Here’s a confession: I love good food, but if it’s a bargain, I love it better. I’d rather have so-so food that’s wallet-lite than fantastic fare that causes gnashing of teeth for weeks after. Heck, half the time you never even notice what’s going down ye olde gullet anyway.
What kind of food? My partner, the lovely Carla, says bears, possums, and I are soul brothers. We’ll eat anything. I’ve never become an expert in one thing — say, Lao food or sushi or Oaxacan grasshopper dishes or gourmet pizzas. But I seem to like most stuff, aside from boiled cabbage or brussels sprouts.
But there are some places that you kinda take to heart. They’re more than the dish or the deal. Something clicks about the people and the place, and you want to come back and be a part of it. These are just some.
1702 India Street, Little Italy
My favorite new pizza joint. Something about giving the dough 72 hours to rise does seem to give it more flavor. But the main thing about Napizza is attitude. They really have tried to go green, buy local, and recycle like crazy. And they’ve just created a good vibe. A glass of wine, a square of BAPO (bacon and potato) pizza — say, ten bucks altogether — a seat outside right in the heart of Little Italy at sunset is hard to beat. ’Specially as other places nearby offer the same view for twice the price.
1912 Coronado Avenue #105, Nestor
Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar
Favorite seafood hangout. This place is on the edge of the Tijuana Sloughs, but swing through the door and — bam! — you’re in the middle of a scene. Each time I’ve been here it’s crowded and feels like party time. You can sit up close to the band of crazy cooks clanging pans, among corrugated iron and palm-frond palapas, and order big (like the shrimp sampler for nearly 50 bucks) or small. My favorite: smoked marlin taco for $3. And it’s pretty filling. And, down here, people talk to you! Best time: sunset, Thursday onward.
169 East Main Street, El Cajon
Right in the center of town, in the old wooden “Historic El Cajon Hall 1894,” as the plaque says. “Mezzah” means “tapa.” “We are Iraqi Christians, but our tapas are mainly Lebanese,” the owner Ammar told me. “The Lebanese love to snack on different tapas, to have a drink, and socialize.” Classy feeling here. Pretty big tapas, too. Around $7 for dishes such as grilled quail, sherhaat (steak medallions), and, my fave, fetoosh, a Lebanese salad that’s huge. Nice outside patio, right beside the park and the boulevard.
633 9th Street, Imperial Beach
Café di Roma
My favorite Italian. This is a new, hard-to-find place started by an Italian family with deep South Bay roots. This place is full of life — Italian style: talk, sisters, husbands, cooks, wives rolling gnocchi pastries out on the table, ’50s Italian music, like “Volare,” as they create it all from scratch right here. Yes, it’s totally standard stuff, but in this atmosphere, what else? And they’re trying hard to cook healthy. They make their own sausages from turkey, meatballs that (they swear!) are “91 percent lean.” My fave: the sizzling eggplant dish ($10).
1041 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
It was the $2 Stone IPA happy-hour draft pints that got me coming here. That’s unbeatable. The place is a bit of a barn — orangey, woody, bricky, though they have filled it with Indian art, Buddha heads, and big-screen TVs showing sports. You know it’s Indian because half the screens are showing cricket. The young Sikhs running it are part of the “new India” — urban, cool, on the make. Good standard Indian fare. Best happy-hour deal: the chicken tikka, sizzlin’ and crackling on a black iron platter for around six bucks.
9415 Avenida Paseo de Los Héroes, Zona Rio, Baja
Sótano Suizo (“Swiss Cellar”)
My favorite hot dog. It’s an eight-inch craggy-crusted baguette loaded with a giant, peppery Hungarian wiener under a nest of crispy candied onions, tomato chunks, a crooked line of yellow mustard with red balls dotted along it so it looks like a coral snake, plus unmelted Swiss cheese licking over the edges. The Swiss guy who created this dawg is René Bösiger. Now he’s created his own beer, too. Take friends, take time. It’s worth the trip.
God Save the Cuisine, British Gastro-Truck
619-889-6119 | godsavethecuisine.com
My fave food truck. The first thing you’ve gotta love about these Brits is that they supply picnic blankets so you can chow down beside the truck. Then, the food’s interesting: say, smoked salmon on flatbread with sour cream, lemon, and potato salad; or beer-battered fish and chips; or spiced ground lamb on salad leaves. And dessert? How about the Queen Mother’s favorite: Eton Mess, a strawberry compote with crumbled meringue and fresh mint. Someone should give these Brit brothers, Dave and Kevin Keylock, a knighthood.
120 W. I Street, Encinitas
The Potato Shack
It’s not that the food leaps out at you, it’s that they give you so much of it. And when you’ve come out of the water, surfing, whatever, that’s what you want: a giant portion of something real unhealthy, like, say, baked spuds. Here in this little low place under giant ficus trees you see local firemen, church groups, gals with their lil ol’ moms, surfers. Tables are slices of tree trunks. My favorite breakfast is chicken-fried steak, steamed eggs, squaw-bread toast, and fries. Actually, what they’re famous for is their “manhole cover–size pancakes.” Too much, even for me.
My favorite street-taco stand. It’s just a tent-covered stand. But Guillermo “Oso” Campo, the chef here, till recently had a post at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, Oud Sluis in Holland. Came home, thought, Hey, why not just try something new on the streets of my hometown? Result: Here he is cooking by an open-fire mesquite grill. Makes tacos like… ceviche of sole blackened on the grill, then slapped on a messy red layer of toasted chilies, peanuts, squash, and roasted habaneros in olive oil. Out of this world? Grab his food before some five-star restaurant grabs him.
3025 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
Tiger! Tiger! Tavern
My favorite tavern. Lee Chase and Jeff Motch of Blind Lady Tavern started this up last year as part of their campaign “to have a meeting place like this every two or three blocks.” (Motch’s words.) Sure seems to be working in this woody, frontier-looking barn. Friday nights are ker-razy. Menu’s kind of honest, Gold Rush–era, sandwichy, German sausagey, Vietnamese fusion. And it’s coupled with a zillion interesting beers and baristas interested in pairing you with them. Foodwise, my fave is the oyster po’ boy sandwich. Tasty, creamy, and tangy with pickled chili and pickles. Those oysters squish through in every bite.
600 Palm Avenue, Suite 300, Imperial Beach
My favorite Japanese sushi joint: The (mostly Vietnamese) people who run it are a fun crowd. They keep things buzzing. They tell jokes. And (bottom line) they’re cheap. I’ve had sushi mix — five different kinds of fish flesh on rice, plus nine sushi rolls, for about nine bucks. Or six-buck specials, such as teriyaki chicken with fried gyoza, or shrimp and beef curry. That and a bottle of sake will get you out, belly full, for around $10. The formula works: This place always seems to have a cheery crowd of locals, and the shelves bulge with those masu boxes that regulars drink sake out of.
9945 Campo Road (at North Barcelona), Spring Valley
Fave breakfast joint. Ya gotta get out here in the early morning, say, 7:30. That’s when everything’s fresh and it feels country, and breakfast tastes good. ’Specially here in this little pink-and-green box with a deck. Ask for Jorge and order his amazing Sunrise Breakfast Special: a two-egg scramble, potatoes, three slices of ham, three sausages, three slices of bacon, plus pancakes, french toast, or biscuits and gravy, for $7.95. Or, egg muffin and OJ, just $3.50. They actually dropped prices because folks around here were hurting. If this is country values, I’m going country. ■
More Feast 2012: Eats for Freelancers | Spirit of Family Dinnertime | Accessible Gourmet | Lunchtime in Kearny Mesa | Fried Chicken | Try At Least Once