I love crushes. I get crushes on television shows, on singers, on colors, cookbooks, chefs, and, of course, food. My longest food crushes are enduring passions for buttered popcorn and marshmallow Peeps (nobody’s perfect), and my shortest was an ill-advised purchase of chicken-and-waffles-flavored potato chips that got dumped after one taste.
Sometimes a crush fades after one or two encounters, but often one evolves into something more. Of course, the turning point for any crush is when you start presenting your infatuation to your friends and family, at which point you’re taking it to the next level, the long-term relationship. In that spirit, allow me to introduce you to my newest restaurant crushes.
2210 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Herb & Wood
I was swept off my feet by the modern, stylish decor, cheeky artwork, and elegant menu of Brian Malarkey’s latest foray. The Heirloom Tomato Salad, impossibly sweet baby Sun Golds, sliced Black Krims, avocado, hemp, and sunflower seed, layered over creamy house-made ricotta, sparkles with fresh summertime flavor. Game meat gets a tasteful turn — finicky venison loin is perfectly medium-rare and tender, rabbit sausage pairs pillowy, buratta stuffed angolotti, crunchy pistachios and Meyer lemon. Save room for dessert, if you can. The shareable Twix combines a shiny smooth cylinder of caramel mousse and garnishes of milk chocolate and crème fraîche, but a scoop of banana stracciatella gelato and a crisp pizzelle is also a fine finish.
4646 Convoy Street #101-A, Kearny Mesa
Chef/owner Junya Watanabe’s newest restaurant, Pokirrito, combines my current culinary darling, poke, and San Diegans’ inordinate love of all things rolled up to create fresh, of-the-moment sushi “burritos.” It’s hard to go wrong with the Pokirrito Classic, warm rice, line-caught tuna poke, tamago, lotus chips, masago, shiso, and pokirrito sauce in a crisp nori wrapper. Cooked choices include Alaskan salmon, yakiniku beef, chicken karaage, and portobello katsu. Poke bowls are perfect warm-weather meals, the vibrant colors alone make you feel cooler; the clean flavors feel light and almost airy. Pair it with a refreshing dragon fruit craft iced tea and you’ll almost feel like you’re at the beach.
5185 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Clairemont
Who doesn’t love grilled meat and vegetables on a stick? It’s even better when someone else does the grilling, someone who painstakingly turns and bastes your bites until they reach the peak of their flavor. Some of the best yakitori I’ve ever eaten is at cozy, convivial Yakitori Taisho in Clairemont Mesa. Chicken is the star of the menu, which includes gizzards, livers, hearts and veins. Deconstructed, impaled wings are gloriously crispy, skewers of ruffled chicken skin puff and glaze over the binchotan grill alongside arabiki sausage, pork belly, beef, seafood, diverse vegetables and creamy-yolked quail eggs. FYI: Yakitori Taisho only seats about 15 diners; call for reservations, especially on Friday and Saturday.
527 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Smack in the middle of the Gaslamp District, Don Chido is the downtown spot for drinking cool, fruity concoctions and people-watching. I’m partial to the pretty, tangy-sweet Watermelon Ginger version and the Mi Adelita: chili-infused El Jimador, strawberry, mango, and rosemary that has a surprising kick. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the El Churro, cinnamon-infused El Jimador Blanco, vanilla/citrus Licor 43, lemon, and lime. Queso fundido — melty, gooey jack and manchego cheeses, house chorizo, rajas, and yummy hand-made tortillas — is a natural accompaniment. Entrées include traditional street tacos and decidedly untraditional fried-chicken mole. Choose your nightcap from an extensive list of tequilas, mezcals, or my preference, Cielo Rojo Blanco Bacanora.
909 Prospect Street, La Jolla
Leña Craft Mexican
Vivid colors, beautiful plating, farm-fresh ingredients and the most delicious hand-made tortillas are the hallmarks of Leña Craft Mexican, a brand new upscale-casual eatery in La Jolla. The gorgeous squash-blossom quesadilla combines black beans, sautéed seasonal vegetables, and queso Oaxaca between two tortillas; a frilled blossom is embedded within. Arrachera tacos, Aspen Ridge Farms skirt steak, vegetables, and avocado mousse on whole grain tortillas tempt me, but I also love the planchas: plump, sweet shrimp enrobed in a delectable chile arbol sauce, swaddled in two cheese -tuffed blue corn tortillas. Cocktails are inventive, a short but interesting wine list features several from the nearby Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. Ten beers are on tap.
3422 30th Street, North Park
One Door North
One Door North shares executive chef Fred Piehl with sister restaurant The Smoking Goat, right next door, but that’s where the similarity ends. Outdoorsy and unpretentious, the menu incorporates crisp salads, small plates, thin-crust pizza, and American favorites. Fried chicken and pork ribs are a popular choice; a mini cast-iron skillet holds a generous side of creamy cheddar grits and collard greens. ODN burgers are thick patties of ground Meyer beef and short rib, simply adorned by cheddar cheese and caramelized onions. The toasted s’mores bar satisfies my marshmallow obsession via a fat hunk of oozy goodness atop graham crackers and chocolate sauce. Beverage choices are limited to beer, wine, and soju cocktails pending a full liquor license.
2855 Perry Road, Building 8, Liberty Station
Fireside by the Patio
Fire kisses almost every dish at Fireside by the Patio — in the huge Santa Maria–style grills, smokers, pizza ovens, or yakitori grills. Try the pork belly, crispy squares of succulent meat bathed in a swirl of blue cheese vinaigrette under a topping of pickled sliced celery and julienned carrot. Check the blackboard after 4:30 p.m. for daily specials — slow-cooked meats sold by the half pound. My favorite is espresso-rubbed brisket, lightly smoky, moist, and thinly sliced onto plain white bread. Side dishes stand on their own as well. Try the Peruvian potato and charred green bean salad, an updated version of plain old potato salad, or sweet smoked tomatoes and braised collard greens.
495 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill
The Corner Drafthouse
It took one look at The Corner Drafthouse’s beer-battered fish and chips and I was hooked. Big, thick pieces of battered cod are fried to golden brown deliciousness, salty hot fries and tangy blue cheese apple slaw are a knockout. Check out the Fried Chicken Sandwich, too. Boneless, pickle-brined chicken thighs (white meat on request) are breaded, fried Southern-style, and simply adorned by lettuce, tomato, onion, and a house-made pickle on toasted brioche. Start your weekend right with brunch and a Bloody Mary — home-made spicy mix paired with one of five house-infused vodkas, including bacon cheddar, roasted red bell pepper, basil/rosemary/garlic, habanero and serrano pepper, and classic horseradish.