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A love-hate relationship with top-ten lists

Having to choose between this and that favorite.

Cafe 21’s strawberry salad (pistachios and goat cheese tossed with crisp greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette) delighted Mary Beth Abate.
Cafe 21’s strawberry salad (pistachios and goat cheese tossed with crisp greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette) delighted Mary Beth Abate.

The one question I’m asked most frequently is “What’s the best restaurant in San Diego?” Impossible! How can I compare this deliciously fresh, perfectly seasoned, crisply battered fish taco with that subtly nuanced, silky smooth, beautifully sauced fish quenelle?

Hence, while I’m an inveterate list-maker, I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with top-ten lists. It’s fun to relive enjoyable meals and moments, but it means I have to choose between this and that favorite.

Despite all of that, I managed to produce this categorized list of my ten favorite places to enjoy San Diego’s culinary offerings.

Place

Blind Lady Ale House

3416 Adams Avenue, San Diego

Favorite TGIF — Blind Lady Ale House

If your idea of TGIF includes drinking delicious beer at 11:30am, head down to BLAH for their Progressive Keg Friday. Two cask beers are presented every week, for the paycheck friendly price of $2 a glass from opening till 2, $3 till 3, and $4 till 4.

BLAH’s cheese and charcuterie platters vary daily, accompanied by local fruits and veggies, house-made pickles, sauerkraut, and cherry-apricot mostardo. Roasted Padrón peppers, white anchovies, and Parmigiano Reggiano are a spicy and salty combination that complements the malty goodness of beer nicely, too.

Drinking beer in the morning requires, at least for me, some sort of sustenance, and BLAH’s signature pizzas are more than up to the task. Thin and tender-crusted, lightly sauced, toppings like pickled onions, Swiss chard or Calabrese chili oil are unusual and innovative. Even the ubiquitous four-cheese version shakes it up — Gorgonzola picante, pecorino, fontina, and Taleggio instead of the usual parm/romano/whatever blend.

Place

Berkeley Pizza

539 Island Street, San Diego

Favorite Pizza — Berkeley Pizza

I almost had to wimp out and go for a tie on this one. Regent Pizza in La Jolla has great Chicago and New York style ’za. But in the end, Berkeley Pizza edged them out with their fresh, bright sauce and perfect crust, so reminiscent of the legendary Pizzeria Due on Chicago’s Near North Side.

Like any stuffed pizza worth its pepperoni, Berkeley’s beauties take a little over an hour to bake, so calling ahead to order is a good idea.

If time is of the essence, Berkeley Pizza has a dine-in only deal that fits the bill. Pick any two slices from the display case and a soda for $8 or a craft beer for $10. They’ll pop them in the oven and bring them out piping hot in just a few minutes. They also deliver whole pies to the surrounding area.

Place

Turf Supper Club

1116 25th Street, San Diego

Favorite Steak Joint — Turf Supper Club

Turf Supper Club has the atmosphere and attitude of the old beer joints that used to be on every corner in Milwaukee, the city my immigrant grandparents settled in.

The drinks are strong and the steaks are well marbled at this 21-and-over landmark in Golden Hill. It’s one of the few places I can order a martini and not have to explain that, yes, I do want gin, not vodka, and absolutely no sweet stuff.

You will be cooking your own food, but have no fear. The staff will give you all the advice you need to grill with confidence.

Besides sirloins, filet mignon, and ribeyes, Turf Supper Club offers chicken, kebobs, burgers, salmon, and vegetarian options. All entrées come with a big slab of bread that doubles as a steak timer.

My technique? I order a 16-ounce ribeye, slap it onto the hottest part of the grill for two minutes, flip it, give it another minute and a half, and then move it to a cooler spot while I grill the bread. By the time the bread is golden brown on both sides, my steak is rested and perfectly medium rare.

Place

Soda & Swine

2943 Adams Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Burger — Soda and Swine

I’m going to anger the purists, but Soda and Swine’s meatball sandwiches are my new fave when it comes to burgers. Yes, I know, a real burger isn’t just any old meat slapped in a bun, but you’re going to have to indulge me on this one.

Start by choosing your meatball — smoked pork, chipotle and pepper jack, chorizo and mozzarella, beef with marinara, chicken, mushroom cream and provolone, or quinoa, pesto, and feta. Tiny appetites and those with empty wallets will be happy with the one meatball slider at only $3. For heartier cravings, a two or three meatball sub will satisfy, while the famished can get three juicy globes atop spaghetti, sauce, and cheese.

The sliders come on a tasty, chewy Sadie Rose pretzel roll, melty cheese oozing out. Messy and delicious. My favorite sides are the hand cut, twice-cooked fries, screaming hot and salty, the fresh manchego cheese, celery, apple, and hazelnut salad, or the crispy polenta under creamy burrata and sharp arrabiata sauce, but I’ve also got my eye on the Scotch egg for my next visit.

Place

Seasons 52

4505 La Jolla Village Drive Suite C-1, San Diego

Favorite Happy Hour — Seasons 52

Arrive before 6:00 pm, and for a mere $15, you can enjoy a taste of three Remarkable Reds or Spectacular Whites, chosen by their master sommelier, followed by a full pour of your favorite, and a flatbread pizza. If you have another fiver to spare, the Acclaimed Tasting features three reds that are rated 90 points or higher by the posh wine magazines.

Six different long flatbreads make sharing natural. They’re crackery, wafer thin, and generously topped with chipotle shrimp, artichoke and goat cheese, pesto, garlic, and chicken, plum tomato or steak, mushroom, and cheese, plus a rotating seasonal offering.

Those who still have room for dinner will find some innovative selections. You rarely see turkey on a menu unless it’s Thanksgiving, or in sandwiches, but here the chef pairs Plainville Farm turkey skewers with grilled vegetable and farro Hoppin’ John and a zinfandel glaze. Other standout dishes are mesquite-grilled shrimp on saffron-chorizo risotto, broccolini and tomato broth, and a more classic grilled Kona-crusted lamb chop with Yukon gold mashers, roasted asparagus, and a gilding of 15-year aged balsamic.

Place

Extraordinary Desserts

1430 Union Street, San Diego

Place

Extraordinary Desserts

2929 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Dessert — Extraordinary Desserts

Extraordinary Desserts is definitely not one of those places that uses frills and fancies as a façade for sawdust dry cake, greasy icing, under-ripe fruit, or raw pastry dough. Underneath the flowers, gold leaf, sprinkley toppings, and streusel are all the things that make dessert lovers swoon — perfectly ripe fruit baked to juicy goodness; buttery, flaky, puffy pastry; moist, tender cakes; dark, devilish chocolate; and rich creamy frostings and fillings. Butter, sugar, and rich cream are the order of the day, as it should be with indulgences such as these.

You can’t go wrong with the classics, like coconut cupcakes or tangy lemon bars, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try the lavender shortbread or a lemon apple Brie scone. A simple espresso or a cup of tea make wonderful accompaniments.

Place

Cafe 21

2736 Adams Avenue, San Diego

Place

Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Vegetarian — Café 21

Café 21 isn’t actually a vegetarian restaurant, but it does meatless so well. The American-Azerbaijani fusion menu marries local, organic ingredients with homey, comforting flavors and warm Middle Eastern spices.

Salad lovers will be delighted with the gorgeous signature strawberry salad, pistachios and goat cheese tossed with crisp greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette that balances nicely between sweet and tangy. Or choose lightly roasted grapes, sliced almonds, and goat cheese piled on fresh baby lettuces, napped with honey balsamic vinaigrette.

My Polish grandmother would have loved the pierogi; cabbage, fruit, or potato fillings lovingly encased in slightly chewy but tender dough, boiled, then sautéed in butter and onions. The Cristo crepes, — chicken, mozzarella, and apricot jelly rolled in thin pancakes — are a savory-sweet combo that’s large enough to share.

Visit either restaurant on the 21st of the month and enjoy a glass of sangria for 21 cents.

Place

Cali Baguette Express

4425 Convoy Street #200A, San Diego

Place

Cali Baguette Express

9225 Mira Mesa Boulevard #106, San Diego

Place

Cali Baguette Express

5125 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego

Place

Cali Baguette and Pho

303 Broadway, Chula Vista

Favorite Sandwich ­— Cali Baguette Express

On those days when I just can’t decide what I want to eat, I could swear my car goes on autopilot and heads to Cali Baguette Express in Kearny Mesa for banh mi. Something about my favorite combination of grilled pork, pickled daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, and shredded carrots piled on a skinny baguette satisfies even my most ambivalent mood. I don’t know if it’s the freshness of the bread, baked in house, the pleasant char on the meat, or the tang and crunch of the pickles and peppers, but Cali Baguette has it all over the more expensive and popular shops that line Convoy.

Place

Oscar’s Mexican Seafood

703 Turquoise Street, San Diego

Place

Oscar's Mexican Seafood

5060 Newport Avenue, San Diego

Place

Oscar's Mexican Seafood

746 Emerald Street, San Diego

Favorite Fish Taco — Oscar’s Mexican Seafood

Fish tacos are as ubiquitous as sailors in San Diego, so why does Oscar’s Mexican Seafood stand out?

Fresh fish, of course. Good prices and service, check. Variety, also check. Do this all day, every day and with a little luck, you might just be successful.

Now consider that in just over a year, Oscar’s has expanded from one tiny storefront on Turquoise Street to three locations and still manages to be the #1 ranked restaurant in San Diego on a notoriously fickle social media site. That’s #1. Out of every other restaurant. In all of San Diego.

A regular fish taco goes for $2.50, but cash-strapped surfer dudes and dudettes can take advantage of their Monday–Thursday happy hour special when the price drops to .99 for one regular fish or a free regular fish taco with any other order. I don’t even know how they do it at those prices.

There’s almost always a line out the door, but service is fast and friendly.

Place

Snooze, An A.M. Eatery

3950 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Breakfast — Snooze, an AM Eatery

I adore the Jetson’s retro vibe, the bright, airy atmosphere, and the slightly hipster feel. Snooze’s house coffee is grown for them in Guatemala. On the stronger side, mimosas, bloodys, and orange juice cocktails rule. Beer is super local, coming from within a five-mile radius. Try a Bugs Bloody, the house Mary with a shot of Odwalla carrot juice.

My favorite plate is the breakfast pot pie; a big puff of savory pastry smothered in rosemary sausage gravy, topped by an egg any style. I heartily recommend sunny side up. But then, there’s egg-topped corned beef hash and toast, too. Sigh.

Pineapple upside-down pancakes are delightful, tangy-sweet caramelized pineapple cozies up to vanilla crème anglaise and cinnamon butter. The OMG French toast feautures fresh brioche stuffed with mascarpone and topped with vanilla crème, salted caramel, agave-soaked strawberries, and toasted coconut.

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Sweet meets heat at Fluster Cluck Hot Chicken

A revamped Nashville chicken stall dishes crispy and spicy enough tenders
Cafe 21’s strawberry salad (pistachios and goat cheese tossed with crisp greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette) delighted Mary Beth Abate.
Cafe 21’s strawberry salad (pistachios and goat cheese tossed with crisp greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette) delighted Mary Beth Abate.

The one question I’m asked most frequently is “What’s the best restaurant in San Diego?” Impossible! How can I compare this deliciously fresh, perfectly seasoned, crisply battered fish taco with that subtly nuanced, silky smooth, beautifully sauced fish quenelle?

Hence, while I’m an inveterate list-maker, I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with top-ten lists. It’s fun to relive enjoyable meals and moments, but it means I have to choose between this and that favorite.

Despite all of that, I managed to produce this categorized list of my ten favorite places to enjoy San Diego’s culinary offerings.

Place

Blind Lady Ale House

3416 Adams Avenue, San Diego

Favorite TGIF — Blind Lady Ale House

If your idea of TGIF includes drinking delicious beer at 11:30am, head down to BLAH for their Progressive Keg Friday. Two cask beers are presented every week, for the paycheck friendly price of $2 a glass from opening till 2, $3 till 3, and $4 till 4.

BLAH’s cheese and charcuterie platters vary daily, accompanied by local fruits and veggies, house-made pickles, sauerkraut, and cherry-apricot mostardo. Roasted Padrón peppers, white anchovies, and Parmigiano Reggiano are a spicy and salty combination that complements the malty goodness of beer nicely, too.

Drinking beer in the morning requires, at least for me, some sort of sustenance, and BLAH’s signature pizzas are more than up to the task. Thin and tender-crusted, lightly sauced, toppings like pickled onions, Swiss chard or Calabrese chili oil are unusual and innovative. Even the ubiquitous four-cheese version shakes it up — Gorgonzola picante, pecorino, fontina, and Taleggio instead of the usual parm/romano/whatever blend.

Place

Berkeley Pizza

539 Island Street, San Diego

Favorite Pizza — Berkeley Pizza

I almost had to wimp out and go for a tie on this one. Regent Pizza in La Jolla has great Chicago and New York style ’za. But in the end, Berkeley Pizza edged them out with their fresh, bright sauce and perfect crust, so reminiscent of the legendary Pizzeria Due on Chicago’s Near North Side.

Like any stuffed pizza worth its pepperoni, Berkeley’s beauties take a little over an hour to bake, so calling ahead to order is a good idea.

If time is of the essence, Berkeley Pizza has a dine-in only deal that fits the bill. Pick any two slices from the display case and a soda for $8 or a craft beer for $10. They’ll pop them in the oven and bring them out piping hot in just a few minutes. They also deliver whole pies to the surrounding area.

Place

Turf Supper Club

1116 25th Street, San Diego

Favorite Steak Joint — Turf Supper Club

Turf Supper Club has the atmosphere and attitude of the old beer joints that used to be on every corner in Milwaukee, the city my immigrant grandparents settled in.

The drinks are strong and the steaks are well marbled at this 21-and-over landmark in Golden Hill. It’s one of the few places I can order a martini and not have to explain that, yes, I do want gin, not vodka, and absolutely no sweet stuff.

You will be cooking your own food, but have no fear. The staff will give you all the advice you need to grill with confidence.

Besides sirloins, filet mignon, and ribeyes, Turf Supper Club offers chicken, kebobs, burgers, salmon, and vegetarian options. All entrées come with a big slab of bread that doubles as a steak timer.

My technique? I order a 16-ounce ribeye, slap it onto the hottest part of the grill for two minutes, flip it, give it another minute and a half, and then move it to a cooler spot while I grill the bread. By the time the bread is golden brown on both sides, my steak is rested and perfectly medium rare.

Place

Soda & Swine

2943 Adams Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Burger — Soda and Swine

I’m going to anger the purists, but Soda and Swine’s meatball sandwiches are my new fave when it comes to burgers. Yes, I know, a real burger isn’t just any old meat slapped in a bun, but you’re going to have to indulge me on this one.

Start by choosing your meatball — smoked pork, chipotle and pepper jack, chorizo and mozzarella, beef with marinara, chicken, mushroom cream and provolone, or quinoa, pesto, and feta. Tiny appetites and those with empty wallets will be happy with the one meatball slider at only $3. For heartier cravings, a two or three meatball sub will satisfy, while the famished can get three juicy globes atop spaghetti, sauce, and cheese.

The sliders come on a tasty, chewy Sadie Rose pretzel roll, melty cheese oozing out. Messy and delicious. My favorite sides are the hand cut, twice-cooked fries, screaming hot and salty, the fresh manchego cheese, celery, apple, and hazelnut salad, or the crispy polenta under creamy burrata and sharp arrabiata sauce, but I’ve also got my eye on the Scotch egg for my next visit.

Place

Seasons 52

4505 La Jolla Village Drive Suite C-1, San Diego

Favorite Happy Hour — Seasons 52

Arrive before 6:00 pm, and for a mere $15, you can enjoy a taste of three Remarkable Reds or Spectacular Whites, chosen by their master sommelier, followed by a full pour of your favorite, and a flatbread pizza. If you have another fiver to spare, the Acclaimed Tasting features three reds that are rated 90 points or higher by the posh wine magazines.

Six different long flatbreads make sharing natural. They’re crackery, wafer thin, and generously topped with chipotle shrimp, artichoke and goat cheese, pesto, garlic, and chicken, plum tomato or steak, mushroom, and cheese, plus a rotating seasonal offering.

Those who still have room for dinner will find some innovative selections. You rarely see turkey on a menu unless it’s Thanksgiving, or in sandwiches, but here the chef pairs Plainville Farm turkey skewers with grilled vegetable and farro Hoppin’ John and a zinfandel glaze. Other standout dishes are mesquite-grilled shrimp on saffron-chorizo risotto, broccolini and tomato broth, and a more classic grilled Kona-crusted lamb chop with Yukon gold mashers, roasted asparagus, and a gilding of 15-year aged balsamic.

Place

Extraordinary Desserts

1430 Union Street, San Diego

Place

Extraordinary Desserts

2929 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Dessert — Extraordinary Desserts

Extraordinary Desserts is definitely not one of those places that uses frills and fancies as a façade for sawdust dry cake, greasy icing, under-ripe fruit, or raw pastry dough. Underneath the flowers, gold leaf, sprinkley toppings, and streusel are all the things that make dessert lovers swoon — perfectly ripe fruit baked to juicy goodness; buttery, flaky, puffy pastry; moist, tender cakes; dark, devilish chocolate; and rich creamy frostings and fillings. Butter, sugar, and rich cream are the order of the day, as it should be with indulgences such as these.

You can’t go wrong with the classics, like coconut cupcakes or tangy lemon bars, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try the lavender shortbread or a lemon apple Brie scone. A simple espresso or a cup of tea make wonderful accompaniments.

Place

Cafe 21

2736 Adams Avenue, San Diego

Place

Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Vegetarian — Café 21

Café 21 isn’t actually a vegetarian restaurant, but it does meatless so well. The American-Azerbaijani fusion menu marries local, organic ingredients with homey, comforting flavors and warm Middle Eastern spices.

Salad lovers will be delighted with the gorgeous signature strawberry salad, pistachios and goat cheese tossed with crisp greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette that balances nicely between sweet and tangy. Or choose lightly roasted grapes, sliced almonds, and goat cheese piled on fresh baby lettuces, napped with honey balsamic vinaigrette.

My Polish grandmother would have loved the pierogi; cabbage, fruit, or potato fillings lovingly encased in slightly chewy but tender dough, boiled, then sautéed in butter and onions. The Cristo crepes, — chicken, mozzarella, and apricot jelly rolled in thin pancakes — are a savory-sweet combo that’s large enough to share.

Visit either restaurant on the 21st of the month and enjoy a glass of sangria for 21 cents.

Place

Cali Baguette Express

4425 Convoy Street #200A, San Diego

Place

Cali Baguette Express

9225 Mira Mesa Boulevard #106, San Diego

Place

Cali Baguette Express

5125 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego

Place

Cali Baguette and Pho

303 Broadway, Chula Vista

Favorite Sandwich ­— Cali Baguette Express

On those days when I just can’t decide what I want to eat, I could swear my car goes on autopilot and heads to Cali Baguette Express in Kearny Mesa for banh mi. Something about my favorite combination of grilled pork, pickled daikon, jalapeño, cilantro, and shredded carrots piled on a skinny baguette satisfies even my most ambivalent mood. I don’t know if it’s the freshness of the bread, baked in house, the pleasant char on the meat, or the tang and crunch of the pickles and peppers, but Cali Baguette has it all over the more expensive and popular shops that line Convoy.

Place

Oscar’s Mexican Seafood

703 Turquoise Street, San Diego

Place

Oscar's Mexican Seafood

5060 Newport Avenue, San Diego

Place

Oscar's Mexican Seafood

746 Emerald Street, San Diego

Favorite Fish Taco — Oscar’s Mexican Seafood

Fish tacos are as ubiquitous as sailors in San Diego, so why does Oscar’s Mexican Seafood stand out?

Fresh fish, of course. Good prices and service, check. Variety, also check. Do this all day, every day and with a little luck, you might just be successful.

Now consider that in just over a year, Oscar’s has expanded from one tiny storefront on Turquoise Street to three locations and still manages to be the #1 ranked restaurant in San Diego on a notoriously fickle social media site. That’s #1. Out of every other restaurant. In all of San Diego.

A regular fish taco goes for $2.50, but cash-strapped surfer dudes and dudettes can take advantage of their Monday–Thursday happy hour special when the price drops to .99 for one regular fish or a free regular fish taco with any other order. I don’t even know how they do it at those prices.

There’s almost always a line out the door, but service is fast and friendly.

Place

Snooze, An A.M. Eatery

3950 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

Favorite Breakfast — Snooze, an AM Eatery

I adore the Jetson’s retro vibe, the bright, airy atmosphere, and the slightly hipster feel. Snooze’s house coffee is grown for them in Guatemala. On the stronger side, mimosas, bloodys, and orange juice cocktails rule. Beer is super local, coming from within a five-mile radius. Try a Bugs Bloody, the house Mary with a shot of Odwalla carrot juice.

My favorite plate is the breakfast pot pie; a big puff of savory pastry smothered in rosemary sausage gravy, topped by an egg any style. I heartily recommend sunny side up. But then, there’s egg-topped corned beef hash and toast, too. Sigh.

Pineapple upside-down pancakes are delightful, tangy-sweet caramelized pineapple cozies up to vanilla crème anglaise and cinnamon butter. The OMG French toast feautures fresh brioche stuffed with mascarpone and topped with vanilla crème, salted caramel, agave-soaked strawberries, and toasted coconut.

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