I don’t like to be separated from my money unless I get something great in return. Even if I were rich beyond measure, you’d never see me wrapped in sable pulling up to the Marine Room in a Ferrari. I couldn’t force myself to spend that much on the Ferrari, the fur, or the food. Maybe therapy would help, but it’s just so darned expensive. Until I can get professional help, I’ll keep shopping for good deals and good values. And I’ll keep eating at these restaurants, which never fail to please, and always make me feel like I got something great for my money.
3933 30th Street, North Park
By day, this tall, narrow spot is one of the tastiest coffee houses in town. They roast their own beans in a two-story roaster you can see through windows between dining and roasting rooms. By night, Wednesday through Sunday, it becomes a chic wood-fired pizza restaurant. Right at the elbow of the L-shaped space stands an blue-and-white-tiled, domed, wood-burning pizza oven. The Neopolitan pies it produces feature an earthy, smoky taste and texture that go perfectly with the speck, grana, mozzarella, and other Italian toppings. Ten to 15 bucks delivers a pizza big enough to share (or small enough to hog.) Twinkly lights strung on the indoor trees give it a romantic, Neapolitan atmosphere.
7091 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
Hillcrest’s loss was East San Diego’s gain when Terra, a pioneer restaurant in the farm-to-table scene, moved out to El Cajon Boulevard almost to the La Mesa border in 2011. It’s not a particularly hip or attractive area of town, but the food is both. Locals are thrilled to have chef/owner Jeff Rossman doing his fresh, seasonal thing out here on the east end of town. And this local is thrilled with the prices. I love the hand-cut truffle fries ($5), the ricotta “mini-jar” with fresh bread ($7), and the chipotle skirt steak ($19). And I love that almost all the entrees are under $20, and none higher than $21.
8697 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
One of those places that shows that good food, good service, and good attitude trump bad location. Other restaurants have failed in this location. But this family-run operation has thrived. It’s open every day, but closes at 3:30. The cheesy potatoes ($3.95) alone are worth driving across town for, and the omelettes are better. The Baja omelette — lobster, chiles, provolone, hollandaise — is superb at $8.45. For lunch, try the Montreal steak salad with flat iron steak, avocado, pumpkin seeds, and cilantro dressing ($10.95.) Everything comes with a side of joie de vivre from the staff. The business model has proved so successful that they’ve opened up a sister shop, El Cajon Bistro.
927 Silverado Street, La Jolla
The phrase “great little Italian place” too often refers to empty chianti bottles, boring red sauce, and baseball-sized meatballs. It ought to refer to this seven-table gem in the heart of La Jolla. It all starts with the house-made bread — crusty, slightly salty, and perfect in the bruschetta ($9.95) or on its own. The chicken piccata over rosemary potatoes is a true Italian comfort dish at a comfortable price ($21.95.) But the homemade pastas and gnocchi steal the show. A pear gorgonzola ravioli special I ate here might be the best food I’ve ever eaten in San Diego. And it was under $20.
3015 Juniper Street, South Park
Before I talk about the astronomically good scones, let me say that every neighborhood should have a coffee house like this. A high-ceilinged room about 40 feet by 50 feet, full of eclectic antique chairs, couches, and tables. Old-timey pane windows look out on the busy corner of Juniper and Fern in the hip-yet-homey hamlet of South Park. Local artists’ paintings festoon the walls. Local acts play on the moderately sized stage most nights of the week. The coffee is good and well-made. Deli-style made-to-order sandwiches are just what they should be. The smell of fresh baked goods wafts from the kitchen all day and makes the place feel like a cozy home away from home, particularly on cool days. I love the chocolate banana muffins, and the chocolate cake is straight up awesome. But the scones Rebecca bakes… oh my goodness… golden crusted, steamy-centered perfection.
1655 India Street, Little Italy
I admit to resenting the place at first, because it occupied the space that once housed an old favorite, Zagarella. One bite of the eggplant-mozzarella-tomato-pesto spread on crispy house-made bread — one of Davanti’s “vasi” ($8) — and all resentment left me. Delicious emotional growth, for eight bucks. The lack of resentment opened my soul and allowed it to feel near euphoria at the mascarpone polenta with pork shoulder ragu. ($18.) I’ve been back over and over to see two servers pour the ragu over the bed of creamy polenta on a cutting board in the middle of the table. It serves two people, especially when they already snacked on bread and spread. At such prices, I always feel I can afford to splurge on a Sneaky Pete, a bourbon-Aperol-grapefruit-agave cocktail ($10).
6165 El Cajon Boulevard, Rolando
It’s fun to watch the lady behind the counter pat dough into rounds and load it into the open-mouthed brick oven on a giant paddle. It’s more fun to eat it when it comes out as warm pita bread. The “Mediterranean pizzas” ($9.99) they bake in the same oven made me question my recently developed fondness for thin crusted Neapolitan style pizza. There’s a comfort in the fluffy crust warm from the oven that paper-thin crusts just can’t provide. Try the pesto chicken with artichoke hearts and feta. The entrée plates — shawarmas and kabobs of beef, chicken, and lamb — are affordable ($9.99–$12.99) and come beautifully plated with oven-warm pita bread, house-made hummus, and faultless saffron rice. Stamp of authenticity: at lunch time the place is packed with Middle Easterners and North and East Africans. Bonus: there’s a full smoothie bar that puts Jamba Juice to shame.
2505 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
A good French restaurant, but with no waiters, linens, snobbery, or high prices. In other words, a dream eatery for value hunters such as myself. It sits on the corner of Fifth and Laurel. The other three corners are occupied by Hexagone, Cucina Urbana, and Betrand at Mister A’s. I take entirely too much delight in sitting at Gourmet’s corner table, munching on a scrumptious salad niçoise ($6.95) or Cobb salad ($6.95), and knowing the well-heeled suckers piling into those other three joints are going to pay three times as much for salads that couldn’t be any better than the one I’m eating. I take more delight in using the fresh baguette slices that come with the salads to soak up every drop of the superb house made dressing.
9683 Campo Road, Spring Valley
Oscar Acosta is a Chilango — a Mexico City native — who, with his wife Dulce, brought his region’s cuisine to the Casa de Oro area of Spring Valley. Ranas means frogs. But don’t worry, this cozy little joint doesn’t serve frogs. What they do serve is entomatado pork ($8.99) — chunks of swine slow cooked in a spicy tomatillo sauce that warms the body and soul, especially when tempered with a cold Negra Modelo ($3.99). It’s my hubby Patrick’s current “favorite thing to eat in the whole world.” I prefer the pollo en crema de almendras ($10.99) — diced chicken in a creamy almond and pecan sauce which finishes with just a hint of heat. Yummy. Authentic. Inexpensive.
2061 India Street, Little Italy
The restaurant is an old-timey Italian place where the menu tends toward standard veal dishes, eggplant parmigiana, and lasagna. Pretty unexciting. So bypass the restaurant in favor of the adjacent deli. Crowds often form around the deli case full of high-quality salami, prosciutto, cappicola, pancetta, pepperoni, mortadella, and others. Choose a sandwich from the hanging menu — I like the deluxe with salami, mortadella, ham, and provolone on a perfectly crusted 12-inch torpedo roll ($6.95) — or ask for one to order. Be patient. The cured meats are not cut until you order your sandwich. Enjoy the show of the deli worker at the rotary cutter to make the paper-thin slices of mortadella for your world-class sandwich. For the cheapest dining-with-a-view in San Diego, take it three blocks west and eat it on a bench by the bay while the sun dips below Point Loma.