As a critic, you eat for your readers. It’s not enough to enjoy, say, a burger and tell folks, “It was yummy!” You have to judge the grind, the pack, the cooking, the seasoning, the flavor, the fat. You have to consider each component — patty, bun, toppings — and then combine those considerations into one thing, because one thing is what your reader is going to put into her mouth or not put into her mouth on your say-so. On top of that, you have to pay attention to what’s going on: what’s opening, what’s closing, what’s new, what’s old. But critics have to eat even when they’re not critiquing, and that’s what this entry is about. The places I go with the wife when it’s just time to be pleased. Not a lot of unfamiliar names here: several are San Diego institutions. At least four, I’ve been patronizing since they opened. At some, I get the same danged thing every time I go. It’s not news; but it’s love, and that’s worth the occasional mention.
3843 Richmond Street, Hillcrest
Early in my marriage, my wife got it into her head that I didn’t like Thai food. But she knew how much I liked wine. So when she heard about the outstanding, intelligent wine selection (and thoroughly reasonable pricing) at Amarin Thai, she thought she’d found a way to overcome my aversion. She needn’t have bothered, but I’m very glad she did. The menu is equally generous, capable of intriguing, beguiling, cooling, or searing the palate as desired. (Or even just comforting: the basil-infused Crying Tiger steak is a go-to red meat standard at just $16).
5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
In 2008, the San Diego Reader’s excellent food critic, the late Naomi Wise, discovered Antica Trattoria out in the wilds of an East County strip mall and wrote a four-star ode to its “absolute feel-good food” and its chef Francisco Basile. I smiled when I read it because I had discovered the place years earlier — I think my review is still on the wall back by the bathrooms — and had been going ever since. This is my neighborhood joint, the place where I take my parents when they’re in town. A reasonably priced Gavi or Valpolicella (or both), a satiny homemade pasta in a robust or elegant sauce (depending on mood), a cannoli to finish. We always leave happy.
111 Washington Street, Hillcrest
I grew up in New York, upstate but still close enough to the City to equate “pizza” with “New York–style pizza.” But I had yet to find the broad swath of crisp-but-not-brittle, foldable, toothsome crust in my new city. I was out walking near our apartment, and I still remember the little thrill that came from seeing the sign on the white stucco box: “Opening soon: Bronx Pizza.” I brought a pie to my wife in the hospital after she delivered our second, third, and fourth children; she always asked for meatball-mushroom. Since then, I have eaten there with my kids more than any other restaurant (excluding fast food): first in the booths, then — as both family and restaurant expanded — pushing tables together on the patio. They let me bring wine. The kids try new things (spinach ricotta). I haven’t found better. But then, I don’t really feel the need to look.
2929 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
My wife got pregnant three months into our marriage. Up until then, alcohol had been an integral part of the evening routine: wine with dinner, or maybe just a pitcher of margaritas and a bowl of chips as afternoon slid into evening. But now… We were at a loss until I remembered that we lived walking distance from another source of profound pleasure. Every pregnancy since has seen me sent forth to gather fruited Napoleons for the expectant mother. I used to favor the endlessly layered cakes. Then I discovered the simpler (purer?) joys of the pastries: in particular, the apple crostata with its layer of almond paste spread between the apples and the pastry shell. Also the strudel.
3753 India Street, Mission Hills
Gelato Vero Caffe
It’s one of those spots that feels truly local — almost secret. No, not the gelato place on the ground floor — there’s a big neon sign outside, and outstanding product inside, gelato that strikes the balance between bright flavor and unctuous creaminess, that stretches like chilly taffy when you spoon it up. Rather, the airy, often empty upstairs, where they used to serve brunch. It’s a sort of urban perch from which you can look down on the goings on over at Lucha Libre and Bar Dynamite, or across the freeway to the point-lit expanse of the airport runway as you make your way through a mound of pistachio richness. (Or coffee richness. Or, or, or.)
8425 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Mario’s De La Mesa
We were happy living in Normal Heights — well, mostly. There had been an assault on an old woman across the street, and our two-bedroom house was getting awfully cozy. A fellow Reader writer sent me east to eat good Mexican food at a sit-down place called Mario’s. “Try the carnitas rojas.” He said it with such authority that I eschewed my usual carne asada, and was glad I did. The wife got the sea bass special. As we stepped outside afterward, we heard the sound of tubas from the Oktoberfest down the street. “I want to live here,” she said, closing her eyes and smiling. We moved within the year.
9683 Campo Road, Spring Valley
L.A. Cetto’s Nebbiolo remains, after no small amount of tasting, my favorite Mexican wine. What a delight to find it on the list in a Spring Valley strip-mall restaurant. Almost as great as the delight in pairing it with beef and nopales, the tang of the cactus against the richness of the meat against the spice of the wine. An Italian grape, vinified in Baja, paired against a central Mexican dish — the sort of cosmopolitan meetup you might expect from Mexico City cuisine. (Ditto the huitlacoche and squash blossom quesadillas.) What makes it such an unexpected delight (in a menu full of them) is finding it in a true neighborhood restaurant.
3731-A India Street, Mission Hills
Wine Vault & Bistro
I came for the wine: so well-chosen and well-priced and expertly served. I stayed for the owners: Chris and Mary Gluck, the sort who knew who you were and when you had dined there last, who asked after your family because they remembered what you told them last time. I stumped for the concept: carefully crafted prix fixe menus that kept costs low and delight high, each course paired with a specific, complementary wine. This is where I go to celebrate, or to indulge. (I still have memories of an evening spent on the Vault’s patio, matching Pinot Noirs to an array of dishes featuring black truffles.)