“I have yet to find a place that delivers the same level of pleasure” as the Wine Vault, says Ambrose Martin.
Forty years in, you start to feel it. Unless you’re a certain sort of hardy soul — I’m looking at you, Ed Bedford — the thought of finding a new place to eat is no longer automatically thrilling. You hear Paul Simon singing about how he leans on old familiar ways, and you nod in sympathy. You start frequenting your favorites until they become old standbys. You maybe start looking closer to home, East County’s lackluster rep be damned. Grace and I have eaten well in San Diego. Here are ten of our favorites.
3731-A India Street, San Diego
Fancyish Dinner — Chef’s Tasting Menu at Wine Vault & Bistro
For years, this white-walled, cement-floored, barrel-ceilinged room (and its covered patio) has been our first thought, restaurant-wise, when we have a little bit of time and money on our hands. I have yet to find a place that delivers the same level of pleasure, in terms of variety of flavor and consistency of quality, for the money ($35 for five courses, $20 more for a flight of five paired wines). For example: Tempura Fried Soft-Shell Crab | Tomato Jam | Sweet Corn Purée | Fresh Fava Beans, paired with 2010 Two Sisters “Courtney’s Vineyard” Chardonnay (3 oz. pour). Imagine four more courses like that, precisely prepared and portioned, and there’s a happymaking dinner.
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
Italian Away from Home — Antica Trattoria
So often, when we go out, Grace gets fish. “I don’t want to eat anything out that I can get at home,” she says. “And fish is tricky and expensive.” But pasta and sauce? Pasta and sauce she knocks out of the park. So she almost never orders it. The one exception is Antica. We’ve been going there since it opened, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had better “homemade” fetuccini. Now and then, I give in and get the steak, or the veal, or some such. And Grace gets a pasta, and she’s right every time. The sauces are a big part of it; we like to play “Guess the stock” at the base of each one. Never too fussy, never too simple, always balanced and clingy. The wine list is solid and reasonable (stick with the Italian reds) Don’t let the strip mall location and goofy signage fool you; inside its high ceilings, hushed conversation, and serious pasta.
1503 30th Street, San Diego
Late-Night Bite — Alchemy
Yes, “late” is a relative term, but we keep stopping in here before heading home. Yes, the full-menu service stops at 10 p.m., but for the next two hours, you can get the Staff Meal stew. And if you make it in before ten, you can get one of San Diego’s top-five burgers ($13). Get the fried egg on top for $2 more. Or maybe you’ve already eaten and just want something to go with your Alchemist Mule ($9) — a genius adult soda-fountain drink made from grapefruit-lime cordial, ginger beer, and you choose the booze. If so, try the roasted beets with warm goat cheese, tarragon, pecans, and zippy horseradish ($8). It’s four years in for Alchemy; it’s not trendy any more and not yet an institution, but still a great neighborhood joint — warm and welcoming. You can try to get the table in the back corner, under the copy of Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife that’s glued to the ceiling — but only if we’re not there.
8425 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Sit-Down Mexican — Mario’s de la Mesa
When I go to Mario’s — when I walk into the vaguely prettified space and ask for a booth among the old timers and families with kids ordering cheeseburgers — I am not interested in debating the finer points of Gringo-Mex. Or any other sort of Mex. I am interested in the dry-roasted shredded beef that goes into the Machaca Sonora style ($11.95). The crispy chewiness of it. The caramelized tips of the striated strands. The marrow-rich backbone it provides to the burrito I build from my platter of rice and beans and peppers and onions. I am also interested in the speed with which it is invariably delivered. I am interested in being a happy gringo. I mean, it’s amazing what they do with their broad swaths of carne asada ($12.95), and the chunks of pork on the carnitas rojas ($11.95) are as tasty as any. But it’s the machaca that I plan on serving at my daughters’ weddings. Hey, I’m paying.
8260 Mira Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
Sit-Down Chinese — Chin’s Szechwan Cuisine
The Yelpers like to point to the price. Yes, Chin’s probably charges more for its Moo Shi Pork ($12.95) than some places. But there are nights when I’m willing to pay more to eat in a restaurant where Sam Spade might walk through the door without causing a stir. This isn’t just about cloth napkins and deep banquettes. This is about the stamped intricacy of the ceiling panels, the inverted jewel setting of the chandelier, and oh yes, the attentive service. This is about feeling like you’ve gone somewhere, even though you’re twenty steps from Fletcher Parkway. But it isn’t just the decor. It’s the flaming pot on the pu pu platter ($14.50), the papery jacket on the egg rolls ($3.95), the pop and sizzle under the Lin Ko Steak ($14.95), and a $20 bottle of sweet Gewurztraminer.
Sandwiches are the best thing to eat
6930 Alvarado Road, San Diego
Reuben sandwich — D.Z. Akins
Grace: “My first thought is always the same: This is not going to fit in my mouth.” There is simply too much mounded meat, sliced and stacked and topped with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut and packed between slices of grilled rye bread. (About that meat: you can get it with pastrami or smoked turkey, but I always opt for the melty-tangy corned beef.) But — one bite at a time, and in defiance of common sense and human physiology — it always does fit in my mouth. Or at least half of it does. I have never eaten an entire D.Z. Akins Reuben ($13.95, but $9.95 on Tuesday or Thursday) in a single day. Probably because I’m also eating the fries — the pillowy soft mushy kind with the pale gold exterior. I could get slaw, or potato salad, or macaroni salad. Or a three-bean salad. But who am I kidding? It’s a Reuben. I’m not gonna live forever.”
3667 India Street, San Diego
Blackened shark sandwich — Blue Water
They do lots of things well at Blue Water. Grace says the shrimp taco has the best shrimp she’s had anywhere in the city. But they have to be offering something pretty special to keep me from biting the shark sandwich ($7.25.) Shark is not quite the steak of fish — that would probably be swordfish. More like the pork cutlet — a touch more delicate, a shade more tender, but still meaty. Blackening picks up the flavor. Avocado mellows the red onion. Tartar sauce makes it tingle. And oh that Boleo roll: how can something so soft still provide exterior support? Pair with some of San Diego’s better onion rings ($4.25) — on the big and crispy end of the spectrum. The line can get silly, but they keep it moving.
4030 Goldfinch Street, San Diego
Chicago dog or meatball sandwich — Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria
It’s so easy to just get the pizza. The pizza is very good; you won’t find better sausage on top. But you’d be remiss to miss the dog, because there’s love in a Chicago dog ($4.75). Two types of pickle — the minced relish and the long spear, each making their textural additions. Poppy seeds on the toasted bun. The heat of onions and peppers. The trail of mustard. The absence of ketchup and the presence of tomato. “It’s all here,” said Grace as she paused halfway. “It’s a meal in a basket.” (There were fries, of course — the tender, skin-on kind.) But I go for the meatballs ($8.50). They’re ground so fine they’re almost balls of softly packed pate. And don’t let the bright red sauce fool you — those puréed tomatoes are anchored by of the dark weight of sweet grease. No cheese required.
7604 Linda Vista Road, San Diego
Bánh mì: K Sandwiches
The bread is the star here — a narrow length of sweet, airy, cracker-crusted baguette. Inside is a melange of cilantro, daikon, jalapeños, pickled carrots, and house mayo. After that, you pick the meat. The house special #1, made with three varieties of Vietnamese ham, is the most popular, and for good reason. Of course, it is also possible to get a standard club sandwich on your baguette, or on one of the oversized croissants (there’s an in-house bakery). Nothing will cost you over $4.30. Special bakery bonus: crisp, just-sweet fried crackers, $2.50 a dozen.