star ratings to these restaurants. This was merely an opportunity to try a few restaurants I wouldn’t normally hit in the everlasting search for the new, trendy, and reviewable.
I decided that cold sushi and reheatable ramen soup might travel better than hot dishes that might overcook in their containers. This tactic gave me a chance to try a couple of unheralded sushi bars in Point Loma. I also revisited a Gaslamp Asian-fusion restaurant after several years and changes of chefs.
Ikiru means “to live” and may be named for a great film by Akira Kurosawa with a moving performance by Takashi Shimura (who played the leader of The Seven Samurai) that I’d really rather talk about than this restaurant. The menu lists all the types of sushi carried by genre (“fresh sushi,” “cut sushi,” “nigiri,” “baked sushi,” etc.). This caused me to over-order scandalously, to try to taste everything in one meal.
Sushi really means “rice,” not “raw fish.” There are two schools of sushi chefs: those who make rice as neutral-tasting as possible and those who add a little more sushi-su, slightly sweetened rice vinegar, to flavor it. Top local traditional sushi masters like Ota-san and Kazumi-san favor the neutral taste, because they garnish their creations with additional flavors suited specifically to the seafood on the sushi. (The soy-wasabi slurry dip is the diner’s own business. I’ll use it freely with sashimi, but with sushi, I’d rather taste first to see if the roll really needs these unsubtle extra flavors.)
Ikiru’s rice is neutral, and your order comes with numerous packets of Kim-Lan soy sauce, plus pickled ginger and dark green, oldish-looking wasabi — but forget about individual garnishes other than the sesame seeds that bedeck many of their rolls. My favorite here was a low-carb, rice-free fresh roll, wrapped in crisp cabbage leaves (the menu says it’s a soy-paper wrap) called the “Protein Roll,” with tuna, hamachi, salmon, tai, fake crab, gobo, and cucumber. Adding neutral rice to these fresh flavors would have been like inviting an old-maid chaperone.
The seaweed-wrapped salmon skin cut roll with avocado was pleasant but kind of boring, needing the soy-wasabi mix for interest. I didn’t love the ikura salmon roe nigiri — the roe was very salty and a bit tinny-tasting. Nor did I love the spicy scallop hand-roll. It did have scallops all the way to the bottom, spiced about right (medium-hot), but the mouth-feel was dry, needing more kewpie Japanese mayo — probably because all the crisp julienned veggies, barely embedded in the rice, flew right out of the roll at first bite. Another roll, featuring shrimp, showed signs of carelessness: In the pretty end piece, with julienned veggies and radish sprouts emerging like plumes, what looked like a carrot stick turned out to be an unpeeled shrimp tail.
Appetizers disappointed me, too. Ahi poke was far from the vivacious Hawaiian mix-up. Too-large chunks of greasy-tasting ahi were heaped over sweetly dressed julienned seaweed, radish sprouts, and sesame seeds, with a sliced pear alongside. Forget the pear — where’s the cilantro, scallions, roasted sesame oil? Agedashi tofu was caught in a no-man’s-land between crisp-fried and tender. And among the noodle dishes, shoyu ramen, my great hope for Monday night’s dinner, had a decent broth but minimal garnishes — a few slices of pork and bamboo shoots, one slice of seaweed, but no egg, no scallions. Certainly no spirit of Tampopo (another great Japanese film, this one a delicious comedy centered on a heroine learning to cook perfect ramen).
Prices are very reasonable, with dinner entrées ranging from $8–$12, including combination dinners that offer miso soup, salad, mixed tempura, a California roll, plus various forms of teriyaki, from tofu to beef. Lunch combos are a bit higher but more elaborate. Sushi and sashimi combos are $18–$24.
Red Pearl Kitchen
This Gaslamp restaurant’s menu covers all of Asia — Chinese dim sum, Thai spring rolls, Vietnamese lettuce wraps, and, yes, ramen. This is a great choice for vegetarians and vegans, with loads of veggie-centered dishes and veggie sides. I over-ordered ridiculously because my previous night’s Ikiru dinner had left me hungry for flavor, but also because I haven’t been here since it opened, and I know our paper’s capsule needs an update. Also, the menu made me greedy.
Shrimp siu-mai were near-fatally soggy after their two-mile journey, or maybe even before they made the trip (see Sushiya for contrast). They stuck firmly to their box and had to be scooped up with a spoon, not chopsticks. Big, sloppy, insanely spicy (red and black pepper), unlike any genuine dim sum, they came with a thick red sweet-sour sauce that bought off some of their heat. But no, just no to all that — really bad fusion, senselessly spicy like some frat-house version. Duck and shiitake in lettuce wraps had soft Bibb lettuce, much dryish shredded duck but little shiitake, and an amusing banana purée instead of the traditional hoisin that’s about to bedeck the leftovers. Shrimp summer rolls, large packets of translucent rice paper, were stuffed with shredded lettuce, carrots, cukes, rice noodles, a few mint leaves, and one medium shrimp each — for ten bucks! (In some rolls, the shrimp was halved, to make a fake two.) Dips were nguoc cham and a light peanut sauce, both nice. Strawberry-miso glazed spare ribs, held over from the opening chef, now have rather greasy ribs that taste braised, lacking crispness. The glaze (more of a sauce) needs acidity to combat the fattiness, but the basic problem is that the meat needs time in an oven or on a grill.
Ramen proved an odd hybrid of northern Chinese and Japanese. A richly flavorful stock made from Jidori chicken (and perhaps pork bones, in a traditional Chinese style called “high broth”) includes star-anise pods — and also enough hot pepper to sneak up and slap you. Tasty hunks of soft braised pork belly float on top, along with a perfect medium-cooked egg, still creamy in the yolk. But, oy, the noodles! — not fresh and soft, but skinny, twiggy, like undercooked refugees from Top Ramen packets. Definitely not Tampopo again, but the broth might make a good cold remedy.
Tender Kobe “shaking beef” is amended with fresh papaya, making it a fresh dish, not just a rerun (fusion that works). Caramelized prawns, large and tender, mingle with long beans and baby corn in a gently sweet sauce. (This dish was supposed to be spicy but wasn’t, versus the no-warning hot dim sum and ramen.) I liked both. These dishes wouldn’t lure me back to the Gaslamp to eat here again, but I might order another, smaller delivery sometime. Prices edge between moderate and expensive, with main dishes $15–$24; grazes (averaging about $11) can add up fast. This order ran a rather shocking $100, all told, double that of the two sushi bars — for a lot of food, yes, but not enough truly good food.
This was what I wanted in the first place. If the sushi-itamei isn’t going to hover over every roll, I want this sweeter rice, with more sushi-su. The pale-green wasabi seems fresh, as do the pickled ginger slices, and between this and Ikiru, I now have a lifetime supply of Kim-Lan soy packets and packaged wooden chopsticks.
I began with shrimp shu mai, knowing that they may be the frozen ones sold to Japanese restaurants. Whatever their origin, they’re small, soft, pleasing, shrimpy, with ponzu for dipping — and (unlike Red Pearl’s, which is ten minutes from my house) they didn’t sog out in the long transit from Point Loma. Agedashi tofu aren’t served in dashi broth but are lightly fried triangles with a dip of yet more ponzu. Apparently, this isn’t a dish you want to order for delivery from any restaurant. Mixed tempura (two medium-large shrimp-bodies, various sweet squashes and green veggies) also comes with ponzu. But anything deep-fried really does lose a lot in transit. And few restaurants in San Diego offer huge butterflied nearly airborne prawns, the best tempura.
The shrimp roe atop the large seaweed-wrapped nigiri tasted fresh and briny. The scallop hand-roll had both scallops and crisp veggies all the way through. The seaweed-wrapped cut roll of red snapper was fresh, no-nonsense good, with excellent fish that tasted like the ocean.
The big maki I chose was called Killer Smoked Roll, with avocado and smoked salmon outside, fake crab and more avo wrapped in seaweed and rice inside. It’s not brilliant, but it’s thoroughly likable — a casual Friday sort of party roll. I didn’t try a ramen because they don’t offer one; they do have other types of noodle dishes (udon and yakisoba). They also offer plenty of hot entrées, ranging at $9–$11, including a few Korean choices and many fish dishes. Sashimi combos are $13–$22, depending on size; sushi combinations run from $16 to $27.
Sushiya apparently has several other local branches. I can see why it’s popular enough to multiply. This is lighthearted, unpretentious, flavorful food. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat here, but if I were in the neighborhood I wouldn’t mind dropping in. And some night when a sushi craving hits, I’ll gladly order delivery from here again. My order pretty much hit the spot. ■
San Diego Food Connection:
2850 Womble Road #105, San Diego
440 J Street, San Diego
2558 Laning Road, San Diego